History keeps Harper a mys­tery

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Thomas Boswell

One of the hard­est and most con­tro­ver­sial ques­tions in base­ball from the day he signed with the Washington Na­tion­als in 2010 is: How good is Bryce Harper?

Af­ter his rookie of the year sea­son at age 19 (22 homers, 98 runs in 2012) helped the Nats win 98 games, he was, log­i­cally, com­pared to other teenage su­per­novas like Alex Ro­driguez and Mel Ott — Hall of Fame stuff.

Af­ter two years marred by ma­jor in­juries at 20 and 21, he was still cel­e­brated by fans but also voted the most over­rated player both years in a poll of big lea­guers. His .273 av­er­age and 32 RBI in 100 games last year were noted to me by more than one Nat, not as a rip, just as “Can we stay sane about this guy?”

Harper is on pace for 53 homers and 127 RBI, has an on-base-plus-slug­ging-per­cent­age of 1.185 — Babe Ruth holds the ca­reer record of 1.164 — and has al­most lapped the field in all-star votes.

First, if any­body knows how good Harper will be over the whole course of his ca­reer or even just this sea­son, please no­tify me. It would be a big help. Sec­ond, any­one who wishes to say, “Wait five years and we’ll ac­tu­ally know,” can just sti­fle the im­pulse be­cause I work for a daily pa­per. You wait. I’m im­pa­tient.

That 1.185 is so out­ra­geous — only two play­ers are within 150

points of him — that it’s like find­ing the fos­sil of a T-Rex toe. Why not guess what this whole thing looks like?

What Harper has done this year, even if only in 292 plate ap­pear­ances, changes the way we look at his fu­ture. Now we have a new and far higher mea­sure of what he looks like at his hottest and for how long he can stay that way.

In part, a high bat­ting av­er­age on balls in play (.364) has helped his OPS by a few dozen points. But not by hun­dreds. Even if Harper goes cold im­me­di­ately, and he may, his ceil­ing has rad­i­cally risen. Why? Keep it sim­ple. Mike Trout’s best OPS sea­son is .988 — 197 points be­low Bryce.

For a sense of how in­cred­i­bly well Harper has hit and also how un­re­al­is­tic it prob­a­bly is to think he can con­tinue it all year, con­sider how spec­tac­u­lar a 1.185 OPS sea­son ac­tu­ally is.

Of the 20 play­ers in history with the high­est ca­reer OPS, Babe Ruth topped Harper’s cur­rent 1.185 seven times in a full sea­son and Barry Bonds did it four times, all in his tainted late-ca­reer pe­riod. How many oth­ers did it?

Ted Wil­liams, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Mark McGwire (with an as­terisk) each did it twice. Jim­mie Foxx and Frank Thomas once. That’s it.

Here are some of the top 20 OPS play­ers who never got to 1.185, even for one year: Mickey Man­tle, Joe DiMag­gio, Stan Mu­sial and Miguel Cabr­era.

Cur­rent stars Trout, Paul Gold­schmidt and Gian­carlo Stan­ton have won­der­ful ca­reer OPS marks of .948, .934 and .909, re­spec­tively, but have not had a 1.000 sea­son yet, though Gold­schmidt is well on his way this year.

As we gape at 1.185, while it lasts, how do we re­vise our view of Harper? First, let’s think ugly thoughts. As­sume Harper’s ca­reer to date is to­tally pre­dic­tive of his fu­ture: He will keep hav­ing se­ri­ous in­juries — one ev­ery two years — and his pro­duc­tion this year is just an aber­ra­tion that ar­rives once ev­ery few years.

Sowhat have we got? A 22year-old with an OPS of .874 in his first 426 games. That would rank 104th in MLB history, ahead of many Hall of Famers. And his OPS+ — that’s OPS ad­justed for the era in which you play and your home park — is 137. That would tie for 92nd.

If that’s Harper’s fi­nal ad­dress, it’s a nice neigh­bor­hood, next door to Reg­gie Jack­son, David Or­tiz, Car­los Del­gado, Gary Sheffield and Duke Snider.

But af­ter what we’ve seen this sea­son, don’t we have to look higher?

“If he keeps the ap­proach that he has now — tak­ing pitches, not afraid to get his walks — the re­sults aren’t go­ing to be a whole lot dif­fer­ent. Bryce has ma­tured. We’re see­ing ad­vanced stuff now,” Na­tion­als closer Drew Storen said this week. “When he’s ahead in the count, he’ll take his shots [for power]. But when he’s not, he has un­be­liev­able power to left field with back­spin that makes the ball carry. He’s not sus­cep­ti­ble to any spe­cific pitch or lo­ca­tion. They’ve tried ev­ery­thing. As long as he stays healthy, it’s pretty ab­surd.”

No­body knows how much of his cur­rent pace is sus­tain­able. How­ever, one sim­ple ap­proach ap­peals to me to make an es­ti­mate of Harper’s fu­ture. Last sea­son, Harper was about as in­jured — and ham­pered when he re­turned — as he’s likely to be in any sea­son. He played 100 games. This sea­son, he may be as hot as he can pos­si­bly get and for about as long a pe­riod of time as he can main­tain.

So com­bine the close-to-worst case of 2014 with the close-to-best case of 2015. And re­mem­ber, he had a lot more plate ap­pear­ances in his “off ” sea­son (395) than he has this year (292).

His two-year slash line would be: .300 bat­ting av­er­age, .396 on-base per­cent­age and .542 slug­ging per­cent­age. And a .938 OPS.

Where would that rank in OPS history? If you ad­just for era, then Harper’s OPS+ would be 158 — or 58 per­cent bet­ter than the league norm dur­ing his time. And that would be tied for 16th in history.

Gulp, that’s right. He would be close be­hind Al­bert Pu­jols, Mu­sial and Trout and just ahead of Wil­lie Mays, Hank Aaron and Cabr­era.

Just the .938, not ad­justed for any­thing, would be 32nd best ever.

Your first in­stinct (like mine) is to say, “Tar and feather any­body who com­pares a 22year-old with Mu­sial, Mays and Aaron.” So let me put it another way. Af­ter what you’ve seen so far, in­clud­ing this sea­son, do you think it is ab­surd to com­pare Harper to Gold­schmidt, the Ari­zona first base­man who has played five years and won the NL home run and RBI ti­tles in 2013?

Gold­schmidt’s ca­reer slash line is .300/.394/.540 — al­most iden­ti­cal to Harper’s com­bined line from 2014-15. And when he was 22, Gold­schmidt had never played a big league game.

We’re left with won­der­ful ques­tions, the kind that drag us to the park to see the an­swers for our­selves. Is Harper headed up to­ward the gen­eral al­ti­tude where Trout, Gold­schmidt and Stan­ton have been for sev­eral years?

Or is his ca­reer mark of .874 re­veal­ing a truth we will have to ac­cept?

Or, last but far from least, is much of that hard-to-be­lieve 1.185 — can’t get him out, can’t keep him off base, can’t even keep him in the yard — the real “tell” on the di­rec­tion of an in­cred­i­bly bright fu­ture?

No­body knows. But just in case, bet­ter wear shades. For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

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