WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- This is the season. Yes, maybe we have said that before. Maybe we thought it would be last season, or two seasons ago. But that's OK. This is the season.
This is the year Bryce Harper makes his case for the best player in baseball.
This has not been the focus surrounding Harper this Spring Training. No, everyone wants to speculate about 2019, about where he will go in free agency. But Harper doesn't want to talk about any of that. He really doesn't want to talk much at all. The focus is overwhelming. This is the year, you can just feel it. This is the year that Harper stays healthy and blows America's mind.
Harper sparks different emotions. You might say, "No, wait, Bryce Harper has already made his push for best player in the game. In 2015, he had a season for the ages, he hit .330/.460/.649, led the National League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers and runs and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award unanimously. That's the stuff of legends." And it is.
But that was three years ago. And here's the thing: I think he has something even better in him. Then, you might say: "Enough of the Bryce Harper hype. Yes, he had one great season -- so did Josh Hamilton, Ken Caminiti, Mo Vaughn … heck, Juan Gonzalez had two MVP seasons. Harper has not stayed healthy enough to have another great season; he has not proven he can stay healthy." And this is true, too. The health thing has been a huge issue.
But this is the year. I can just feel it.
Harper has spent a lifetime preparing to be baseball's best player. You could say the same about most of the great players in the game, but Harper has his own unique version of the story. He was recruited for a travel baseball team when he was 7. At age 12, while playing in a tournament in Alabama with a 250-foot fence, he went 12-for-12 with 11 home runs. At 15, he hit the famous 570-foot home run in a Hollywood tournament and placed himself squarely in the national spotlight. At 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated next to the words "Baseball's Chosen One."
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Yes, Harper was the first pick in the 2010 Draft. There are scouts who say that if you put every drafted player into one pool -- Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Stephen Strasburg, all of them -- Harper would still be the No. 1 pick. And this is the prism by which everyone -- Harper included -- looks at Harper's career.
It is this background, this unlimited promise, that creates such divergent opinions about Harper. He won an MVP Award with a dazzling season (and he might have won his second, had he stayed healthy last year), he's a five-time All-Star and his 150 home runs rank him 13th on the all-time list through age 24. So to say that there has been a tinge of disappointment with Harper's early career seems unfair.
But there has been a tinge of disappointment with Harper's early career. His rough-and-tumble play has landed him on the disabled list and, just as significant, created long stretches of time when he is clearly hampered on the field. He refused to make excuses, but it's clear that he just wasn't right the entire 2016 season. You know the Nationals are aware of this when you hear new manager Dave Martinez talk about how one of Harper's realistic goals in 2018 is to win his first NL Gold Glove Award, but quickly adds "without running into walls."
The Nats really don't want Harper running into walls.
Harper has been an incredible April player. For his career in April, he has hit .322 and slugged .638, far and away his best numbers for any month. This is unusual. April tends to be a sluggish month for hitters. Hall of Famer George Brett, who shared many of Harper's all-out instincts for the game, is illustrative. He was a famously terrible April hitter -- he hit .300-plus every other month, but managed just a .264 average in April. Year after year, April is the poorest hitting month -- a stat usually attributed to the weather and the old trope that pitchers usually begin the year ahead of hitters.
But not Harper. Why? Is it because Harper works harder in the offseason to prepare? Probably. Is it because Harper's hitting clock is always calibrated? Sure. But it's also probably because in April, Harper is healthy. His body has not yet worn down.
So that's the key -- finding a way to keep Harper healthy. The question is: Can Harper tame his play somewhat so that he's not, say, running into walls, but still maintain the intensity level that makes him such a special player? More than one baseball historian has brought up the case of Pete Reiser, who as a 22-year-old in Brooklyn in 1941 led the National League in average, slugging, runs, doubles, triples and finished second in MVP voting. Reiser had his career interrupted by World War II, which was probably the biggest factor, but he was also famous for his all-out play (he ran into lots of walls), and he dealt with countless injuries that prevented him from becoming an all-time great player.
Harper is working hard to prepare for a healthy season, another reason why I think this is the year.
"His work ethic is unbelievable," Martinez said. "I mean, all aspects of the game, he competes every day."
What would a Harper super-season look like? Well, you begin with what he did in his MVP year. But Harper is even stronger now, his confidence -- never a problem -- is at an all-time high, and the world will be watching closely. For some, the pressure of leading into perhaps the most anticipated free agency in baseball history would be overwhelming. But as one baseball executive said, "Bryce thrives on pressure. It's what he has lived for all his life. He has been dealing with it since he was a teenager."
I asked five baseball executives what they expect to see from Harper this year. All five say more or less the same thing: If he stays healthy, he will put up MVP numbers. Michael Trout has been the best player in the game for a few years now, and you expect him to stay on top for a while longer. I think this is the year Harper takes a run at the title.