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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

We’ve written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper’s Nationals career. We’ve examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step at and review where we’ve come from so far.

Act I (2012-2014)

Really, the story of Bryce Harper dates back to 2010, the year in which he was drafted (or possibly back to 2009, the year of his notorious Sports Illustrated cover story). 2010 was a year of endless excitement and optimism for the future of Nationals baseball, with the franchise enjoying the second of their back-to-back top overall draft picks.

In just about the most fortunate setup in draft history, Washington’s first two No. 1 picks came in 2009 and 2010, which happens to be the two draft classes headlined by the most hyped prospects entering the league in recent memory. 2009 brought the future ace in Stephen Strasburg, and 2010 brought the future face of the sport in Harper.

The Debut

After continuing his rise to fame through the minors, Harper finally made his big-league debut in April of 2012 at the tender age of 19. The recent success of Juan Soto may lead some fans to believe it’s normal for uber prospects to reach the majors this quickly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most prospects are still in college or the lower levels of a team’s farm system at the age of 19, but Harper wasn’t most prospects.

Based purely on the crazy hype surrounding Harper, it’d be tough to exclude his Major League debut -- the Nats played the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, 2012 -- among the early highlights of his career. He showed off a lot of the skills we’d see over the next six years. There was his rocket arm, his flair for the dramatic, his pure strength and his steely demeanor in the face of overwhelming pressure.

What made his debut game even more special was that Strasburg was starting for the Nats. The team lost to the Dodgers in extra innings, but in one glorious evening, fans could see the future taking place right before their eyes.

The All-Star

The next major milestone for Harper was making the All-Star Game, which he did somewhat controversially in that magical 2012 season. Harper became the third teenage All-Star ever, and the first one to do so as a position player.

He entered the game as a reserve, and in two at-bats, walked and struck out. He had very little impact on the game itself but was still one of the biggest stories at an event made for baseball’s biggest stars.

The Playoffs

There were other highlights during his rookie season, of course, as the team experienced its first success since returning to Washington. The Nats won 98 games that year to take the NL East, and Harper was helping lead the charge. The NLDS that year pitted the Nats against the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the back-and-forth series went the full five games.

Harper notably struggled during his first exposure to October baseball, hitting just 3-for-23. He struck out eight times, which the most between both teams. The highlight, however, was a Game 5 home run off Adam Wainwright. Harper had already tripled in the Nats’ three-run first inning, and he led off the third with a solo blast to extend the lead to 4-0. At the time, it felt like the team’s youngest superstar cemented a franchise-altering win.

This is the part where Nats fans yell at me for reminding them of what came next.

Drew Storen fell apart in the ninth inning, the Cardinals completed the comeback victory, and the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs. Harper did get an at-bat in the 9th inning and struck out swinging. Say what you want, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

The Recognition

Harper deservedly won the National League Rookie of the Year that season, and looking back, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that close to unanimous (his stiffest competition came from Wade Miley and Todd Frazier). His 5.2 WAR and 57 extra-base hits both represented modern era records for a teenage hitter, and Harper even found himself getting down-ballot MVP votes (he finished 30th).

It was a historic season, and Harper has the accolades to show for it. The future was bright.

The Follow Up

Bryce Harper’s 2013 season didn’t go as well as 2012 for a litany of reasons. The team surrounding him was worse, failing to follow up 2012 with another postseason run. He struggled with injuries, including missing time after crashing into an outfield wall that May. It was a signature aggressive Harper play, going all-out in an attempt to help the team, but ended up being costly. He only ended up playing in 118 games and hitting 20 home runs. He was still an All-Star, but that was partially aided by his fame and stature.

That said, he kicked off the 2013 in incredible fashion, and that Opening Day stands out as his clearest highlight from the entire season. Harper didn’t just become the fourth-youngest player to ever homer on Opening Day (trailing names like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Robin Yount), but he ended up hitting home runs in his first two plate appearances. He was the first player to do so in franchise history and did it at the prodigious age of 20.

His powerful start to the year sent fans into a frenzy, and he gave them a curtain call four innings into the new season. The success wouldn’t last throughout the summer, but it was a wild start and is one of the lasting highlights from the early years of Harper’s career.

The Postseason Return

The 2014 regular season would be a forgettable one for Harper. Thanks to a thumb injury he suffered running the bases, Harper set a career-low in games played with exactly 100. The time missed contributed to a third straight season with fewer home runs than the last, but his rate stats suffered as well. He had the lowest slugging percentage and OPS of his career, and it remains the only season in which he wasn’t named to the National League All-Star team.

For his regular season struggles, however, Harper experienced much more success in his second postseason. The Nats bounced back from a down 2013 team, beating up on a weak division and winning 96 games to lead the National League. They ended up facing another inferior NLDS opponent in the San Francisco Giants, and the end result was the same as in 2012.

The Giants may have won the series thanks to a dominant performance by their pitching staff (the Nats batted .164 as a team), but Harper held his own this time around. In what still stands out to this day as his strongest postseason performance, Harper had a slash line of .294/.368/.882, buoyed by his three home runs in four games. The 1.251 OPS represents by far a career-high, and his three home runs were 75 percent of the team’s total in the series.

He went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning Game 2 marathon, but essentially was the entire Washington offense in Games 1, 3 and 4. He even launched a ball into the third deck at Nats Park in Game 1. It was a titanic blast that won’t soon be forgotten.

The clear highlight, however, came in Game 4. The Nats fell behind 2-0 early, but Harper got them on the board with a fifth-inning double. Trailing 2-1, he came to bat in the seventh and blasted his third home run of the series to tie the game. The Nats were eight outs from elimination, and Harper had saved them.

Of course, once again, the bullpen would go on to lose the game for the Nats and end their season. Harper again had a chance in a do-or-die 9th inning, and this time, the Giants learned their lesson and walked him. His team lost, but the legend of Bryce Harper was cemented.

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

Despite their struggles in 2018, the Washington Nationals nearly came away with two major awards this season. Juan Soto, despite having the most impressive offensive season for a teenager in baseball history, finished a distant second behind Ronald Acuna in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Max Scherzer, despite becoming just the 17th pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters in a single season, fell to Jacob deGrom in the NL Cy Young race.  

So, who’s most likely to take home some hardware a year from now? Of course, any National could theoretically win a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger, but let’s focus on the big ones, which player is most likely to win, and who his biggest competition will likely be. We’ll go from most likely to the biggest longshots.

1. Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young

He may have fallen short this season, but Scherzer is pretty clearly still the National with the best chance of winning a major award next season. Sure, he’s already 34, and it’s not easy to predict when a pitcher will break down, but this is an arm that has defied conventional ideas of “wearing down.”

Scherzer’s biggest competition is the reigning winner deGrom, a potentially healthy Clayton Kershaw, a potentially healthy Noah Syndergaard, and Aaron Nola. Beyond them, a potentially healthy Stephen Strasburg could also find himself in the conversation. Noticing a pattern here? With so many injury-prone aces, health will almost certainly play a major role in this race.

Scherzer has won two of the last three Cy Youngs, and he undeniably pitched at a Cy Young-level in 2018 as well. The question is who else steps up in 2019 to challenge him?

2. Victor Robles, NL Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year awards are tricky. At the top of ballots, you often see the most highly-touted prospects in baseball. Acuna, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Jose Fernandez, and Bryce Harper all won in the National League in recent years. But you also have surprise rookies who come out of nowhere, either because it wasn’t expected that they’d be ready so soon (like Soto) or because they weren’t seen as top talents before their respective breakouts (like Aaron Judge).

Still, Robles’ pedigree and the potential opening in the outfield with Harper in free agency means the stars could be aligning for an awards push. Robles is one of the most talented prospects in baseball, and he’s proven himself enough in the minors to show he belongs. The only thing missing has been the opportunity, which is now right in front of him.

His competition likely will come down to a trio of young shortstops: Fernando Tatis, Jr., Nick Senzel, and Brendan Rodgers. Tatis is the most talented, but is younger and coming off an injury last season. Rodgers doesn’t have that one flashy elite skill to catch the eyes of voters. Senzel, however, already looks like a .300 hitter, and on a surprisingly decent Reds offense will probably be Robles’ biggest competitor.

3. Anthony Rendon, NL Most Valuable Player

No offense to Rendon, who has led the Nats in Wins Above Replacement in each of the past two seasons, but this is probably the choice that gives me the least confidence. He’s really, really good, but is he MVP-worthy?

The nice part about playing the National League is that there’s no Mike Trout or Mookie Betts to dominate MVP voting year in and year out. The downside is that means there are as many as a dozen hitters in any given season to compete with, plus pitchers like Kershaw and Scherzer who are strong enough to take votes away as well. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Buster Posey are all stalwarts who will grab the attention of voters, not to mention the inevitable youngster who will pop up unexpectedly.

Rendon is well-rounded, underrated, and a truly valuable star worth keeping in Washington for many years to come, but his talents aren’t flashy enough to draw the attention of voters, there’s no strong narrative surrounding him winning, and while he plays on a good team, he’s not generally looked at as the most important piece on the roster. This one probably isn’t happening.

4. Dave Martinez, NL Manager of the Year

Those fans who weren’t exactly thrilled with Martinez’s performance in the dugout during Year 1 are probably going to laugh at the prospect of him winning Manager of the Year, but allow me to make the case.

Manager of the Year is never about the actual best manager in baseball. Frankly, there are far too many unknowns for writers to ever really identify who the best manager is. And managers of elite teams rarely get the credit they deserve. The guys who win are typically skippers of teams expected to be bad entering the season but end up making a surprise run to the playoffs. Think the Braves and A’s in 2018.

If the Nats bounce back and return to the playoffs in 2019, national writers will notice. Plus, if Harper leaves this offseason, the narrative will be there for Martinez to receive a ton of credit. It may not be accurate, but with this particular award, perception matters more than reality.

The Nats making the postseason again is a very realistic scenario, and if it happens, Martinez should at least get national consideration for the award.

5. Bryce Harper, NL Most Valuable Player (as a National)

Ahhhh, the fun one. Or, maybe, the tricky one.

Obviously, if Harper was guaranteed to return to the Nationals, he’d be much higher on this list, probably the top choice. Based on his pedigree and name brand, he’d at least be the clear favorite from the Nats roster to win MVP. And if the choice was simply that he’d win with any franchise, then he’d be higher as well, but knowing (or rather, not knowing) what we know right now? That makes this a tough one to place.

While I’d probably guess that he’s not coming back to Washington (it’s hard to imagine the team going too much higher than their already-rejected $300 million offer), it’s still definitely a possibility. And, if he does, we’ve already seen what an MVP season from Harper looks like. Strange as it is to believe, he’s only just now entering the age at which most MLB players hit their primes. The best may be yet to come for Bryce, so it comes down to whether or not you think he’s coming back.

If yes? This is the new number one. If not? Well, that’s why he’s a longshot.

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It’s time to fix baseball’s postseason award shows

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It’s time to fix baseball’s postseason award shows

The awards have been distributed, which means it’s time for a fix.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America can do better. Major League Baseball can do better.

This week was rough for the awards. Not the part where fake calls for transparency are actually just social media mob vehicles to bag on voters. The part where Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. were not available to to talk about being two of the sport’s bright, young stars. Where the two Yankees youngsters up for the AL Rookie of the Year Award were unsure if they were being spoken to. When a Cy Young candidate couldn’t get his Wi-Fi to cooperate while on vacation. The date, the format, the pizazz needs to change. It’s a on a long list of things baseball needs to get up to speed on.

Look at the NHL Awards. Held annually in Las Vegas with a prominent sponsor, as much shine as can be is drummed up. A flood of premier stars attend. It reads well in person. It displays well on the television. It feels and looks modern. It also helps the media by assuring access that can be planned for. 

It’s the right way.

Baseball can start by moving up when the awards take place. We are members of a short-term memory society. Push the awards into the first week of November. That gives it plenty of space before the news cycle can be caught again at the general manager meetings and winter meetings that are to come. Use the close of the World Series as a catapult. Snag the time when most players are resting before offseason workouts begin in earnest.

Elongating the news cycle, the way the NFL magically has with its draft, only works if each segment is in demand. Giving the Manager of the Year Award its own night is unnecessary. Instead, fold it into the evening of awards. 

The NHL announced a three-year extension on its Las Vegas awards party in April. That after 10 years of developing the ceremony into a slick presentation. Obviously, it’s working. 

The Cup makes an appearance. Celebrities join in. The Las Vegas environment is embraced. Fashion is allowed. The muting of personality so long afflicting baseball can be countered for a day in an equivalent setup.

Major League Baseball took an incremental step, as it tends to do, Thursday when it joined with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to announce “Revised rules on player footwear.” The press release delivered an all-caps headline followed by “Agreement Affords Additional Flexibility for Colors and Design”.

Here’s what changed: Instead of Bryce Harper’s shoes having to be a solid variation of a team color, limited variations are now allowed.

“Players may wear shoes displaying any of the following colors, in any proportion: (i) black, white, and gray; (ii) any colors displayed on the Player’s uniform (and certain variations thereof); and (iii) any additional colors designated by the Player’s Club.”

Of course, teams still have to clear the designs coming from shoe companies. 

In a statement, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “Major League Baseball and its Clubs recognize the desire of Players to have more flexibility in this area and are pleased to announce the loosening of regulations that will permit more personalized and stylized footwear.  We believe that this agreement strikes the appropriate balance between the shared goal of permitting Players to express their individuality while maintaining reasonable restrictions on shoe colors and designs.”

It’s as exciting as it sounds. At least it’s something.

Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts were named the MVPs of their respective leagues Thursday. Betts just turned 26 (he’s a mere nine days older than Harper). Yelich is also 26 (about to turn 27). Did you see that photo of them on stage in their suits? No. There was no stage. There’s limited recognition for either. Betts is a World Series champion, three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and playing in one of the league’s prominent markets. He is the first American League player to win an MVP award, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and a World Series title in the same season. Mike Schmidt is the only other player to do so. Betts should be a sports superstar. He’s not.

A revamped awards show won’t cure Betts’ comparative lack of stature. It won’t make Yelich known the way good, but not star, NBA players are known. 

But any improvement will help. And it’s time to get started.
 

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