Phenom to Flop? Too Early to Tell for Bryce Harper
Every season, sports have their share of “PHENOMS” and this year’s no exception. Baseball’s phenom this year is Bryce Harper, the 19 year old who made his MLB debut with Washington April 28th. Harper’s the youngest position player to come into MLB since Adrian Beltre in 1998. The youngster first came into the public’s national consciousness three years ago as the youngest baseball player ever to appear on the cover of SI. To many, that magazine cover set Harper up to fail more spectacularly and visibly than he would have otherwise. Now, three years later, in the Major League uniform of the Washington Nationals he’s the best hitter on a first place team. The 19 year old is living up to his hype. Harper’s presently hitting .303. He’s not simply holding his own – he’s dominating. Among players with at least 150 official at-bats Harper ranks 10th in the National League with a .933 OPS. In the last 40 years, the only 19-year-old to play regularly and hit at an above-average level was Ken Griffey.
Now comes the big question – can the youngster sustain this level of play? Baseball’s had its share of rookie phenom’s. Who remembers Kevin Maas? Maas was living the dream when he was the heir apparent to take over for New York Yankees star Don Mattingly at first base in 1990. Maas started with a big bang and by the end of his rookie season he had 21 home runs and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Fans were so thrilled that a group of young women, called the “MAAS TOPS,” would remove their shirts and jump up and down whenever the Hollywood-handsome slugger hit a homer. They were banned from Yankee Stadium and quickly enough the “MAAS MAGIC” was gone too. In 1991 he hit 23 homers, but struck out at an alarming rate and was no longer a full time big league player by 1992. Maas bounced around baseball a few more years, picking up a hefty $255 thousand dollars playing in Japan during the 1993 season. Last we heard he works as a financial consultant for Charles Schwab in California. America is a nation of optimists. Somewhere there’s a teenager who’s destined to be the “best” ever at their sport. Is he here now in the form of Bryce Harper? Many in the media believe Harper’s the real deal. A future super-star. I don’t believe that – yet.
I’ll enjoy the ride and wait till he goes around the league several more times. Make no mistake, ML pitchers learn quickly a hitter’s weakness. Every hitter has one. With 41 ML games under his belt Harper is simply in an unsustainable hot stretch. If he doesn’t cool down, level off by season’s end, he’ll have the greatest rookie season in baseball’s 126-year history. That would be great, but I don’t see it as a sure thing. Just because after 41 games it appears Harper’s an All-Star caliber ballplayer at age 19 doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to scale greater heights as he ages. If anything, by setting the bar so high at such a young age, he’s created such high expectations that he could become one of the signature players of his generation and still leave people wanting more. How many recall pitcher Kerry Wood striking out 20 Houston Astros in just his 5th Major League game? Sports writers gave Wood the “hype.” Last week he retired from baseball after playing 14 years. His pitching record, 86-75 with an 3.67 ERA. Not exactly Hall of Fame numbers.
Bryce Harper is 19 years old – he’s been in the Major Leagues for just six weeks – he’s accomplished almost nothing. He’s on a team leading their Division and he’s the team’s best hitter. That’s about all. Will Harper become the new “Mickey Mantle?” Or another Kevin Maas, a member of a select group of players who burst on the scene with brilliant play, and just as quickly fade to “obscurity?”
“Phenomenons,” like “comets,” can streak across the sky and disappear without much trace – let’s all remember, unfortunately “few sports phenoms have lived up to expectations.” That’s the sad truth