From the moment we first heard his name, we were told how great Bryce Harper would be.
He was 16 when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, 17 when he was the first overall draft pick, 19 when he showed up in the major leagues. He was "Baseball's Chosen One," Sports Illustrated famously told us, baseball's LeBron James, the kid who was going to grow up and become one of the game's all-time greats.
He was going to have seasons like the one he's having now, seasons where the only real comparable ones would be Ted Williams' or Babe Ruth's or Barry Bonds', and we were all going to see it.
And now we have seen it…and yet we're still talking about what Harper could become someday.
"Watch Bryce in five years, when he's 27," Washington Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said the other day. "Then look out. When his knowledge of the game collides with his talent, you'll see."
It's a fair comment, but it also makes you wonder. If we keep talking about what Harper could become, will we lose sight of what he already is?
By one significant measure, Harper is already having a season to match with the greats. If you go by OPS+, a stat that attempts to equalize OPS (on-base plus slugging) by conditions of the era and the ballparks he plays in, Harper's 2015 season has been one that is basically reserved for Hall of Famers.
The idea with OPS+ is that 100 represents major league average, and that every point above 100 represents a percentage point above average. Harper's OPS+ has consistently stood above 200, or more than 100 percent better than average.
The last guy to end a season there was Bonds, 11 years ago. The last guy to do it at 22—the only guy ever to do it at 22—was Williams in 1941, the year he hit .406.
"It's a blessing to be mentioned [in that company]," Harper said. "I'm humbled. But I don't think about it."
Harper can still be brash, and he can still show signs of his youth. Nationals people talk about how much he has grown up, on and off the field, but they also note there's still a ways to go. Just last Friday, Harper lost his cool in extra innings and got himself ejected, leaving the Nats in a bad position in a huge game against the New York Mets.
But the Nationals also acknowledge Harper is already the best player on a team with other stars. They call him the best player in the National League, and it's hard to argue otherwise.
"He's doing great things for us," $210 million ace Max Scherzer said. "And he's continuing to get better."
"I don't know if I'm seeing history [this year]," Santangelo said. "I know I'm seeing the evolution of a great player."
Harper leads the NL in home runs (29), runs scored (70), slugging percentage (.667), OPS (1.121) and WAR (6.9). He's second in batting average (.330) and fourth in RBI (68).
But it's OPS+ that more easily allows comparisons across eras and more clearly shows how brilliant Harper's season has been.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, only 18 players in history have finished a year with an OPS+ above 200 (Ruth did it 11 times, the most of anyone). Thirteen of the 18 went to the Hall of Fame. The other five are Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell and Norm Cash.
|Best OPS+, before turning 24|
|235||Ted Williams (22), 1941|
|216||Ted Williams (23), 1942|
|206||Bryce Harper (22), 2015|
|206||Ty Cobb (23), 1910|
Only eight players have done it more than once. Only Williams and Ty Cobb did it before turning 24.
(And if you're wondering about Mike Trout, his OPS+ is 185, which would be a career high).
"He's got all the potential in the world," Nationals pitcher Doug Fister said. "He's the one who puts the limit on where his ceiling is."
Already, Harper has learned to lay off pitches out of the strike zone, which Nationals people cite as the biggest improvement he has made this year. But they all insist there's more to come.
"There's untapped potential," manager Matt Williams said.
"It's not that he's going to hit 80 home runs in a season, or hit .450," Scherzer said. "But he's going to be more consistent in situations."
There it is again, the talk of what Harper could become. He won't turn 23 until Oct. 16, so it's fair to expect improvement, fair to talk about what he could be.
He could go on to do special things. Just understand he already is.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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