Nothing about Bryce Harper’s baseball career has been routine. After years of surpassing older opponents, he left Las Vegas High after his sophomore year, earned his GED and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada so that he could be eligible for the 2010 Major League Baseball draft, in which he became the much-hyped first overall pick at age 17. In 2012, Harper powered the Washington Nationals to their first playoff berth and earned National League rookie of the year honors. He was still just 19.
That rapid trajectory was slowed by injury-shortened seasons in 2013 and 2014. Finally healthy for a complete season in 2015, Harper matured into a complete player, blazing a path to a record-setting season that culminated Thursday, when he became the youngest player unanimously voted MVP.
In balloting done before the start of the playoffs and announced Thursday night, the Nationals’ superstar outfielder beat out fellow finalists Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, both first basemen. Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson was named the American League’s MVP, beating out last year’s winner, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.
“Going into this year, all I wanted to do was stay healthy and stay on the field every single day I could,” Harper said on a conference call with reporters after winning the award. “I knew if I could do that I’d be winning this award at the end of the year. Just having the opportunity to play every single day was a lot of fun this year.”
Three years ago, Harper was the first National to be named rookie of the year. Now he is also the first player from the Nationals/Montreal Expos franchise to be named MVP. He also ended a 90-year drought for the city: Roger Peckinpaugh, in 1925 with the AL’s Senators, was the last Washington baseball player to win a league MVP award and even that under a quite different voting system. Only Stan Musial (1943), Johnny Bench (1970) and Vida Blue (1971) were younger MVP winners than Harper was in his age 22 season.
“It’s always ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” Harper said. “I knew I could do this. . . . A lot of people know how I was growing up. The expectations, being who I am, not really into looking at what other people are doing or what fans of other teams think or anything else. I just want to do what I do on a daily basis.”
The Nationals’ once-promising 2015 was filled with troubles and disappointment but not because of Harper. In his fourth season in the majors, Harper sat atop many major offensive categories. He produced a .330 batting average, reached base 46 percent of the time and smashed his hits to the tune of a .649 slugging percentage — all single-season team records. He also set career highs in home runs (42), runs (118), walks (124), RBI (99) and, perhaps most importantly, games played (153).
“A lot of the stuff he had early in his career are things he couldn’t play through, like running into the wall and that stuff,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said by phone Thursday morning. “He learned how to play the game a little bit smarter.”
Harper began spring training with his usual bravado. When the Nationals signed former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract in the winter, a move that made them preseason World Series favorites, Harper asked himself, “Where’s my ring?” But his season was filled with signs of growth. There were still a handful of ejections for arguing calls, but he was calmer at the plate. He was involved in a fight with teammate Jonathan Papelbon near the end of the season, but some viewed the olive branch offered by Harper in a recent offseason phone call to Papelbon as a sign of his emerging leadership.
For help in his development, particularly this season, Harper credited, among others, former manager Matt Williams for helping him improve offensively; Jayson Werth for help in his transition from college catcher to a top right fielder (“He’s like a brother to me.”); Ian Desmond for his counsel (“I respect Desi more than anybody.”); and General Manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family for drafting him and giving him a chance to play in the majors.
“I can’t thank my teammates enough for having my back all year long and teaching me the way,” Harper said.
Dissected in any way — hitting with two strikes, with runners in scoring position, bases empty — Harper excelled. But what stood out most was his consistency. His slumps were brief. He produced at least a .286 average and .909 OPS in each month. While many of his everyday teammates were hurt and others struggled, Harper shone.
“This guy carried us throughout the whole season,” Rizzo said. “The hitters around him were dropping like flies, and this guy was the cornerstone of an offense that every team we played circled his name and said, ‘This guy’s not gonna beat us.’ And with that said, he beat a lot of teams.”
Harper authored many memorable and stunning moments, shattering Nationals records along the way. He homered six times in a three-game span in May that included a three-homer performance in one game and a walk-off shot in another. He hit 13 homers overall in that month and 10 in September. He twice had four-walk games, including a September showing in which he scored four times and drove in a run without a single swing. He beat defensive shifts by flicking balls to left field and frustrated pitchers by constantly spitting on close pitches.
“All I want to do is win ballgames. I want to win a World Series, and I always know you can get better every single day, and that’s what I want to do,” Harper said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to be the best I can.”