Thursday afternoon in Denver, Bryce Harper stood in against Rafael Betancourt in the top of the ninth. Two pitches into the inning, the Nationals were still trailing the Rockies by a run, and three pitches into the inning, the Nationals were trailing no more. Harper slammed a low off-speed pitch to right-center field, watched it for just a split second, and then began moving around the bases. Harper's home-run trot isn't a sprint, like when David Eckstein would draw a walk, but it's like someone at a high school cross-country meet who starts out too fast. Harper continued around first, second, third, he stepped on home plate, he gave a brief wave to family in the stands, and he returned to the dugout. Bryce Harper hit an ordinary home run and the game proceeded all even.
Bryce Harper made his major-league debut on April 28, in Los Angeles. It was a Saturday night, with listed attendance well beyond 50,000, and when Harper was announced before his first plate appearance, he was booed. I don't know how many people were booing him, but the number was high enough to drown out the rest of the crowd. Harper was booed not because of anything he'd ever done to the Dodgers, because he'd never done anything to the Dodgers. He'd never done anything to anyone in the majors leagues. He couldn't have. He was booed preemptively. He was booed because of what people figured he would be.
It's not often a visiting rookie gets widespread acknowledgment in another stadium, but it was impossible for any baseball fan to not know about Bryce Harper, and it was accordingly impossible to not know the stories. The stories that made Harper out to be some kind of monster, a guy that fans would love to hate for the next 15 or 20 or 25 years. Harper was booed because of what the Los Angeles fans had heard, and they'd heard some ugly things.
Kevin Goldstein wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus about Harper in April 2010. He spoke to a number of industry sources, and one section of his writeup got more attention than the rest. Quote:
[...] it's equally difficult to find one who doesn't genuinely dislike the kid. One scout called him among the worst amateur players he's ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents. "He's just a bad, bad guy," said one front-office official. "He's basically the anti-Joe Mauer."
That section didn't stand out because it provided new information -- it stood out because it helped to confirm what many already thought. Later on, of course, Harper would have his incidents, including one where he blew a kiss to an opposing pitcher. A Will Leitch article about Harper for GQ made the rounds a few months ago, and included within was:
As Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt put it: "I would think at some point the game itself, the competition on the field, is going to have to figure out a way to police this young man."
I'm flying through the background, because you don't need me to summarize it, because you already remember it. Bryce Harper very quickly developed a reputation, countless people supported or validated his reputation, and as he approached the majors, he was expected to be this singular phenomenon. He was, basically, supposed to be a talented shithead. Sort of like Barry Bonds, only maybe less talented, and more shitty. Or equally talented, I don't know. Harper was supposed to be a very good baseball player, and he was supposed to make people just instantly hate him for his behavior and personality.
It's June, and it's almost July. The original headline of this article was "When Is Bryce Harper Going To Act Like A Shithead?"
What people expected there to be, there hasn't been. Oh, no, that's not fair, there has been the talent. The extraordinary talent and the extraordinary hustle. Harper has shown unheard-of power for a 19-year-old, players around the league already know not to run on his arm, and as far as effort is concerned, while there's no giving more than 100 percent, Harper just keeps plowing into that boundary on every single play. In Bryce Harper's mind, 100 percent is a fence, and if he goes into it hard enough, he can bust through it. Nobody's ever given more than 100 percent, but Harper wants to be the first.
The rest, though? The ability was considered only a part of the whole Bryce Harper package, and the other part is nowhere to be found. He hasn't acted out, he hasn't showboated, he hasn't rubbed teammates the wrong way, and he hasn't rubbed opponents the wrong way. There was the whole Cole Hamels hit-by-pitch incident, but that was all on Hamels, and Harper couldn't have acted any more like a professional. He took the hit-by-pitch, he subsequently flew around the bases, and he emerged looking like the bigger and better man.
"Guys feed off that. That’s what gets him respect being a young guy — the way he plays. It’s not too much. It’s refreshing — refreshing to see a guy that young, with that much talent, play that hard."
"From a maturity perspective, from the first spring training to this spring training, it was night and day," Zimmerman said. "I think him playing in the minor leagues and getting a full year of professional baseball, being away from home and kind of out of his comfort zone, I think that helped him a lot."
As for showboating, I've pointed to the Tater Trot Tracker before. Larry Granillo measures how much time it takes each home-run hitter to round the bases. Bryce Harper has three of the five fastest home-run trots so far this season. He doesn't pose, he doesn't stand and watch -- he hits, and he runs. Bryce Harper has all the hustle you expect from the last guy on the bench, and all the ability you expect from a future Hall-of-Famer.
Bryce Harper has been a different sort of player since he emerged from the minors, but not because he's been this insufferable douche. More because he's done everything at max effort, like he's learned to channel all of his energy and aggression into the right avenues. Maybe that's what makes him douchey, I don't know. Maybe you're put off by how hard Harper plays the game. But then that's a silly thing to be put off by. In that instance I'd think you're just looking for a reason to hate Bryce Harper even though you don't have a good one.
Maybe Bryce Harper is going to slip, and maybe he'll still blossom into the hateable shithead he was projected to be. I can't tell the future. But so far, maybe the worst things Harper has done have been slamming a bat in a tunnel, flipping his helmet off while running the bases, or responding to a terrible question with a funny answer. There's just not a lot there to hate, relative to all that's there to enjoy. Was Bryce Harper a douchebag before? Almost certainly yes, at least at times. Is Bryce Harper a douchebag now? Maybe not so much, at least on the field. It's almost as if one's teen years are a period of significant personal growth.
Mike Trout has come up for the Angels and just blown away the expectations. Bryce Harper has come up for the Nationals and just blown away the expectations, in a different way. He seems to have matured, which from one perspective is just fantastic, and which from another perspective is kind of too bad. Who are we supposed to hate now?