2015 MVP is out to prove himself in ’17. He’ll need to.
west palm beach, fla. — Dusty Baker hugged Bryce Harper when he reported to spring training Friday. But the Nationals’ manager couldn’t resist teasing his right fielder when he saw that Harper was wearing a backward Cowboys hat.
“You set the whole world on fire when you wear a Dallas Cowboys hat,” Baker said of the Washington football team’s most bitter rival.
“That’s what I do,” Harper said.
Oh, is it? Then it’s time for Harper to prove it — again.
Harper thinks he’s a ball of fire; that’s for sure. Recently, he posted shots of himself deadlifting 500 pounds. That’s good for pumping endorsements. He also Instagrammed photos of the lining of his wedding suit — a quilt-style montage of photos of his long relationship with Kayla Varner. That gets an A-plus.
Harper will get more grades soon. After a 2016 season that
was so crummy, and so mysterious, that it constitutes a career regression, he’s under the microscope. Harper is only eight months older than Trea Turner, the Nats’ meteoric shortstop. But, in different ways, both are in crucial seasons of selfdefinition.
“I like that feeling of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It’s always been that way my whole life,” Harper said Saturday.
What a break for the 24-yearold, because he needs to do a ton — in the next two years — if he intends to get anything remotely like the $400 million free agent contract that his agent, Scott Boras, once ran up the flagpole.
Few players in sports, and none in baseball, have been so aware so young of branding themselves to maximize income, sell tickets and promote the game. Harper loves it and acknowledges it. But when you brand yourself 24/7/365, there’s a risk: The brand may start to feel like a branding iron.
In camp, Harper acts as if he and pressure are utter strangers. “I’m going to play these next two years out. Beyond that, I really don’t care. I just want to play these two years and have fun,” Harper said, sounding a bit exNat-ish.
“I think it’s more of an emotional roller coaster for you guys that it is for me,” he added. “Everybody said I was worried about baseball [in the offseason]. I could care less. I actually enjoyed this offseason more than [after] my MVP year.”
Perhaps baseball’s first law should be the old Earl Weaver quote that “Everything changes everything.” When you win the National League MVP award at 22, all grand comparisons become fair. But the seasons all add up. You can’t throw out the mundane ones like a golfer figuring out a handicap at the club.
After five full seasons, the players Harper most resembles statistically at the same age are now Andruw Jones, Justin Upton and Ruben Sierra. No, not Mickey Mantle anymore. If he cranks out a monster 2017 season, and he’s bulked up to 230 pounds, then names such as Frank Robinson will top the list again. But not yet.
In two of the past three seasons, advanced metrics have ranked Harper as the sixth-best everyday player on the Nationals’ roster; if you include pitchers, he was 14th in 2014 and 11th last season. Look back 50 years and you can’t find a player with wins above replacement totals so low — 1.0 and 1.6 — on either side of his 9.9 in 2015. It’s not the omen you want to see.
The first five years of Harper’s career have shown him to be a fabulous talent, capable of one of the better seasons in history but also wildly inconsistent, from month to month or season to season. Two seasons were marred by major injuries, and last year, his surrogates leaked, implied and winked that he was playing hurt. Yet Harper had no postseason surgeries or unusual rehab programs.
Asked whether he knew why he hit .231 with only 15 homers and 62 RBI in his last 128 games, Harper said, “Yeah, I know exactly why. But that’s last year. . . . I stayed in the lineup every and tried to help this team win.”
Harper may know “exactly why.” His teammates certainly don’t. “I have no idea, and my locker is a few feet away,” said one veteran Nat. “He plays hard. And he played a lot last year. Most of the time, he’s a very good teammate.”
Everybody in baseball gets banged up. How badly you get hurt, how often and how you cope is core to your identity. For example, Max Scherzer had a sprain that turned into a stress fracture of the knuckle on the ring finger of his pitching hand last year. He made his last seven starts despite sharp pain. The Nats went 7-0, Scherzer 6-0 with a 3.11 ERA in those games, and then he pitched two playoff starts, with a 3.75 ERA. And he won the Cy Young Award.
Scherzer wouldn’t have mentioned it, except he still can’t quite grip a baseball or take part in throwing drills yet this spring. “The cost of doing business,” he said.
Baker is a Harper fan who calls him “a cool little dude. I liked him from the beginning. He knows himself better than most [his age]. What you see is what you get — no fakeness. So he’s easy to deal with.”
Baker’s explanation for 2016: A tough league gave a young player a rough time. A bushel of early-season walks “certainly didn’t help. There were times when people were running from him. But later there were times when they were running at him. They have various Kryptonites. They try ’em all. You have to make counter-adjustments. It’s part of growing up. Everybody gets in a hole at some point.”
Most careers are full of injuries and strategy switches. Once the sample size gets big enough, you just add the numbers. That’s who you are. Every year changes your status somewhat. On the all-time onday base plus slugging percentage and OPS-plus lists, Harper would be 84th (just behind Tim Salmon) and 94th (tied with Jack and Will Clark), respectively. A year ago, if a dispassionate fan had been asked whether Harper looked like a future Hall of Famer, “yes” would have been a sensible answer.
Now, the response is different. If Harper’s next two years resemble 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 but not 2015, then he may get a deal more along the lines of Stephen Strasburg’s $175 million extension last year. A future Yankee or Dodger? Maybe. They would certainly want Mr. 2015. But Mr. 2016 isn’t going to make the register go “ka-ching.”
Just in case, Harper might want to stock up on some Wizards or Capitals hats.
Bryce Harper is entering his sixth major league season.
Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg are throwing at full capacity, but Nationals ace Max Scherzer is dealing with a knuckle injury.