The ball was hit at just the right trajectory to cause problems. It should have been a standard F8 settled under early and caught with relative ease in left-center field, but it was hit at just the right trajectory. The centerfielder raced to his right and Harper raced to his left. The centerfield held out his hand as a sign that Harper should stop as he settled to where the ball should soon come to rest in his glove, but the ball hung up, and then the sun played its first trick. The centerfielder threw his hands in the air giving the universal sign for, “I lost it.” Harper started to come in for the ball, but soon the centerfielder recovered and relocated the ball and called Harper off again. As soon as the centerfielder resettled he again threw his hands in the air and Harper ran in for the ball. By this time it was too late to settle under it for the routine catch and Harper stabbed at it like a line drive. The ball nicked off his glove and fell harmfully to the ground as the batter raced around first on his way to second.
Roaming the outfield is not Bryce Harper’s natural habitat. Harper still has trouble reading the ball off the bat and sometimes ends up taking bad routes on balls. The missed catch with the sun playing tricks wasn’t Harper’s only missed catch in the three games I watched him play. When someone sees Harper on the baseball field they are seeing him where he belongs. He has the work ethic and the dedication to learn the outfield. It is hard to miss Harper’s big truck in the players’ parking lot, and it is always one of the first vehicles parked. He is committed to making himself the best baseball player he can be, and if learning the outfield is the last step before the majors then Harper is going to learn the outfield.
Harper’s home on a baseball field though is in the batter’s box. He stands with the bat ready and then lowers it. Steps out of the box for a practice swing, steps back in, taps three corners of the plate and the instep of each shoe with his extra large bat. Then Harper turns his icy reptilian gaze to the pitcher. The pitcher is the prey and Harper wants him to know it. Harper is not an ambush predator. He announces his presence and looms large even as a prospect. His name is so well known among baseball fans there are people that go to the game solely to try and get Bryce Harper’s autograph, but tired of the money grubbing autograph hounds Harper is only signing for kids. Harper is guaranteed to be in the big leagues at some point. The pitchers he faces are not. Harper is already a big name and is going to get their best stuff.
Bryce Harper was a big name before he even graduated from high school. After hitting a baseball off the outfield scoreboard at Tropicana Field Harper became a YouTube sensation, and at the age of 15 was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as, “Baseball’s LeBron.” The expectations for Bryce Harper are high, and he has yet to disappoint. Last season Harper was allowed to be on the Scottsdale Scorpions as a taxi squad member. This season he is a full time player, and every day he takes his position in left field. In 24 games Harper is batting .322/.392/.611. What makes this even more amazing is that for the first week and a half Harper struggled to bat over .200. Harper has gotten off to a slow start at every level he has played at, but as he grows familiar and comfortable he becomes unstoppable.
The baseball world knows who Bryce Harper is, and he is certain to get the best stuff of any pitcher he faces. Harper is the player circled in the batting order in red. The guy the pitcher can’t let beat him. The last at bat I saw Harper take might have been his best. It wasn’t the ringing double down the right field line, or the sharp RBI single I had seen earlier in the week, but it was a battle. The pitcher started Harper off with a change-up, and Harper swung like he was expecting first pitch fastball. A swing and a miss, strike one. The pitcher came back with a slider that nipped the outside corner of the plate, strike two. Then Harper set his feet and wasn’t going to let another strike past him. The pitcher wasted a pitch low and outside. Harper identified the pitch and let it go by for ball one. The next two pitches were strikes and ended up as souvenirs as Harper fouled them off. After another ball Harper fouled off more pitches. Waiting for the pitcher to give in or willing to take what the pitcher gave him. The pitcher wouldn’t give in and Harper never got the pitch he was looking for, but he took his base after ball four passed by. Harper is a predator in the batter’s box, and like any good predator he is willing to wait for the prey to make the mistake.
Whether Harper is joking with the bullpen from left field, intimidating pitchers in the batter’s box, or just going through warm ups his relaxed and easy going manner make it clear that Harper is at home on the baseball field. It is where he belongs and where he wants to be. Harper is comfortable when on a baseball field. He stops and signs for kids before games, but only kids. He even took time to run out of the dugout in Surprise moments before first pitch to hand a ball to a young Scorpions fan in the front row. The young fan that ended up with the ball made no mention of wanting one or asked Harper to do it. It was something Harper did on his own, but Harper has developed the reputation of a standoffish player who is immature and full of himself. Most if not all of this is narrative.
Take for instance the gentleman that sat behind me at Salt River Fields. Even in a game between the Salt River Rafters and the Mesa Solar Sox Harper was the talk of the evening. He mentioned how he was at the Scottsdale/Phoenix game earlier in the day and Harper ran on the bus right after the game. Ignoring the fans gathered for his autograph. Harper will sign for kids, but he won’t sign for creepy middle-aged men that wait by the team bus to harass him and turn a quick buck on eBay. One of the other men seated near us happened to be the PA announcer for the Scorpions and he tells this gentleman that. Harper will sign for kids before and after the game on the field.
It is clear that Bryce Harper is already a star in the game of baseball, and lot of expectations have been laid at his feet. Franchises are now more dependent than ever on top prospects. Players like Harper, Mike Trout, and Brandon Crawford are household names before they even step on a Major League field. This is the first time I have seen Harper locked in, and it is different. When I saw him at Hagerstown he was in the midst of a short ten AB slump, and when I saw him at Harrisburg it was when he first came up and was still adjusting to the league. By the time I reached the AFL Harper had adjusted and was locked in. When Harper stepped into the batter’s box there was an air about him that said to the pitcher, “I own you.” When Harper did make an out it was either on a borderline strike three call or a hard hit ball at a fielder.
Harper might need to work on his outfield defense, but that won’t keep him out of the majors. Davey Johnson has already said he is open to the possibility of Harper coming north with the Nats after Spring Training. In order for that to happen Harper is going to have to be among the best batters for the Nationals this coming spring, and make it obvious that he can help the Nats achieve their first playoff run in 2012. The way Harper looked in the AFL—oozing confidence, short compact swing, excellent pitch recognition—it might be a real possibility. If Harper has proved anything in his short time as a pro-ballplayer it is not to underestimate him, and to count on him living up to or exceeding expectations. Harper’s home is the baseball field and he has the talent, confidence, and work ethic to take up residents on a Major League field shortly. Whether that is Opening Day 2012, after the Super 2 deadline, or as a September call-up is up to the bat of Bryce Harper.