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

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USA TODAY Sports

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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Will the 2019 and 2020 free-agent classes stir things up the way this one hasn’t?

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Will the 2019 and 2020 free-agent classes stir things up the way this one hasn’t?

There’s an old Magnum, P.I. episode called “Home at Sea”. Magnum has been knocked off his surf ski after a too-close speedboat zips by, leaving him alone to survive in the water. His mind wanders. Flashbacks from childhood, the war, and his family, fill his head. He’s treading water and waiting.

Things are not life-and-death severe during this offseason as the baseball world wades through what has become the sigh-inducing drudgery of free agency. But, big names remain unsigned, reduced to sending out social media pings via a hat (Manny Machado seen in the background of a video in a White Sox lid) or tweet (Bryce Harper having fun with everyone’s emotions by making weather jokes or referencing Tony Romo’s prognostication abilities).

What we don’t have — yet — are results. Everyone is just treading water. Which leads to thoughts beyond today. In particular, the coming free agents in 2019 and 2020.

This class was supposed to be epic. Harper, Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson. Cy Young and MVP winners along with young, generational talents. A mix rarely, if ever, seen before.

(Jose Fernandez, the talented young pitcher in Miami, was also expected to play a major role in this free agency class before he tragically died in 2016 at the age of 24.)

Instead, ongoing shrugs and muted exuberance have met this market, which gives next year a chance to deliver comparative heat. Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, J.D. Martinez, Marcell Ozuna, Gerritt Cole, Chris Sale, Kenley Jansen, Justin Verlander and Madison Bumgarner could all be available. Even Stephen Strasburg could join them in the unlikely situation he exercises his first opt-out.

That grouping would be more well-rounded than the current top-heavy one. It also could suffer from the same lack of investment occurring now, which has already begun underground rumblings about the pending fight between players and owners once the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.

Several things need to align in order for the 2019-20 free agency crowd to be awash in such prominent names. Martinez, Jansen and Strasburg would have to opt-out. Rendon would need to make it through the season without signing a contract extension in Washington, something both sides are working on and open to.

Though, if everyone hits, around-the-diamond needs will be filled.

Need a third baseman? The best and arguably second-best are available.

Need a top-of-the-rotation starter? Sale, Bumgarner, Verlander and Cole are there. 

Need a reliever? Jansen or Dellin Betances would be there.

The class also has interesting middle depth: Yasiel Puig, Khris Davis, Michael Wacha, Miles Mikolas, Brett Gardner, Matt Kemp, Scooter Gennett, Jose Abreu, Ryan Zimmerman (if the Nationals do not pick up his $18 million option). 

Another monster class hits the following year. Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Jacob deGrom can become free agents after the 2020 season. George Springer, Robbie Ray, James Paxton and J.T. Realmuto are also in the mix. Even Giancarlo Stanton could hop in by opting out, though who would want to leave that contract?

Languishing negotiations from Harper and Machado have led us here, treading water and wondering what’s to come. It at least sounds interesting. We’ll see if it turns out to be so.

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Baseball Hall of Fame Results 2019: Rivera makes history with first ever unanimous induction

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Baseball Hall of Fame Results 2019: Rivera makes history with first ever unanimous induction

The question coming in was this: three or four?

Two locks were set to be voted into the Hall of Fame on Tuesday: Legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who became the first player to be named on 100 percent of the ballots cast, and starting pitcher Roy Halladay, both first-ballot Hall of Famers.

Seattle’s Edgar Martinez was expected to finally make it. He did with 85.4 percent of the vote.

That left Mike Mussina, 49 votes short last year, to hold his breath this time. He made it, narrowly, with 76.7 percent.

Mussina spent spent 10 years in Baltimore chasing 20 wins and providing annual durability before joining the New York Yankees for eight more seasons. Longevity and consistency keyed his entrance into the Hall of Fame. Mussina made 30 or more starts 12 times on his way to a career 123 ERA-plus. Only three times across almost two decades was Mussina’s ERA-plus below league average. All that work allowed him to compile 3,562 ⅔ innings pitched, 2,813 strikeouts and a 1.192 WHIP.

Rivera dominated the league with a single signature pitch, his cutter, for 19 years. His preferred music of “Enter Sandman” ran counter to Rivera’s pleasant and forthcoming demeanor off the field. He viewed the accidental discovery of his cutter as a gift from God, which made him willing to share information about the pitch with whomever asked. The slim right-hander anchored one of baseball’s great winning runs while with the Yankees. Rivera is a 13-time All-Star who owns five World Series rings. His 205 career ERA-plus is an all-time record as is his 652 saves, which is more than 50 ahead of second place and a record unlikely to be broken.

The wait, and push, for Martinez was extensive. Martinez find himself at the core of an ongoing debate about Hall of Fame candidacy for designated hitters. He didn’t become a full-time player in the major leagues until age 27. He was perpetually on base from there until his age-41 season, delivering a career OPS of .933 and on-base percentage of .418. Martinez walked more than he struck out 10 times in his 18-year career, finishing with more bases on balls than whiffs. Seattle denizens long pushed for his conclusion. It took the maximum 10 years, but Martinez is finally in.

Halladay’s inclusion is a bittersweet moment. The right-hander died Nov. 7, 2017, when a small plane he was piloting crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. He previously told reporters his possible Hall of Fame induction would be a “tremendous honor.” Halladay twice won the Cy Young award — once in each league — made eight All-Star teams, and finished with a 3.38 ERA. He also threw a perfect game and in 2010 became the second pitcher in history to throw a postseason no-hitter.

The central characters from baseball’s so-called “steroid era” remain on the outside. Roger Clemens (59.5 percent) in his seventh ballot and Barry Bonds (59.1 percent) remain well below the 75 percent threshold for enshrinement following slight increases from 2018 voting. Curt Schilling (60.9 percent) and Larry Walker (54.6 percent) also moved up significantly in year-over-year voting. Fred McGriff moved up in his final year on the ballot, however remained well short. He should get in when considered by the Today’s Game Era Committee based on their recent selection of Harold Baines.

 

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