Nationals’ Bryce Harper still on path to be a superstar despite his youthful indiscretions


Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper looks on from the dugout during a baseball game against the New York Mets, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, in Washington. The Mets won 11-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass/AP)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 1, 2013

On Sunday afternoon, several hours before the Washington Nationals’ nationally televised game with the Mets, Manager Davey Johnson called Bryce Harper into his office for one of his rare office chats. Johnson is a teaser and teacher, not a preacher. But sometimes he boils down 50 years in the game to a few words.

“Are you having fun?

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

“You can’t let other people control how you feel. Criticism, advice, too much of it is worse than none at all. It’s not one thing. It’s a million things, and it all takes your focus off the game,” said Johnson, 70 to Bryce’s 20. “Don’t let anything interfere with your love of the game.”

Whether managing Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Cal Ripken or playing with Hank Aaron, Johnson has stood at arm’s length from those who never lost their focus on their own talent or their passion for the sport. As he retires this year, that dual goal is all he wishes for Harper. But Davey worries. Harper, in a generation of hype-cubed social-media-addled infant stars, has all the potential in the world but all the distractions, too. And Harper generates some of those distractions himself, often for little reason.

How will that story, almost a parable, turn out?

As a symbol of the constant dissonance around Harper, this probably wasn’t the perfect week for his agent to discuss a 12-year-contract for a young star. Scott Boras never mentioned Harper’s name Tuesday, but everybody knew he was talking about Harper as he stood in the Nationals Park box seats. And everybody knew the general price range, too — the biggest guaranteed deal ever, maybe $300 million.

“That’s the last thing he needs,” Johnson said of such contract talk.

But this may be an ideal week to think about how good or bad such a deal might be if the Nats ever gave one to their 20-year-old headline machine.

This week was fairly typical in the outsized world of Harper. He probably made too much news for his own good, talked and tweeted a little too much. On Friday, he also made one very conspicuous mistake on the field. He jogged to first base, frustrated by his routine groundball to second base, and failed to hustle on the most important play of a one-run game.

“That’s just him,” said coach Randy Knorr, who was acting as manager that night. “He’s just 20, and sometimes he just pouts. . . . I don’t know why. That’s the thing about him. You can’t be this guy who says you’re going to play hard every time out and then not do it. You can’t do that. He’ll learn that. He’ll get better with it. . . . He’s still a kid, and sometimes kids pout if things don’t go their way.”

That criticism resonated because Knorr is one of the logical candidates to be Nats’ manager in ’14 but also because Knorr became the first person in the franchise to point out the gap between Harper’s many commercials, which paint him as an always hustling five-tool Pete Rose, and the reality of the gimpy Harper of ’13 who doesn’t always run full bore. Since smashing into the Dodger Stadium scoreboard in May, Harper has played through a sore knee that may need minor offseason surgery to remove a bursa sac and has even been told by Johnson “don’t kill yourself running.”

Harper responded to the criticism — and the mocking of Mets announcers — by hustling far too much the next night, getting thrown out trying to stretch a double into a pointless triple with the Nats nine runs behind. After knocking his own hat off, Harper slid headfirst into third. Eye-catching. But “out.”

In midweek, Harper admonished Washington fans to come to Nats games in larger numbers, make as much noise as they did early in the year and reminded them that “they’ve got all winter to watch RGIII.”

On Saturday, he tweeted, “I love this kid! #JohnnyFootball @JManziel2.” Within an hour, Manziel, also 20, made a sequence of unsportsmanlike gestures that showed again why many people assume the Texas A&M quarterback is a jerk despite his Heisman Trophy.

All in all, Harper acted his age, constantly called attention to himself, drew criticism from Knorr, who might be his manager next year, and gave a headache to Johnson as the desperate Nats lost a series to the Mets.

Less noted, Harper also continued a recent hot streak. He has hit .357 in his last 15 games and raised his slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS toward the top 10 in the National League, where his name will start to appear in about a week when he has enough plate appearances to qualify.

Over his past 162 games, he has hit 33 homers and scored 110 runs with an .884 OPS, which would tie him for 15th among all active players.

In other words, in any data sample big enough to weigh, his career development lies somewhere between excellent and spectacular. Looking at ’13 alone, Harper has improved to the point that, while he doesn’t touch Mike Trout, he does compare to most of the game’s greatest young players when they were 21. Not all. Not Mel Ott or Ty Cobb or a couple of others.

But Harper can spot a year to Mickey Mantle, Miguel Cabrera, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Conigliaro, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson; his offensive baseline at age 20 matches up with theirs at 21. With one asterisk. Harper has missed more than a month of games because he crashed into the Dodgers’ outfield scoreboard. Most of them stayed healthy. Will he?

Baseball has one convenient and fairly accurate catch-all stat — OPS+ — which is OPS adjusted for home ballpark and the level of offense within baseball in that era. At 21, Griffey, Mantle, Aaron, Robinson, Cabrera and Conigliaro had OPS+ of 155, 144, 141, 135, 130 and 122. Harper’s OPS+ this year is 144 — or an OPS that is 44 percent higher than the average big leaguer in 2013, adjusted slightly for playing in Nationals Park.

“What Bryce has gone through this year is typical of young stars,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you’ll see him swing too hard. ‘Live up to the press.’ Or ‘I’m gonna show ’em I’m going to run hard.’ So he gets thrown out at third when we’re nine runs down.

“I told him today, ‘You can’t do that.’ But, of course, he already knows it.

“Young players with great talent have so many outside influences. I’ve always been very protective of them — Dwight, Straw. But it’s even worse than ever on them now. I cut him some slack.”

Probably a good idea.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell .

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