Despite surgery, Bryce Harper is still only 21 and still full of potential

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Bryce Harper's intense style of play attributed to his hand injury. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Precisely two years and one day after the first night he stepped on a major league field, Bryce Harper lay on an operating table as a surgeon anchored sutures to a bone inside his hand.

Much has happened in the two years since Harper’s debut, when the possibilities felt even grander than the San Gabriels looming beyond Dodger Stadium: his breathtaking arrival, his painful sophomore campaign and his tumultuous beginning to 2014. Tuesday afternoon, Harper underwent surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, a procedure that will sideline him until July.

That break provides a chance to assess where the past two years have led him, to ask a question central to the Washington Nationals’ fortunes: Where does Bryce Harper stand?

“He’s had some tough luck so far,” Manager Matt Williams said. “But he’s also very young. I think he’s right on track to be the player he wants to be. This is a little hiccup in the process. Certainly don’t want to see it happen. Hope it doesn’t happen. But sometimes it does. He’ll be a fantastic player. This hiccup will be a part of it.”

Take a deep breath, and go back to the idyllic beginning. Harper was the 2012 NL rookie of the year, teammates embraced him and the Nationals won a division title. His first opening day leapt from a storybook: a two-homer game that sparked an MVP-worthy opening month to 2013. He collided with a wall in Atlanta and smashed into another in Los Angeles, and while still frequently performing at a high level, he has never fully recaptured his bearings.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Nationals manager Matt Williams should have handled Bryce Harper's benching for not hustling on a routine groundout differently. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Harper dragged his left knee through most of last season, aside from the 31 games he spent on the disabled list. He underwent the first surgery of his life in November and, after rehab, started this season in such a funk that he admitted he felt “lost.” Williams, his new manager, benched him for “the inability to run 90 feet,” and even as his bat heated up, Harper made a bizarre out with a two-strike bunt in a key situation.

Close observers noticed the toll of those events, each unfolding amid ceaseless debate. Many have seen the effervescence with which he played in 2012 dissipate. Rick Ankiel and Mark DeRosa, veterans who played crucial support and mentoring roles, have moved on. As a rookie, he seemed to float over the diamond. The game now seems to weigh heavy.

“Bryce was smiling in 2012,” said one person close to Harper. “I don’t see that a whole bunch now.”

Numbers never lie

At 21, with 1,185 plate appearances, Harper remains the youngest player in the major leagues. Jayson Werth played for the Baltimore Orioles’ Class AA affiliate when he was 21, and that season he endured what he called the “trials and tribulations of the minor leagues.” He hit .230, got demoted and ultimately got traded. He viewed the experience, miserable at the time, as essential to his development.

“You learn a lot about yourself,” Werth said. “You learn a lot about the game, how to conduct yourself as a professional baseball player. You get benched. You get embarrassed. You go through all these things as a learning experience to get you ready to play in the big leagues. Unfortunately, Bryce didn’t have those experiences. He’s kind of going through those growing pains at the big-league level. And everything is magnified. Everything is more polarized. Nowadays, you’ve got all these outlets, and all these spaces for people’s opinions and all this [stuff]. So now, everything is just more arenas for things to get blown out of context and out of proportion. That’s kind of where we’re at. I would say he’s learning. But he’s learning at the big league level. Everybody has something to say about it.”

Through a combination of media hype foisted upon him and multiple endorsements and appearances of his own choosing, Harper has become perhaps the most visible player in the game. His commercials — including one produced by MLB that refers to him as “already a legend” — appear not only in living rooms, but also on clubhouse televisions and stadium video boards. Players, teammates and opponents alike, notice. He is judged within the game by a different standard, another weight plopped across his shoulders. Did he help put it there? Yes. Is it a burden unique to him? Again, yes.

Try, for a moment, to strip away all the commercials and controversy, the hype and hysterics. What if Harper had emerged in the major leagues, at 19, without a Sports Illustrated cover three years earlier, an unprecedented decision to enter the draft at 17 and a not-insignificant cannon of on-field controversies in the minors and college? What remains is an historic player and the Nationals’ engine.

Since 1900, just three players produced more wins above replacement (WAR) — the catch-all metric FanGraphs.com uses to measure a player’s total contribution — before turning 21 than Harper: Mel Ott, Ty Cobb and Al Kaline. He is only a month into his age-21 season, and still just 18 players since 1900 produced more WAR before the age of 22 than him.

Among contemporaries, Harper’s performance does not match his stardom, but he is still one of the Nationals’ best hitters and a star-level player. Since 2012, Harper is one of 35 players to notch at least eight WAR. Only shortstop Ian Desmond has been better among Nationals position players. From strictly an offensive perspective, only Werth has been more productive. He is second on the Nationals to Werth in both on-base percentage (.353) and slugging (.476) since his arrival. He may not be Mike Trout — nobody else is — but he has been excellent.

The road back

The shame of Harper’s slide into third base Friday night lay in timing: He had just started to find his swing, a process complicated by his knee injury. Late last season, Harper changed his swing to accommodate the bursitis in his left knee. He held his hands lower and opened his hips sooner. Typically, Harper would have started to recapture his swing Dec. 1. Because of rehab for his knee, he did not start hitting until late January.

By the time he arrived at spring training, he was still searching. He started the regular season 3 for 21 with 10 strikeouts and vowed to call his dad for advice. Sure enough, he worked out of his funk. He raised his hands, and the bat closely followed his hip turn. In his past 65 plate appearances, he drew seven walks and whacked 20 hits, seven for extra bases. Days before his injury, he told one confidante, “I feel like myself again.”

He will need to hold that feeling, without swinging a bat, for the next two months and another round of rehab. Steve Shin of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic, who performed the same operation for Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton, laid out Harper’s course.

Harper will wear a splint for seven to 10 days. A doctor will remove the splint in order to take out stitches, then replace it with a hard cast. Harper will wear that for three weeks. It will take one week for Harper to work up range of motion and release stiffness not just in the affected joint, but also the rest of his hand, his elbow and even his shoulder. Four weeks from surgery, he can start swinging a fungo bat. At six weeks, he could play in a minor league game.

Because Harper suffered a similar injury in high school, Shin said, doctors may be more cautious and keep Harper in a cast an extra week. That could delay his return to around the all-star break. But, Shin said, once Harper returns, he should not need to worry about playing like himself.

“People like these high-level players tend to come back at a high level, just like they were before,” Shin said. “There may be residual stiffness, but nothing that really impedes their baseball activities.”

Harper can only wait and heal. “When you’re on the DL, you’re on a lonely island,” Werth said. “It’s like you’ve got the plague. No one wants to really look at you, acknowledge the fact that you’re on the DL. It’s no place anybody wants to be. That’s anybody. It’s not a good place to be.”

While his absence will undoubtedly hurt the Nationals, the lonely island may not be the worst place for Harper. The swirl around him will subside. His surgically repaired knee and the surrounding muscles — like the sore quad that held him out one game — will have more time to heal.

Another chapter in his rapid-fire career will close when he returns. He will still be just 21, a would-be college junior. Two years can feel like forever for an athlete of Harper’s stature. It’s not. When Harper comes back, the possibilities will still be just as grand.

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