Bryce Harper is… underrated?!

As previously detailed in my ROY cases for Noah Syndergaard and Xander Bogaerts, I’ll occasionally be interspersing my usual content with my (probably misguided) award predictions for the upcoming season. Today marks the next installment pertaining to my poor judgement – it’s time for an NL MVP pick.

He famously donned Sports Illustrated’s cover alongside the tagline ‘Baseball’s Chosen One’ while still a high schooler. The then-catcher was picked No. 1 in the 2010 draft, and secured a a $6.25 million signing bonus along the way. He blew kisses to pitchers in the Minors. He was booed vociferously by a raucous Dodgers crowd when he made his ML debut less than 2 years later. Within a week, Cole Hamels ‘welcomed’ him to the league with a good ol’ plunking, only to see his victim steal home that same inning. In that same season, at just 19, he became the youngest All-Star in baseball’s history. If that weren’t enough, since his debut, he’s muscled more home runs during his age 19 and 20 seasons (42) than any hitter since Tony Conigliaro, and accrued as many WAR over that period as Ty Cobb.

And yet somehow, Bryce Harper might now be underrated.

After posting a rookie season for the ages, winning the NL ROY award on the strength of a .270/.340/.477 line and 22 homers in 139 games, Harper headed into 2013 with the expectations of the baseball world upon his young shoulders; the Washington Nationals were expected to be World Series contenders, their star 20-year old to be the MVP-like force behind their inevitable success. Things didn’t quite work out as planned.

The Nats missed the postseason altogether in Davey Johnson’s last year at the helm, somehow limping only to a record of 84-78 in an NL East division which contained the lowly Marlins, Mets, and Phillies. And though Harper improved, he still wasn’t producing like Mike Trout – his symbolically aligned partner in carrying baseball for the next generation – drawing the ire of impatient fans and internet commentators alike. But while his end of season statistics may have ultimately disappointed those who predicted a breakout performance, they also obscured the truth; Harper was playing like an MVP, until he quite literally, hit the wall.

Through his first 25 games (103 PAs), the man whose eye-black sets the internet alight was batting .356 with 9 home runs and a ridiculous 1.181 OPS. Then, in his 26th game of the season, came the first collision – Harper falling foul of Turner Field’s outfield fence. He carried on regardless, but his line had already dropped to .303/.400/.622 just 37 plate appearances later, when his second run-in with an outfield wall occurred – this time at Dodger Stadium.

Harper would wind up on the DL, his balky knee forcing him out of five weeks of action. He would return in early July, but not the same player – something Harper himself admitted in September – managing just (by his high standards at least) a .789 OPS en route to a final line of .274/.368/.486 in 118 games played.

Even playing on a knee which required offseason surgery though, Harper showed across-the-board improvements in his game during 2013; per David Golebiewski, “Harper boosted his batting average (from .270 as a rookie in 2012 to .274), on-base percentage (.340 to .368) and slugging percentage (.477 to .486) while also sharpening his strike-zone control (his walk-to-strikeout ratio climbed from 0.47 to 0.65). His park-and-league-adjusted OPS spiked from 18 percent above average to 33 percent above average.” After swinging at most everything low and away as a rookie, the 20-year old demonstrated a more mature approach at the plate in his sophomore effort, jacking his walk rate almost 3 percentage points (9.4% in 2012 to 12.3% in 2013) despite pitchers throwing him marginally less strikes (41.2% as opposed to 42.3%). And even despite his injury, Harper’s trademark raw power remained, his .212 ISO mark remarkably similar to the .206 figure he posted the year prior.

Not that such incremental improvement satiated the demands of those preseason prognosticators – apparently an injury-marred campaign is no excuse in the march towards superstardom nowadays. After an offseason in which Mike Trout’s otherworldly play and soon-expected extension attracted more of the media’s attention however, Harper has quietly slinked away from the limelight – and dedicated himself to getting healthy for a monster 2014 (he may even have hit the gym too hard, with recent photos of his huge new physique inspiring PED talk – which Harper quickly shot down).

With World Series aspirations once more after the addition of Doug Fister, the Nats will need him if they’re to make a serious run during the postseason. Fortunately for new manager Matt Williams, Harper appears to be on board with the plan already: recently citing “I don’t want to run into another wall,” in recognising the importance of his everyday presence towards his team’s success, the young slugger has clearly matured in his first real time away from the glare – a factor that along with his health, should have opposing pitchers quaking in their cleats come April. With that in mind, and other pennant contenders St. Louis lacking a true superstar (although a fine leader, Yadier Molina doesn’t qualify in my eyes), the Dodger’s wealth of riches unreliable in terms of their health (I’m looking at you Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp), I’ve no problem in predicting this year to be the year for Harper; I’ll take his  16/1 odds of winning NL MVP over the 6/1 Andrew McCutchen, 7/1 Joey Votto or even 9/1 Paul Goldschmidt all the way to the bank, thank you very much.

It’s been too long for Bryce Harper to be out of the spotlight. I’m ready for him to snatch it back in a big way.



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