Going into spring training, Bryce Harper was not expected to be coming to Washington any time soon, given how young he was and how unpolished he was thought to be. However, as the preseason continued, he impressed the coaches and fans alike, leading some to call for his call-up. In their preseason projections, ZiPS expected Harper to come up to DC fairly early, but not to blow anyone away, as they foresaw a .238/.317/.405 line with 17 homers in 132 games. Their prediction for the time of his call to the majors was not far off, as he debuted on April 28th in LA, shortly after the deadline for him to have another year of team control, and played in 139 games. Their predictions for his production, however, were dead wrong. Harper was one of the best hitters on the team since his callup, hitting .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs, the second most for a teenager ever. His 4.8 WAR, according to Baseball Prospectus, was the most ever for a teenager, 1.5 more than the second-most, New York Giant Mel Ott in 1928. Needless to say, Harper took the league by storm.
Oct 12, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper (34) watches his solo home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the third inning of game five of the 2012 NLDS at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit:Brad Mills
Despite the fanfare that accompanied him into the majors, Harper struggled out of the gate, as any 19-year-old would be expected to do. After 20 games, he was hitting .230 with only two home runs, far from demonstrating the prodigious power he had been fabled to have. During this stretch, however, Harper had an experience that spoke to his style of play and instantly endeared him to every Nationals fan. On May 6th, against the Phillies, Harper was hit by a pitch from Philadelphia starter Cole Hamels. Hamels would later admit that this was intentional, intended as a “Welcome to the big leagues” gesture that harkened back to the days of “old baseball”. These remarks earned Hamels a five-game suspension. Instead of getting angry with Hamels, however, Harper chose to get even. He reached third base on a single by Jayson Werth, and, when Hamels made a pickoff throw to first, dashed for home plate and slid in safely. Harper also did not live up to his reputation of arrogance when asked about that series after the game, simply remarking that “Hamels threw a great game tonight.” His youth would show its ugly side just a few days later, however, as on May 12th, Harper slammed his bat into the wall in the dugout tunnel after grounding out in the seventh inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds. The bat bounced back and hit him above the left eye, resulting in a gash that would later require ten stitches.
Harper, perhaps settling in to the majors, caught fire in late May, hitting .382 with five home runs and a 1.144 OPS over his next 20 games, bringing his average to a season-high .307 on June 12th. By this time, he had settled into center field and the number two spot in the lineup, often hitting behind Steve Lombardozzi when Jayson Werth went out with a broken wrist. This, however, would be the statistical zenith of his season, as he began a long cold stretch that would last two full months. Over the 55 games from June 13th to August 15th, Harper hit just .204 with three home runs and a .563 OPS, 121 points less than his slugging percentage alone in the prior 20 games. Many speculated that big league pitchers had figured him out and some even suggested that he should be sent back to the minors, as his average bottomed out at .245. However, as he had all season, Harper was able to calm down and solve his problems.
He ended the season as hot as he had been in any stretch during it, hitting .327 with 12 homers and a 1.045 OPS in the season’s final 44 games. He had two two-homer games within eight days of each other at the end of August and the beginning of September, his only two of the season, and roared back into the Rookie of the Year race that some had left him for dead in. Despite his momentum going into the playoffs, he did not perform particularly well, going just 3-23, good for a .130 batting average. All of his hits were for extra bases, however, and in Game 5 of the NLDS he became the youngest player in MLB history to hit a postseason triple.
Season Highlight: His being hit by the Hamels pitch and the subsequent steal of home. He had hardly been in the majors a week, but immediately made his mark as a gritty and risky player, an identity that served him well throughout his rookie season.
Next Year: With a full season under his belt, there is reason to believe Harper could make a Trout-like leap in ability and make a run at the MVP next year, given his incredible success at such a young age. Even if he does not immediately soar to Trout’s level, he will undeniably be a huge part of the Nats’ lineup in 2013 and for years to come, whether in center field or a corner spot.
Chien Ming Wang