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With their second No. 1 overall pick in as many years, the Washington Nationals selected Bryce Harper, the latest possessor of one of sports’ most prematurely dubious distinctions: The Chosen One. The Harper pick comes on the heels of Washington’s selection of baseball’s former Chosen One, Stephen Strasburg.
In the past year, the ubiquitous NFL Draft moved to prime time television and further expanded to run the course of several days. Yesterday, the Major League Baseball Draft happened and you may not have noticed. Unlike it’s pigskin pal, the MLB Draft comes and goes with little pomp and even less pageantry. But after two behemoth number one selections in consecutive years, the MLB draft is finally gaining a spike in awareness as the Washington Nationals are not-so-quietly stocking their war chest. The Nats have added two can’t-miss kids in as many years, and Strasburg is already becoming a veritable star (See: 14 strikeouts in his major league debut against the Pirates on Tuesday). With seemingly insurmountable hype, can Harper follow suit?
Unlike Strasburg, a late bloomer who went undrafted out of High School, all eyes have been on Harper since before he even reached High School. His tale is a tall one, not unlike Paul Bunyan, only most of it is true. A Sports Illustrated profile from a year ago opened with an account of measuring a 570-foot home run that he belted as a 15-year-old. At 16, Harper launched the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, a place that hosts the likes of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez roughly ten times a year. The shot traveled an estimated 502 feet, but witnesses maintain it would have traveled farther had it not hit the back wall of the stadium. He’s been known to pick runners off from his knees behind the plate, reach the high 90’s on the radar gun as a pitcher, and launch rocket throws from the outfield, a position he will transition to from catcher in the pros.
In 2008, Harper had a .599 batting average with 11 home runs and 67 RBIs in 38 games for Las Vegas High School. He followed that up with a .626 batting average, 14 home runs and 55 RBIs the next season. He received his GED in December of 2009 for the sole purpose of turning pro as early as possible. High school pitchers had long stopped giving him anything to hit anyway.
Last winter he enrolled in Junior College, playing ball at the College of Southern Nevada. As a member of the Scenic West Athletic Conference, a wooden bat only league, Harper shattered every JuCo record imaginable. He hit 31 home runs, 98 RBI, while hitting .443/.526/.987 (AVG/OBP/SLG). His home run total destroyed the school’s previous record of 12, set with metal bats. He did it in 66 games, a fraction of an MLB season. In an understatement, he was named SWAC Player of the Year.
Leading his team to Western district finals, Bryce Harper continued to add to his legend, but for the first time, gave scouts something to worry about. His amateur career ended under suspension after he was ejected for the second time in the season after gesturing toward an umpire. Leading up to the controversial ejection, Harper was hitting at a torrid pace. In the Western district finals of the 2010 NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) World Series, Harper went 6-for-7 with 5 RBIs. Adding style points, he also hit for the cycle. In a double-header the next day he went 2-for-5 with a 3 RBIs in the first game, and in the second game went 6-for-6 with 4 home runs, a triple, and a double. Read those numbers again. Hitting with that frequency would be impressive for batting practice. Though his post season success seemed to all but guarantee a No. 1 selection, his suspension controversy still loomed.
Like everything with Harper, it was largely overblown, but the incident got enough attention for some to start whispering. For the many young athletes who find themselves in the driver’s seat on their journey to become the Next Best Thing, few actually make it there. It gets very difficult for potential suitors to measure what differentiates the failures from the successes. Something as simple as bad behavior could be enough to scare them away, but again, this is a 17-year-old we are talking about.
Consider the facts in each of his ejections. In the first, he was tossed for taunting the opponent. In his second, replay shows that he flicked dirt with his bat in the direction of the umpire after getting called out on strikes. Nobody knows what he said, but he did not linger and went back to the dugout. It was barely a scene. He has also been criticized for taking a bow after launching a great throw from the outfield. In fact, his behavior is something that could probably be captured on an MLB diamond on any given night.
When asked about the mini-controversy, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said:
“There is no concern about this player’s makeup. We are sold on him, the family and the character of the player. He acts like a 17-year-old at times. I don’t want to tell you about when I was 17. He is mature beyond his years as far as performance on the field, tools development and even his social skills.”
Rizzo continued to discuss the unparalleled pressure placed on Harper and defended his draft pick while dismissing what will hopefully be the last of any controversy with his potential superstar.
Obviously, time will tell. Think of some of the Can’t Miss Kids of years past. Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James lived up to and surpassed their great hype. Others like Todd Van Poppel and Greg Oden were less fortunate. We usually lean toward success with these prospects only because their previous performance has shown us nothing but success, after all, it’s what got them here in the first place.
While baseball is as mental game as there is, hitting a baseball is a unique talent. Where pitchers such as Strasburg have to combine talent with equal parts thinking and strategy, all Harper has to do is hit. Washington plans to immediately move him from catcher to outfield in order to increase his offensive development. At the root, hitting a baseball is about being able to see it. A player’s physical gifts dictate how far it will go. At 6’3″ and 205 pounds, Harper clearly has the size, his frequent success at the plate shows his vision is sharp, too. His only fault thus far (the suspension) seems to be a small one. Daryl Strawberry was a teenage phenom who started hot and succumbed to the excesses of stardom. Ken Griffey Jr., a 19-year-old rookie, will be in the Hall of Fame.
So where does Bryce Harper fit into all of this? Probably somewhere in the middle. Either way, he is good for sports and good for the resurgent DC sports scene. In Strasburg, Harper will find a teammate who knows exactly what the young player is going through. Their similarly hyped arrivals should motivate them toward friendly competition and provide a common ground most others cannot relate to. As Sports Illustrated noted, this is the equivalent of drafting LeBron James and Dwight Howard to the same team in consecutive years.
There isn’t a GM in the world who wouldn’t love that comparison.