2016 storyline: It's the encore: what can Bryce Harper do to follow up one of the best seasons of all time?
The reigning NL MVP now enters a season as arguably the best player in baseball. He is no stranger to high expectations, but the dynamic is a little bit different now. Instead of people wondering and predicting what he is capable of, now we know. And the question moving forward becomes whether he can not only recreate his 2015 season, but perhaps even exceed the numbers he has already put up.
Before 2015, Harper was the future of the Nationals' franchise. Now he is their undisputed best player and with that may come more responsibilities as a leader and even more focus as the centerpiece of their lineup. As long as he is in Washington, the Nationals will go as he goes and if they are to get back to the mountain top in the NL East, he will need to lead the way.
Best-case scenario: Is it possible for Harper to get even better? His numbers in 2015 were extraordinary. But there is always room for improvement and he'll be the first one to tell you that.
Improving his batting average or home run totals is possible, but it won't be easy. He could, however, continue to cut down on his strikeouts. Last year he whiffed 131 times, which is a number that may go down if he gets better protection in the lineup around him, if guys stay healthy.
One area Harper could technically get better at is stolen bases. He was a much bigger threat to steal in his first few years in the league, so we know he can do it. But that could depend on whether the coaching staff is willing to take risks. When asked this winter if he would like to steal more, Harper's response was 'if they let me.' Considering his last major injury occurred on the basepaths, it's understandable if they want to continue to hold him back from stealing.
Worst-case scenario: Simply saying that it all depends on health may be a cop-out for some guys, but not for Harper. When he is healthy, he is one of the best players in baseball. This has been established thoroughly since he entered the league in 2012. When he isn't healthy, and is playing through injuries, his production drops considerably.
At this point in his career it would seem an injury is the only thing that can stop him. Opposing pitchers sure haven't figured out how.
Most-likely scenario: Harper's stats at the age of 22 were historic and may be hard to recreate. If he does put them up again, we may be talking about the best or one of the best young players this game has ever seen.
Most projections have Harper taking a slight step back. Baseball Reference, for instance, has him hitting .301 with 28 homers and 72 RBI. FanGraphs also has him hitting .301 but with 35 homers and 99 RBI. Keep in mind both of these stat-lines would represent a regression, which is just incredible.
The point is, even if Harper falls short of his 2015 numbers, he will still set the tone for the Nationals' lineup and shine as one of the best players in the game.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.