When it comes to baseball, 2015 will be remembered as the year of Bryce Harper. Sure, you could make an argument for Jake Arrieta or Alex Anthopoulos or a handful of other names, but you'd be wrong. Nothing against his royal Cy-ness or the recently crowned Exec of the Year, but from spring training all the way through October and beyond, both with his actions on the field and his words off it, no individual consistently dominated the baseball conversation the way Harper did. In the process, Harper proved that, in a sport starving for transcendent superstars as it struggles to stay relevant to young America, he's both the present and the future of the game.
"Where's my ring?" That's how the Year of Bryce began. It wasn't a clown question, bro, but rather a rhetorical one. Uttered by Harper on the very same day he reported to spring training back in February, the quip -- a reference to how stacked the Washington Nationals were following the offseason addition of $210 million ace Max Scherzer -- thrust Harper into the headlines, where it seemed like he stayed for the next nine months.
There was, of course, no ring, as the Nationals fell egregiously short of World Series expectations and finished only four games over. 500. But that had less (read: nothing) to do with Harper and more (read: everything) to do with a plague of injuries to key cogs, an inexperienced manager, a flawed lineup, a beleaguered bullpen and a toxic clubhouse.
As for Harper, the former first overall pick who turned 23 in October, all he did was lead the majors in on-base percentage (.460) and slugging (.649), becoming the third-youngest player since 1900 to do that. The other two? A couple of dudes named Cobb and Musial. He also finished tied for the National League lead in homers (42) and posted the second-highest average on the Senior Circuit (.330). And that was only half the story: In his first full season playing right field, Harper ranked fourth among NL right fielders with seven defensive runs saved and was a Gold Glove finalist.
Put it all into the baseball blender and you come out with a 9.9 WAR, best in the bigs and the most valuable season by a National Leaguer since Barry Bonds in 2004 (10.6). For those who are inclined to ignore Bonds' numbers, Harper's 2015 WAR total was the highest in the NL by a position player since Joe Morgan in 1975. In a year in which youth was served and fresh-faced phenoms such as Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa ascended to the show, Harper's precocious play made it all too easy to forget just how young the four-year vet still is (for the record, Bryant is 286 days older than Harper).
Just how good was Harper in 2015? In mid-November, when postseason awards were handed out, he became the youngest NL MVP in over 40 years and the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history.
Talk to those who know him best -- teammates, coaches, opponents -- and they all say that the biggest difference this past season, the reason he made the leap, was his discipline at the dish. Harper set an Expos/Nationals franchise record by walking 124 times, four of which came during a Sept. 3 contest against Atlanta, when he became the first player in at least 100 years to score four times and drive in a run without recording an official at-bat. "It reminds you of Barry Bonds," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "Obviously he's not hitting 70 home runs. But he's gonna take his walks. Then he gets one pitch to hit and he hits it. It's incredible to watch." But talk to the MVP himself, and he'll give you an even simpler reason.
"The thing is, I [had success] in high school, I did it in college, I did it at every single level in the minor leagues. But I haven't been healthy," said Harper, who played in a career-high 153 games in 2015 after averaging just 119 in his first three seasons. "Everybody asks me what I'm doing different or did something click. I'm just healthy. This is the type of player I have been and this is the type of player I want to be."
Even though Harper's historic season didn't net him a ring, it did produce a wring: In the eighth inning of a late September home game, Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon choked his MVP teammate in a highly visible dugout donnybrook. The incident, which started brewing several days earlier when Harper publicly called into question Papelbon's intentional beaning of Orioles All-Star Manny Machado, was the defining dysfunctional moment for the reality show that was the 2015 Nationals. It was also the most indelible singular image from Harper's sensational season, which is saying something considering his seemingly never-ending stream of on-field accomplishments. The dustup ultimately led to the firing of manager Matt Williams, not to mention an active effort by the Washington front office to unload Papelbon this offseason.
As for the "Person of the Year," Harper doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.