There was Harper, who had never hit .275 or driven in 60 runs in a season, making news before he picked up a bat. He joined Scherzer on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He smacked a homer on opening day. He reached the All-Star Game, scored more runs and hit more home runs than anyone in the National League, and won his first MVP award.
And when the season ended, he turned 23.
For those reasons and more, Harper was baseball’s most impactful figure in 2015. It was, for him, the year hype met reality, the year he put the sport on notice that he’s as good as they said he would be, back when he first appeared on Sports Illustrated’s cover as a 16-year-old. Scarier, he might be better than that.
Having an impact, though, isn’t just about Harper’s .330 batting average, his .460 on-base percentage, his .649 slugging percentage or his 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage – the last of which has been exceeded just once in the previous 10 seasons, by Albert Pujols in 2008. Those are the numbers that made him not just the National League’s MVP winner, but a unanimous choice, first on all 30 ballots. They are the numbers that showed his impact on the field, where he stayed healthy enough to play a career-high 153 games, where he became an above-average – perhaps even exceptional – right fielder.
But in a way, Harper’s criticism-baiting “Where’s my ring?” opening salvo of 2015 shows his impact more, not just this season but going forward. Baseball is ruled by an odd code. Think back to Sunday afternoon, to all the celebration dances in all the end zones across the NFL. In other sports, it is standard practice to add some flair, to add personality.
In baseball, for generations, such flair has been frowned upon. Harper frowns upon those conventions, or at least dares to ask questions about them. When a baseball player hits a homer, puts his head down and jogs dutifully around the bases, he is said to be respecting the game.
Harper does that, for sure. But he also has a look-at-me element that can’t be denied. He had it from his first major-league hit, a double scalded off the base of the wall at Dodger Stadium, when he (purposefully?) shed the helmet from his head as he tore toward second base, unveiling a mane of hair for the breeze to whip through.
So this year, when the Nationals hosted the world champion San Francisco Giants on the Fourth of July, why wouldn’t Harper head to the plate against World Series hero Madison Bumgarner carrying a bat decorated with stars, stripes and the District skyline? He used it to drill a two-run homer to straightaway center. Flair.
Stuff like that helped the on-field version of Harper catch up to the marketing machine that had preceded such prolific success. A preseason poll of MLB players, taken by ESPN, declared Harper the most overrated player in the game, drawing 41 percent of the vote – nearly three times as many as the next most “popular” recipient. Before he was old enough to drink, Harper had endorsement deals with Under Armour and Geico, with Gatorade and Toyota.
Again, this prickled those protectors of the code. Who is he? He hasn’t earned it.
But Harper sees these things in a big-picture sort of way, one which adds to his impact not just in 2015, but beyond.
“I want to change the nobody being with Gatorade or nobody being with high-profile companies like Under Armour or Nike or something like that, or being with a big brand in fashion or something like that,” he told me for a story in July, prior to the All-Star Game. “You look at all the other sports – football, basketball, soccer – they all have it. Baseball didn’t have that.”
That’s a real impact, trying to have a hand in the way baseball players are marketed, in how much they’re recognized.
But none of that would matter if the on-field portion didn’t catch up. It did this season. “Where’s my ring?” became part of the Nationals’ 2015 epitaph, a mocking reference to expectations unfulfilled. Harper uttered the words, but he didn’t let down with his play. With Kris Bryant and Mike Trout and Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor and Manny Machado and Corey Seager – and on and on – all stars who played last year age 24 and under, baseball has a future defined by its current youth. Bryce Harper is leading the way, on and off the field.
Other potential candidates for baseball’s Figure of the Year:
Rob Manfred, commissioner: Manfred took over for the retiring Bud Selig in February, and he instantly made his willingness for change known. He suggested baseball could eliminate defensive shifts. He suggested the season might be better at 154 games than 162. He suggested baseball might benefit by using pitch clocks to speed the game up. None of those things has happened, but the openness to change was duly noted throughout the sport. Manfred’s importance will likely increase in 2016, after which the current collective bargaining agreement retires.
Ned Yost, Royals manager: It wasn’t long ago that he was either being mocked for his moves or close to losing his job – or both. But Yost now has won back-to-back pennants and a World Series by both adhering to what he believes in and being willing to alter his methods. Yost took a roster assembled by General Manager Dayton Moore – tailored for wide-open Kauffman Stadium – and played to his team’s strengths. In an era when hitters are comfortable striking out, the Royals made contact. In an era when starting pitchers get paid, the Royals won with their bullpen. In an era when managers sometimes have to teach fundamentals in the majors, the Royals defended like a group of Gold Glovers.
The Washington Post’s Sports Figures of the Year