Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Admiring Bryce Harper, Baseball's New Messiah

Every era of baseball has a few defining stars, a select group of heroes tasked with guarding the flame of mystique and greatness. With consistent performances of sheer brilliance, Mike Trout has already been ordained as the chief icon of his generation, but this season, a legitimate competitor has finally emerged. Bryce Harper, long hailed as baseball's next great messiah, has at last bloomed, ushering the game into a bold new epoch with a snarl, a swagger, and a swing of confounding thunder.
Baseball's Chosen One. Photo Credit: USA Today.

In previous years, Harper has treated us to enthralling glimmers of his enormous, almost scary potential. He launched 22 home runs and hit .270 at the age of 19 in 2012, before struggling to stay on the field in 2013 and '14. From the very outset, he was a divisive figure. Some saw a hulking specimen of raw genius, waiting to be unleashed; others viewed him as a petulant kid consumed by acquiescence to the hype machine. Remarkable talent simmered below the surface, but the entire industry wrote him off as grossly overrated. Until this year.

Right from spring training, Bryce Harper seemed to be engrossed in one mission: proving people wrong. They said he was too cocky, so he launched prodigious home runs. They said he couldn't stay healthy, so he morphed into the Nationals' spiritual leader. They said he would flame out like so many failed phenoms, so he produced a season so spellbinding as to be without accurate comparison in baseball's post-steroid realm. 

Thus far in 2015, Harper is hitting .343 and getting on-base at an absurd .470 clip. If maintained, his 1.143 OPS would be the 49th-best single season figure ever recorded, topped only by greats like Ruth, Williams and Gehrig, and turbo-charged cheats who don't deserve the oxygen of publicity. This year, Bryce has cranked 41 home runs, driven in 95 runs, and scored 116. His 10.1 WAR is the 48th-best of all-time, while the only players ever to post a higher mark aged 22 or younger are Ted Williams in his hallowed season of '41 and Trout three years ago.

Harper is authoring such magnificence in an environment famished for offence. Nowadays, runs are at an absolute premium in Major League Baseball, with one pitcher or another seemingly carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning on any given day. Accordingly, some of Harper's advanced metrics are truly staggering. Take, for instance, his 206 OPS+. To those unfamiliar with sabermetrics, OPS+ is a statistic that distills a players on-base-plus-slugging-percentage by adjusting for the ballpark and era he plays in. The average rate is 100, which effectively means that Harper has been 106% better than league average this season, an almost unbelievable revelation. In fact, viewed through a prism of OPS+, Harper's 2015 season is already the 35th greatest ever, with only a handful of clean players managing a higher mark in the past half-century.

This is not only great for the Nationals; it's crucial, absolutely crucial, for baseball as a whole. Along with Trout, his American League contemporary, Harper is now the foremost guardian of baseball, entrusted with creating new memories and new fans to match the incomparable history of a game drenched in tradition. To the youngsters of today, Trout and Harper are the stars of baseball, the incumbent heirs to Pujols and Jeter, Mays and Mantle, DiMaggio and Williams. 

A few years removed from steroid ignominy, and with the NFL surging ahead in popularity, modern baseball has rarely needed its stars so much, which adds another layer to Harper's importance. Fortunately, the guy seems to have a preternatural flamboyance; a searing magnetism ideal for the role as baseball's reigning monarch. Crucially, Bryce has the ego needed to transcend the game and induce excitement in mainstream observers. He has a little of Reggie Jackson's arrogance, a smattering of Mickey Mantle's troubled charm. His hair has personality, his bat has an easy power. Bryce Harper knows he's great, and he stalks around the field as if living in his own movie. That sense of drama, that showman's instinct, is a key ingredient in the makeup of a baseball star, and Bryce has it in spades.

At this point, it may be wise to caution against placing too much expectation on his shoulders. After all, the guy doesn't turn 23 for another few weeks, and, as we've seen with guys such as Joe Pepitone and Tony Conigliaro, a lot can happen in the span of a few Major League seasons. Baseball is the most unpredictable of games, but you have to like Harper's odds of joining the game's all-time elite pantheon.

The slugger also has the good fortune of rising to prominence during an era of rampant financial growth within baseball, as teams generate unthinkable revenue and show more inclination than ever to reinvest it in roster construction. This trend, coupled with Harper reaching free agency at the rare age of 26 following the 2018 season, should help make him the most coveted player in the game's history. He figures to have a great shot at eclipsing Giancarlo Stanton as the best-paid ballplayer who ever lived. 

Thus, one way or the other, Bryce Harper will be a dominant figure on the baseball horizon for the next two decades. He has that rare blend of precocious talent, irresistible charisma and gutsy determination so prevalent in great champions. Ruth had it. Trout has it. And now, the next great name in baseball's unfurling odyssey has exploded onto the scene. Just imagine how good he will be during his prime.

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