Bryce Harper Is Already Earning Back the Hype After Failed MVP Encore

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2017

Bryce Harper de los Nacionales de Washington tras batear un jonrón de tres carreras contra los Filis de Filadelfia, el domingo 16 de abril de 2017. (AP Foto/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Have a night, Bryce Harper.

In his first two at-bats Wednesday against the Atlanta Braves, Harper hit a solo home run and a grand slam. He finished 4-for-4 with three runs scored and five RBI.

It was a week's worth of production crammed into a single evening, and it continued a resurgent season for the Washington Nationals right fielder.

By the way, he's 24 years old.

That's a simple statement of fact, but it's also a startling revelation. Harper, after all, has already compiled a career's worth of Everest peaks and yawning valleys.

He owns a National League Rookie of the Year Award and MVP trophy, has made four All-Star teams and rates among the game's most magnetizing, marketable figures.

He's also suffered his share of disappointment, including a lackluster 2016 season that followed on the heels of his MVP campaign.

Harper's 2016 output wasn't poor by mortal standards. For most players, hitting 24 homers with 21 stolen bases and an .814 OPS would be just peachy.

Harper isn't most players, though. He's a preternaturally talented lightning rod who has impacted the league with his swing and swagger since he debuted at age 19 in 2012.

After an MVP season in 2015, Harper fell to earth last year.
After an MVP season in 2015, Harper fell to earth last year.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

He exploded in 2015, cracking 42 home runs and pacing both leagues with a gaudy 1.109 OPS. His trajectory, it seemed, was aimed in one direction: skyward.

Then, he stumbled, as Yahoo Sports' Chris Cwik outlined:

... It's easy to see how Harper is facing a crucial year in 2017. The massive hype, intense criticism, insane breakthrough and disappointing follow-up make him a big question mark heading into 2017. Is Harper truly the once-in-a-generation player everyone predicted, or is he merely an above-average regular who is too cocky for his own good?

If you believe his agent, Scott Boras, Harper's regression was due in large part to a nagging right shoulder injury. 

"I think Harp had an issue that he played through with, that he battled with—that was certainly uncomfortable but still allowed him to play," Boras said on SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio, per Chris Lingebach of CBS DC.

Whether or not that explanation holds water, Harper has been crushing it this year.

Through 14 games, Harper is hitting .404 with six home runs and 18 RBI. He homered for the fifth time in his career on Opening Day, becoming the first player to accomplish that feat before his 25th birthday, per MLB Stat of the Day.

And he made headlines with a walk-off, three-run moonshot against the Philadelphia Phillies on Easter Sunday, after which you can see him grudgingly swallowing a bat flip:

After leading the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues with eight home runs this spring, Harper has kept raking. In an admittedly small sample, his soft contact rate sits at a minuscule 8.3 percent, per FanGraphs. He's squaring up baseballs with the expected results.

"He's a special player," fellow Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said after Harper's Easter walk-off, per Jamal Collier and Daniel Shiferaw of MLB.com. "Obviously, he's still really young. I was telling him earlier in the game that in another four or five years he's going to be pretty good player. I think he proved me wrong once again."

We're less than a month into the season and the Nats figure to be in the playoff hunt till the end. Nonetheless, Harper's early surge inevitably kindles talk of his looming free agency.

Assuming Washington doesn't lock him up first, Harper will hit the open market after the 2018 season, part of a loaded, lauded class. A payday north of $400 million isn't merely plausible, it's likely.

That's because of Harper's on-field performance, but also his personal wattage.

As Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post put it, "Legitimate, transcendent superstars are rare in baseball, and Harper qualifies." He gets endorsements. He inspires countless articles [ahem] and tweets both angry and laudatory. 

All of this is contingent on Harper's continuing to be great. A few weeks of excellence won't erase the memories of last season's uneven performance, and an extended slump would bring the questions roaring back.

Harper's impending free agency remains a hot topic, contingent on his performance.
Harper's impending free agency remains a hot topic, contingent on his performance.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

That's always how it goes for Harper. Whether he's succeeding or failing, his exploits are under the microscope.

He's the guy who declared it was time to make baseball fun again in a brash allusion to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. He's the hirsute embodiment of showboating arrogance the game's crusty, unwritten-rule enforcers rail against. 

Most of all, he's a reason to tune in. His at-bats are appointment viewing. He's playing like an MVP.

And he's 24 years old.

Stay tuned.

   

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.