Bryce Harper became the most captivating figure in Major League Baseball the moment the Washington Nationals announced he would be called up, as evidenced by the boos he heard in first at-bat at Dodger Stadium.
No other player in recent memory has drawn such dislike from not only the Los Angeles Dodger fanbase, but the majority of baseball fans not living in the D.C. area.
There is no denying he has flashed moments of arrogance that was deemed unnecessary by even the Nationals front office, such as his verbal exchange of words with West Virginia pitcher Tyler Waldron during a minor league game last season after he took a called third strike. The incident caused both benches to clear although there were no punches thrown by either side.
Another more documented incident was when he blew a kiss towards Greensboro pitcher Zach Neal after the pitcher expressed his displeasure that Harper had spent time admiring his home run.
What’s rarely taken into account is that there are similar incidents that happen at all levels of professional baseball, yet when it happens to Harper there is an instant media cavalcade of articles, YouTube videos and 140-word accounts of what occurred on Twitter.
As baseball fans, instead of focusing on the negative outbursts of a teenager learning to cope with the adjustments of playing professional baseball and the unrealistic expectations of instantly performing like a seasoned veteran, let’s appreciate the relentless way he play the game every time he crosses those white lines.
Harper is 5-for-13 with three doubles through his first four games.
Harper runs the first base line with a Pete Rose-like intensity, making even the routine play stressful for the defense.
He has also put his outfield arm on display a couple of times in his first four games, including Tuesday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks when he nearly threw out John McDonald trying to tag on a sacrifice fly from what had to have been 300-plus feet away.
Here’s how injured Diamondbacks pitcher Daniel Hudson described the throw on twitter:
Ummm…. Wow. #Cannon #SacFly #RBI
— Daniel Hudson (@DHuddy41) May 2, 2012
Harper, a former catcher, was moved to the outfield after being drafted to expedite his bat to the big leagues. in doing so, he has had to learn to play both left and center field on the fly in the minor leagues. His routes to the ball are not always ideal, but his athleticism allows him to make up for those mistakes and sometimes turn routine catches into web gems.
A good example of this was his catch in the series finale against the Dodgers on Sunday when he went banging into the centerfield wall to take an extra-base hit away from Juan Uribe. Granted, that can’t be considered a routine fly ball, but the route he took to get there made the catch much more difficult.
Harper crashes into the wall to take an extra-base hit away from Juan Uribe during Sunday’s game aginst the LA Dodgers.
Though his routes in the outfield will need improving, that doesn’t mean he isn’t an adequate outfielder. with Michael Morse possibly returning in early June, Harper has the ability to play a passable center field in the short term.
He is quickly becoming one of those special players that can go hitless and still be dynamic enough in other areas of his game to provide fans with a “wow” moment each night.
Not turning 20 years old until October, Harper has yet to look like the inexperienced teenager most expected to see at the plate. He is seeing an average of 4.0 pitches per plate appearance (15 PA) through four games, which would rank him 24th in the National League if he were eligible.
There is no getting cheated in the swing either; he gives max effort with each swing of the bat.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospetcus describes it as “the most violent swing in baseball which, when combined with his strength, gives him easy 80 raw power, but he also somehow controls the swing enough to hit for a decent batting average while understanding the strike zone.”
On Wednesday night, he became the youngest player since Adrian Beltre in 1998 to have a three-hit game. Two of those three hits were doubles, including one that led off the ninth inning setting up Ian Desmond’s walk-off home run to beat the Diamondbacks.
When general manager Mike Rizzo made the announcement that Harper was going to be called up to replace injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the 25-man roster, he tried to temper the expectations that Harper would remain in the big leagues for the remainder of the season.
The Nationals allowed only minimal media access to Harper coming through the minor leagues.
Rizzo told MLB.com, “… we are not going to vary from our developmental plan for Bryce. I would love for him to get 350 at-bats in the Minor Leagues. as time goes by and Zim is off the disabled list, we’ll monitor the situation, and we’ll make our decision at that time.”
Harper is the type of player that genuinely feels like he belongs in the major leagues. therefore, what’s best for his development and the Nationals’ push towards their first playoff berth, is allowing him to face major league competition on an everyday basis.
Off the field, it looks as if there has been progress made handling the media as well as the spotlight that is being shined on him from outside baseball.
If he continues to make strides both on and off the field, Harper will help provide Nationals fans with a playoff version of the “Curly W.”
Jim Pratt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, MLB contributor for MLBDepthCharts and BravesWire. Follow Jim on Twitter, @2OutSacBunt