The month of May is big for graduations and life passages, so this is as suitable a time as any to look beyond the eye black and Natitude and take stock of where Washington right fielder Bryce Harper stands in his educational timeline.
With each authoritative swing -- or decision to lay off a breaking pitch a hair off the corner -- Harper warrants another mention alongside some iconic figure with a plaque in Cooperstown. One day, he's on a pace to challenge Ted Williams' single-season record of 147 walks by a player in his age-22 season. The next day, he's on track to hit 40 home runs at age 22 -- an achievement that would put him in a fraternity with Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Johnny Bench, Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez.
On a parallel track, Harper is once again matriculating among the top-shelf talents in his peer group. Late last week, FanGraphs ran a story suggesting the old Harper versus Mike Trout comparisons might not be so loony after all. The same day, on satellite radio, Jim Duquette and Mike Ferrin engaged in a spirited debate on the topic, "Who would you rather have now and in the future: Harper or Giancarlo Stanton?" Ferrin chose Harper, while Duquette opted for Stanton.
Some perspective is in order here: Harper is nine months younger than Kris Bryant and six months younger than Joc Pederson, the early frontrunners for National League Rookie of the Year. He will still be 22 years old when the Nationals play their regular-season finale against the Mets in early October. Of the 29 MLB Rookies of the Year since 2000 (not including Harper, who captured the honor in 2012), 20 were older than Harper will be at the end of this season, after four years of service time.
The story has taken a dramatic turn since April 2014, when Harper was benched by Nationals manager Matt Williams for failing to run out a routine comebacker against St. Louis. The downward spiral continued when Harper tore a ligament in his thumb on a head-first slide, missed two months and showed negligible power upon his return. Harper appeared to hit rock bottom in August, when he raised the white flag and conceded Trout was, indeed, the better player.
Maybe it's the inherent fan boy in him, but Harper is sticking to his convictions on that one.
"Baseball is always, 'What have you done for me lately?'" Harper said. "That's just how the game works. I still believe Trout is the best player in the game, hands down. It's not about taking a backseat to anybody. I love seeing Stanton hit homers or Kris Bryant do the things he does. I love watching Matt Harvey or Gerrit Cole or Noah Syndergaard come up and throw 100 mph. I cheer for guys. I've always been that way."
If Harper's career hiccups have drummed a lesson, it's that perceptions are fickle and he can't please everyone, so why try? Trout is beloved in part because he plays the game with 1950s-caliber simplicity. For all his greatness between the lines, he's pure vanilla off the field. Harper, in contrast, is Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors drenched in postgame chocolate syrup. Trout might be the surer long-term bet and the superior player, but Harper, by virtue of his split personality, is infinitely more compelling.
Private Bryce, by all accounts, is respectful of baseball history, family-oriented and dedicated to his Mormon faith. He's a fan of 2 Amy's pizza in D.C., hanging out with his chocolate lab, Swag, and messing with a guitar. He has never done anything to embarrass his organization off the field (knock on wood), and he routinely cites his father's advice that it's more important to be a good person away from the diamond than a great player on it. Remember who you are and where you came from, Ron and Sheri Harper constantly reminded their three children.
Baseball Bryce hits long home runs and comes with a heaping side of bombast. He grates on umpires, flings equipment, plays with an edge befitting a young Pete Rose and elicits strong reactions on both sides of the aisle. He is captive to his emotions, and if you're in his corner, you'll cut him some slack and chalk them up as "youthful indiscretions." If not, he's a self-entitled brat. He opens his mouth, and stuff comes out.
"Maybe it's because I'm from Vegas," Harper said. "I'm not scared of what people think. I'll be straightforward, and if I have something to say, I won't sugarcoat it. If you like it, you like it. And if you don't, you don't. If the other team hates me and wants to kill me, so be it. But if I was on your team, you'd love me because I'm gonna play hard every night. That's the way I am and the way I've always been."
The early numbers are staggering. Barely past the season's quarter mark, Harper leads the major leagues in runs (39), extra base hits (26), walks (40), OPS (1.198), isolated power (.393) and Wins Above Replacement (4.1).
He's even wielding some serious leather. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Harper leads big league right fielders with 10 Defensive Runs Saved. St. Louis' Jason Heyward, the confirmed gold standard at the position, has four DRS.
"My attitude is if I don't get a hit, nobody is getting a hit," Harper said.
Throw all the numbers in a pot, and it's a recipe for positive reviews. With the possible exception of David Letterman, no entertainment figure in America has received more glowing testimonials this month.
In a 2-1 victory over Philadelphia on Friday, Harper hit a screamer down the left-field line for a solo homer off Sean O'Sullivan. The ball was a rarity: An opposite-field tracer struck with such force it didn't have time to curve toward the foul line.
"This is what this kid is capable of doing," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Or I should probably say what this man is capable of doing because he's not a kid anymore. He's an unbelievable baseball player. He has all the instincts and a great swing, and he has a tremendous passion for the game. Obviously, he's not going to keep up the torrid pace we're seeing right now, but this is something we can expect to see for a long time. He's special. There's no doubt about that."
The veteran Nationals see subtle touches in Harper's approach that plant seeds for sustained excellence. Nationals second baseman Dan Uggla can tell by Harper's "takes" how locked in he is during each at-bat. Pitcher Max Scherzer is blown away by what he has seen, and he is fresh off five seasons in Detroit, where he watched Miguel Cabrera conduct hitting clinics on a daily basis.
"Bryce is a better hitter now than he was even at the beginning of the season. When you start to see him use the opposite field with power, that's the kind of elite stuff I saw in Detroit [with Miguel Cabrera]. The scary part is he still has room for improvement. It's like he's starting to understand the game at a higher level."Max Scherzer, Nationals pitcher
"Bryce is a better hitter now than he was even at the beginning of the season," Scherzer said. "When you start to see him use the opposite field with power, that's the kind of elite stuff I saw in Detroit [with Cabrera]. The scary part is he still has room for improvement. It's like he's starting to understand the game at a higher level."
Much of Harper's success is attributable to a more patient approach at the plate. He is averaging 4.38 pitches per plate appearance, second in the majors to Cleveland's Carlos Santana, and he has been more discerning about swinging at balls both inside and outside the strike zone. As a result, he has been able to put himself in advantageous counts, wait for his pitch and let the bat head fly.
In light of how the 2014 season finished, Harper's fast start isn't a total surprise. He showed signs that things were turning in a more positive direction when he hit 10 homers in August and September and went deep three times in 17 at-bats against San Francisco in the National League Division Series.
It's easy to forget Harper logged an .817 OPS with 22 home runs at age 19 and an .854 OPS with 20 homers at age 20. The perception that he was somehow "overrated" was both lazy and oblivious to reality. He underwent knee surgery and thumb surgery in a span of five months, and that combination was death to his power output a year ago.
"You need your legs and your hands to hit," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Those are the two most important levers that connect you to the bat. He finally had an offseason when he wasn't recovering from an injury and he could just prepare for baseball. That has as much to do with this as anything."
A breakout with baggage
Smack in the middle of Harper's monster month, a chaotic week dredged up all the negative sentiments that make him such a polarizing figure in the game. Late in a May 13 game against Arizona, he was ejected by umpire Rob Drake for arguing a checked swing. Seven days later, in the first inning of a Nationals-Yankees game, he got tossed by home plate umpire Marvin Hudson for his involvement in a fray that nearly blew up the Internet.
In hindsight, Harper still sounds like a bystander who was watching an accident unfold and was powerless to stop it. He remained calm when Hudson called a first-pitch strike on a ball low and out of the zone, and he showed restraint in stepping out of the box while Hudson and Williams started yapping at each other. But he ultimately couldn't resist the temptation to stab the batter's box with his toe and prompt Hudson to give him the heave.
"The whole time in the box, I kept saying to myself, 'Don't get thrown out. There's no reason to get thrown out. Don't talk to anybody. They need you in this game,'" Harper said. "But I don't have an in-between when I get mad. It's zero to 100, and I'm coming after you. Off the field, I'm the calmest person ever, but when I'm between those lines, I'm so locked in on helping this team win. I don't even know how to explain it."
Big picture: Even Harper's staunchest advocates in the organization concede he does the team absolutely no good piling up ejections at this rate. Maybe it worked for Bobby Cox. But as his teammate Jayson Werth observes, "MVPs don't get thrown out of games."
Harper appears to have an umpire problem, and he's not going to conquer it with eye rolls and almost refusing to engage. Even if it's true that some umpires might try to bait him, it's his responsibility to steer clear of that trap.
"He can't get kicked out of games," Rizzo said. "He's at a performance level where we need him on the field. He was kicked out twice in a week, and I get that. He has to answer those questions. But the other day, if [it] isn't Bryce Harper, he would have still been in the game.
"I can't speak to what the 'perception' is of Bryce. I've known the kid since he was 15, and he's one of the nicest, most polite, respectful young men I've ever been around. He's nothing but a perfect gentleman. Now, he also has fire and energy and a temper. He plays with an aggressive style, and people have questions. They ask us if we should try to quell that. My answer is, 'I want him to play 100 miles an hour with his hair on fire, but in a controlled manner.' I think that's the maturity level you're seeing now."
Until Harper gains complete control of his on-off switch, the Nationals will have to navigate a delicate truce with his combustibility quotient. When Williams was asked about the Marvin Hudson incident at a pregame press session two days after the fact, he had difficulty concealing his impatience with the question. He encouraged the media to "let it go," while acknowledging that's probably wishful thinking.
"I want Bryce to be the kind of player that he is currently," Williams said. "I don't know anybody in their right mind that wouldn't. His intensity and passion and the way he plays the game are good for this club. It's good for the city, and it's good for Bryce because that's the way he knows how to play. Over time, as you get deeper into a career, things change. But right now I want Bryce to be Bryce."
A "better teammate"
Knee-jerk narratives rarely stand the test of time. When Williams benched Harper a year ago for failing to run out that groundball, a lot of scouts thought he ran the risk of "losing" his young star. But manager and player appear to have moved beyond the incident to a more constructive place. When the Nationals visited Arizona, Harper peppered Williams with questions about how Chase Field plays with the roof open versus the roof closed. It was the same thing when the Nationals faced Cole Hamels on Saturday. On all things baseball, Harper now seems to regard his manager as some sort of oracle.
Harper is also making positive inroads with his teammates. Some Nationals players wonder why Anthony Rendon, another first-round pick who fit in from day one and was the team's best player in 2014, doesn't receive an iota of the attention Harper generates. But even as they roll their eyes over Harper's blowups or feel a tinge of resentment over his endorsement portfolio, the other Nats relish his improvement because it's all for the common good.
Amid the helmet-flinging and ejections, Harper has come across as a more engaged presence this season. He Is more receptive to constructive criticism and less immersed in his own private cocoon, teammates say.
"Not that Bryce was ever a bad teammate, but he's been a better teammate this year," Werth said. "He's been more one of the guys than an individual. Let's be honest: He didn't really play in the minor leagues. He was at this level for a half a year, then that level for half a year, then boom -- he was in the major leagues. And then he had all these expectations, and he got injured. He's never had that calming sense of being a big leaguer. It's a real thing, and it takes time.
"I've given the example of Chipper Jones. Later in his career, he was revered for his clubhouse presence, and he was more of an ambassador for the game. But from the stories I've heard, I don't think he was like that early in his career. In time, Bryce will get it. He'll be fine. It's coming."
If a man can be judged by his Twitter timeline, Harper is keeping a healthy distance from the static. In early April, he congratulated Duke on its NCAA hoops titles. Since then, it's been a Fenway Park selfie here and a Memorial Day shoutout to American veterans there. He might take the bait from umpires, but he has resisted the temptation to lash out at keyboard antagonists who have decreed him a punk or a villain.
"I don't want this to sound the wrong way, but I've always had the spotlight, so it's never bothered me," Harper said. "I've always been under the microscope, so it's never been a problem for me. I've always just taken it in and said, 'OK, this is how it's going to be.'"
In the final analysis, even critics who wish Harper would cease with the antics are only too happy to welcome him to their fantasy rosters. Harper has yet to ascend the podium and graduate from baseball wunderkind to finished product. But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, he's doing more than his share.