Bryce Harper is the most interesting man in baseball, and he hasn’t yet made his Major League debut.
Even though most fans haven’t seen Harper actually play, the intrigue and interest that follows him is unprecedented in baseball history.
He is the sport’s new Barry Bonds, a preternaturally gifted athlete with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.
He is an infinitely talented A.J. Pierzynski, an instigator with a knack for rubbing people the wrong way.
Depending on who you talk to, he is either the best player to come along in twenty years, or an example of everything that is wrong with professional sports.
Harper is so interesting, and so divisive, because he reminds us of phenoms who have come before him, players whose careers sometimes panned out and sometimes didn’t, but who were never boring.
Here are nine players that Harper compares to. Some of them are current superstars; others have seen their best days pass them by. But they all had the knack for drawing attention that Harper so clearly possesses.
Ken Griffey Jr.’s legacy is one that is characterized by universal love, respect and admiration. Griffey played the game with a passion and abandon that is rarely seen in any sport. In this regard, comparing Harper to Griffey seems like an odd choice.
But both Jr. and Harper share a very important trait: they dominate with ease. Part of what made Griffey so spectacular was that his swing produced easy power. It was remarkable to watch him launch home runs because his swing seemed so natural—like the only thing he could have ever done was hit home runs.
Harper shares this quality. His swing isn’t quite as smooth as Griffey’s, but his natural gifts are reminiscent of the Kid’s. Like Griffey, it seems as though Harper was born to hit home runs.
Rickey Henderson was not only better than you; he was much, much better than you. And he knew it. And he wanted you to know it too.
Blowing a kiss to the pitcher during a home run trot is a move that would make Rickey proud. For everything Harper has learned about the game, that which defines him—his swagger, his flash, his love for war paint—is something that cannot be taught.
Not all egotistical players are great and not all great players are egotistical. But when the two intersect, every game is a fireworks show. This is the level of entertainment and interest that Harper brings every time he steps on the field. He could make history in a great way, or a horrible way. He could entertain you with his awe-inspiring power, or his head-shake-inducing egotism.
With Harper, like Henderson, the show is never over. And an argument can be made that the game is much better with players like Harper in it, even if you're not a fan of his. He is at once the hero and the villain. He is divisive and demands attention. Whether you love him or hate him, one thing is certain; you will be watching.
I picked Heyward for this slide, but you could really pick any number of players who rocketed through the minor leagues and into the spotlight.
Heyward’s place in this slideshow is representative of Harper’s exceedingly rare career arc. He left high school two years early to join a high profile community college team. He has consistently played above his age. And like Heyward, he is expected to eventually (and immediately) become an impact player on a Major League roster before he turns 21.
If Harper can imitate the success that Heyward enjoyed during his rookie year, Nationals fans will be treated to the beginning of a long, prosperous career.
Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez are the two most common comparisons for Harper. They are easy to make since both came into professional baseball straight from high school, dealt with (then) unprecedented levels of hype and media attention, and were prodigies who clearly stood out amongst their peers at a young age.
But the most recent comparison for Harper, and one of the most accurate, is Josh Hamilton. Hamilton’s five-tool prowess made scouts drool at an early age. He possessed the same combination of power, speed and arm strength that Harper has shown in his young career.
Like Hamilton, avoiding crack addiction will be a key for Harper going forward.
Milton Bradley is a baseball legend of a different sort. He is one of the most unpredictable (and entertaining) crazy people in the history of the game.
The discussion of personality in the career of a baseball player is an interesting one. Barry Bonds was undeniably a jackass off the field, and an MVP on it. Ty Cobb may or may not have been a sociopath who still managed to leave a legacy as one of the game’s all-time best. In these rare cases, personality, no matter how repugnant, couldn’t override levels of talent that were miles ahead of their times.
But more often than not, mental makeup plays a larger role. When a player possesses a lot, but not a once-in-a-generation level of talent, personality can sink a career. In this way, watching Harper reminds me of watching Milton Bradley. He’s a time bomb. It’s not a matter of whether he will explode, but when. Harper undoubtedly has more talent than Bradley, but their mental makeup is the same.
Whether Harper’s ability on the field is hall-of-fame worthy or not is yet to be seen. If it is, it probably won’t matter that he is immature and prone to bursts of anger and selfishness. But if he is not able to reach this level, his personality will be his legacy. Like Bradley, he will be remembered as a loose cannon who could never harness his potential.
There really isn’t much to be said in the way of comparing A-Rod and Harper. It’s all been said before, written about before, and reported before. Rodriguez is the most obvious comparison for Harper, so I won’t spend much time regurgitating the thought here.
Both players enjoyed previously unprecedented levels of success and media attention, and both have personality flaws that have been magnified by their greatness. It is likely that both personality and performance will ultimately define the two careers in a similar way.
Vladamir Guerrero’s right arm is the stuff that urban legends are made of.
I have a friend who played minor league baseball for many years, and every time I ask him about the most impressive player he ever saw, he tells me about one game he played against a rehabbing Vlad in some backwoods town for a non-descript minor league team.
He doesn’t mention Vlad hitting 500-foot bombs, or making lower-level pitchers look foolish. He talks about a single throw that Vlad made from right field to third base that looked like it had been shot out of a cannon, and seemed to draw a perfectly straight line parallel to the ground on its way to beating an astonished runner who had foolishly tried to take an extra base.
This single display of arm strength, my friend claims, is the single most impressive play he can remember from his entire career in minor league baseball.
I bring this up because I have read stories about Harper that hint at similar arm strength and surprising accuracy on outfield assists. This is a great example of why Harper is such a special talent. Every year, there are players who can play great defense, there are players who can hit the ball out of the park, and there are guys who can throw 95 mph.
But then there are the players who surprise you with their greatness, like an outfielder who can throw a 95 mph strike from right field to third base in a game that means nothing to them. For most of his life, stories like the one my friend told me about Vlad Guerrero have followed Bryce Harper.
People go to the yard expecting to see Harper dominate, and somehow still walk away surprised by how good he is. This is the sign of a truly rare talent.
It’s tough to compare anyone to Barry Bonds because Bonds is the greatest offensive player in the history of baseball.
That’s right, I said it.
You can argue all you want about performance enhancers, but looking at Bonds’ numbers reveals a player who was dramatically better than his competition for the whole of his career, and who posted stats that will most likely never be bested.
This is Harper’s upside. He has the ability to be one of the all-time greats. But while Bonds was able to balance massive ego with massive talent, Harper has yet to prove he can do the same. One key for Harper going forward will be avoiding the derailment of his career that can come from a massive ego.
I believe that Sheffield is the best comparison for Bryce Harper.
Sheffield was a great player with tremendous bat speed, great hands through the zone, balance at the plate and seemingly unlimited offensive potential. He was also a head case who could never truly adapt to being part of a team.
The reputation that took Sheffield an entire career to earn has already stuck to Harper like pine tar. He’s a jerk. And not just a run-of-the-mill jerk, an all-time jerk. Seriously, do a Google search for “Bryce Harper Attitude”, and try to not be overwhelmed by the consistently negative things people have to say about his personality.
Harper’s upside is much greater than Sheffield’s ever was. If he reaches his potential, he will surely surpass the Iron Sheff’s legacy with ease. But Sheffield should serve as a cautionary tale for Harper. He is a player with undeniable talent who was never quite able to fit into the game because of his attitude.
Arguably, Sheffield’s career was better than people give him credit for. This is a risk you run when you piss off everyone who crosses your path. He should be careful to not end his career having people underrate him because he couldn't put the game before himself.