Bryce Harper was camera ready.
Standing in front of his locker a few hours before the Washington Nationals' home opener, surrounded by a swarm of lenses and microphones, he looked a lot like a guy who knew he would be surrounded by a swarm of lenses and microphones. Despite the early hour, his hair was perfectly coiffed. His face, still bronzed after two months in the Florida sun, was relaxed. His powder-blue satin pullover -- the one with the words “FEAR OF GOD” embroidered on the back -- shone in the lights that engulfed him.
The whole scene was a stark contrast from the morning before, when Harper shuffled listlessly through the visiting clubhouse in Atlanta, still half-asleep. Although the face was just as bronze, the hair was beyond disheveled. Instead of the satin pullover, he wore a dull gray Nationals hoodie. As he plodded across the room toward his cubby, he sang the chorus from “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” perhaps a winking acknowledgment of the difference between an early April getaway game and a prime-time October playoff showdown.
These days, when it comes to the media, Harper -- who’s in the final year of a contract that, by the mere nature of its impending expiration, will make him one of the most closely scrutinized people in baseball over the next six months -- talks sparingly. He talks when he’s expected to, when he needs to, like in spring training, when he sat before a room full of reporters and started off his annual State of the Bryce address by reading prepared opening remarks that concluded with him saying he’d be “walking right out the door” if anyone asked a question about his future beyond this season. Or like this past Thursday, when Washington doubled down on publicity by announcing a contract extension for GM Mike Rizzo just hours before the home opener.
“I like coming home,” said Harper quietly when asked about his team’s D.C. debut. “I enjoy playing at Nats Park. It's home. It’s part of this team, it's part of this organization.”
He talked for four minutes and said zero controversial things. Gone are the days when Harper might ignite a firestorm by saying “Where’s my ring?” like he did at the beginning of spring training 2015, shortly after the Nats added ace Max Scherzer to an already stout starting rotation. Gone are the days when he might bust out a trucker cap displaying the words, “Make Baseball Fun Again,” like the former MVP did when he addressed media after the first game of the 2016 campaign.
That’s not to say that Harper doesn’t have things he wants to get off his chest, or that he’s not one of the most marketing-conscious athletes around, or that he might not let his inner pot-stirrer out with the occasional walk-right-out-the-door quip. It’s just that these days, the 25-year-old outfielder -- a married man who's already in his seventh season -- is much more likely to disseminate his message via social media or a well-chosen piece of clothing, and less likely to use audible words. He's more likely to simply let his bat do the talking. And make no mistake, his bat is talking loudly.
A little over a week into his walk year, Harper is the poster child for speaking softly and carrying a big stick. On Saturday against the Mets, the 2010 No. 1 pick went deep off reliever Hansel Robles, a 405-foot opposite-field shot that gave him five homers on the season, most in the majors. Despite scuffling a bit lately (1-for-9 with five strikeouts in his last three games), Harper enetered play Sunday with a 1.403 OPS that led the National League. He had more than twice as many walks as whiffs and, small sample size be damned, was on pace to draw over 200 free passes. Even his outs have been productive, as he was tied for the league lead in sacrifice flies.
Coming in hot is nothing new for Harper, who in his young career has elevated the quick start to something of an art form. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he owns a career 1.087 OPS in March and April. That ranks third all time among those who’ve played at least 100 games before May. The two fellas that are just barely ahead of him? Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
The difference between Harper and those two Hall of Famers is that Ruth and Williams were simply being themselves. The Sultan of Swat finished his career with a 1.164 OPS, best in major league history. The Splendid Splinter posted a lifetime OPS of 1.116, which ranks second all time. In other words, Ruth’s 1.089 OPS in March/April was actually pretty crappy, relative to his standards. Ditto for Williams and his 1.088. Harper, on the other hand, has posted a .905 OPS during his first six-plus seasons. While that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, it’s nearly 200 points lower than his mark in March and April.
So what gives? What is it about Harper that allows him to be in midseason form at a time of year when pitchers are supposedly ahead of hitters and baseball fields have a tendency to look more like hockey rinks?
“Just try to have good at-bats,” said Harper, barely above a whisper, asked prior to the home opener why he's been so good out of the gate. “Just seeing a lot of pitches, trying to get some balls over the plate that I can drive. Just try to do the best I can.”
If that sounds not all that different from what Harper or any big leaguer might strive to do on a regular basis, whether it’s Game 1 or Game 162 or anywhere in between, that’s because it’s not. What is different -- at least in Harper’s case -- is that he’s healthy.
In 2015, the first season that Harper managed to stay whole from start to finish, he ended with a 1.109 OPS (and became the youngest unanimous MVP ever). He followed that up by posting a 1.121 OPS in April of 2016 (and winning player of the month), but then endured a mysterious and prolonged slump in which injury appeared to play a key role. Last season, prior to suffering a gruesome knee injury in August, he had a 1.034 OPS and was looking like a good bet to repeat as MVP.
To recap, Harper’s numbers when healthy and Harper’s numbers when the calendar says March or April are pretty darn similar. All of which is to say, the secret to his quick starts -- including this most recent one that belies the massive walk-year weight on his shoulders -- is no secret at all. And he knows it.
“If I stay healthy,” said Harper back in spring training, “I can be one of the best players in the game.”