What if he weren't Bryce Harper?
Let's pretend for a moment that his name isn't Bryce Harper. Let's call him Glenn Strider instead. I once started writing a baseball novel, and it was absolutely terrible, and there's nothing worth saving from it ... except my protagonist was a ballplayer named Glenn Strider, and I think that's a pretty good baseball name.
All the numbers in here are actual Bryce Harper numbers.
Glenn Strider is not a prodigy like Bryce Harper. He is, well, let's make him from South Euclid, Ohio, like Steve Stone and a certain writer. Let's say he was a good baseball player at Brush High School, good enough that scouts came to see him play. He's a big guy, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and he has immense power, and a couple of those scouts fall in love with him. They plead with their scouting directors to take a look at the kid.
So the national crosscheckers come in ... and they have mixed views. The kid definitely has power, and he's a good athlete, and everybody says he has a good attitude. But he's inexperienced (he's better known at the school as a football player), and there's some question about how he well he will age, and a couple of crosscheckers think he's a little bit of a showboat, and they don't like that.
The San Diego Padres take Strider in the ninth round.
And once he's in the organization, they realize: The kid's got something. He's so mature for his age. They start him in Class A ball (though some in the organization protest that it's too much too soon) and he hits .318/.423/.554, stealing 19 bases (whoa, he's faster than we thought!) and bashing 14 home runs (that power is real!).
So they move him up to Class AA, where he holds his own for 37 games, but not much more -- he hits .256/.329/.395. Still, that's pretty good for a kid who isn't even 19, but many say the team is being rash when they send him to the Arizona Fall League. But he slugs .634 in the AFL and now this guy's a major prospect.
He's so good in spring training the next year that the Padres send him to Class AAA, where he struggles for three weeks -- hitting .243/.325/.365. Then someone in the organization has a crazy idea: Let's just bring the kid to the big leagues right now! Why not, right? The Padres aren't doing much of anything anyway. Strider is so mature, he should be able to handle the big stage. Several people in the organization shout about it being too soon, but in the end they call him up (after making sure they have an extra year of control).
And the hunch is right. Strider turns out to be very good. He hits .270/.340/.477 with 22 homers and 18 steals. For a 19-year-old kid, it's truly great stuff. Several stories come out about the history of terrific 19-year-olds and where he places in that pantheon. Does he win Rookie of the Year? No, probably not. In our other universe, Bryce Harper does win it, but I imagine Glenn Strider for the Padres would have finished second in the voting to Wade Miley; he might even have finished third behind Todd Frazier. But that doesn't take away from the excitement about the guy.
The next year, Strider gets off to a crazy hot start -- for a month, the kid is the talk of baseball. At the end of April, he's hitting .344 with nine home runs. Who does that? There are all kinds of stories about the crazy phenom that is Glenn Strider. People travel to South Euclid to learn about his past.
Only then, he spirals into a nasty slump. Then he gets hurt. After being out a month, he hits .266 with eight home runs the rest of the season.
And, just like that, people forget all about Glenn Strider.
He gets hurt again the next year ("Is Glenn Strider Brittle?" the headlines read) and he has a pretty dismal season -- 1.1 WAR. Talk radio hosts talk about how Glenn Strider will never live up to the potential he flashed that first month of 2013. Some people in San Diego want him traded. There are others who don't like Strider's attitude; they think he's gone Hollywood.
"Why don't you wait until you've actually done something great, Glenn Strider!" they shout on First Take.
Then in 2015, Glenn Strider does something great -- he has a season for the ages, a Ted Williams kind of season. He hits .330/.460/.649 with a league-leading 42 homers and 118 runs scored. It's such a good season that, even though the Padres finished fourth in the NL West, Strider has to be the MVP. Right? Some people argue against him. They say that the numbers, while impressive overall, were inevitably meaningless because the Padres never contended. There was a whole bunch of statistical padding. One Internet story goes viral by pointing out that Strider hit just .245 and slugged just .459 in high-leverage situations. He hit just .226 in late-and-close situations.
One unnamed baseball executive said that he wouldn't want Strider on his team. "He's not the player I'd want at the plate with the game on the line," he says.
"Does Glenn Strider Choke?" Is the headline of a well-rounded and in-depth story on FanGraphs (the story concludes that, no, he does not choke).
After 2015, everybody is ready to see what Glenn Strider will do as a follow-up in 2016 -- he's on the cover of the preseason baseball magazines, he's the talk of spring training, there's a big Sports Illustrated story called, "Glenn Strider Chases Ghosts," about how he wants to be an all-time Great. There are several rumors about the Padres dealing him for a load of prospects. But they keep him, and he homers on Opening Day. The first three weeks, he goes crazy -- he hits nine homers in his first 18 games. OK, this guy is for real!
Only, he isn't. From April 27 to the end of the season, he hits .231 and slugs .382. His power is entirely gone. He slumps like Roy Hobbs while dating Memo. He plays subpar defense. A penetrating profile is written about the intense pressure he feels. It suggests he also might be hurt, something he denies. His critics gleefully emerge with all the I-told-you-sos -- they say the Padres blew it by not trading him after his fluke 2015 season, and now it is too late.
Strider is determined to shut those critics up. Again in 2017, he gets off to an insane starts -- at the end of April he's hitting .391 with, yes, nine home runs. He always seems to hit nine home runs in April. He slows down significantly in May and June, like always, but not as much as in the past -- he's still hitting .325 and slugging .590 at the All-Star Break. This is Strider more or less like he was in 2015 again. He's the leading candidate for MVP.
And then he gets hurt on Aug. 12 and misses pretty much the rest of the season.
"Glenn Strider can't stay healthy" becomes the new cry of the critics.
There's immense pressure on the Padres to trade Strider during the offseason, because he's entering his last year of control -- but they don't want to deal him after an injury-plagued season. Plus they believe themselves to be contenders. So they hold on to him, and stories come out about how Glenn Strider is about to blow everybody's mind with his 2018, contract-walk season. Strider hits four homers in his first five games.
And then it all falls apart -- more than it ever had before. He hits .201 for his next 81 games. He plays such abysmal defense that several publications write stories about it. Pitchers no longer respect his bat speed and just fire fastballs by him. He strikes out at least once in 11 consecutive games, the longest streak of his career. Three days later, he starts another streak, whiffing at least once in 16 straight games.
The Padres fall out of contention ... and Strider mostly puts it back together again. From late July through the end of the season, he hits .300 and slugs .500, though his home runs are down. The end of the season rate stats are fine, but not especially pretty -- .249/.393/.496 and a 1.3 WAR. He does lead the league with 130 walks. Some critics say this reveals a shocking lack of aggression at the plate.
And then Glenn Strider becomes a free agent.
Now, you tell me: What does that player get on the open market? He's 26. He has won an MVP and put up 1 3/4 amazing seasons. He's coming off an inexplicably bad season. Who is the real Glenn Strider?
Who is the real Bryce Harper?
I put up a poll on Twitter asking a simple question:
As of right now, more than 50% of the voters thinking that Harper will win one or more MVP awards, and only 9% think he's will not be an MVP candidate. My vote would have been with the majority -- I see one, maybe more than one MVP award in his future.
But, let's be honest, I vote that way because I WANT Bryce Harper to be great, have wanted it ever since I heard about how he idolized Mickey Mantle, wanted it ever since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 15, wanted it because he's BRYCE BLEEPING HARPER, the guy with the talent to change everything.
And if his name were Glenn Strider, and he'd come out of nowhere, and there was no compelling story to go along with it? Doing it that way might clarify what's really happening. Bryce Harper has been an MVP candidate ONE TIME in his seven-year career (he would have been in 2017, but after the injury he got only a few down-ballot votes). He's had three sub-2.0 WAR seasons in his seven seasons. And he's showing significant signs of wear. His defense went in the tank, and while there are reasons to believe he can turn that around -- we all so badly want to believe -- he was legitimately awful in the field. He struck out 169 times -- 30 more than ever before. The batting average was a career low. And he SEEMED healthy.
I've always loved the Vin Scully line during Koufax's perfect game: "A lot of people in the ballpark are starting to see the pitches with their hearts."
And I do wonder if we can't help but see Bryce Harper with our hearts. I should say here: I'm not excusing the absurd lack of movement on free agency, nor the fact that Bryce Harper remains unsigned when he could make a big difference for so many teams. It's ridiculous, and baseball has a real problem on its hands.
But I am saying that so many of our hopes for Bryce Harper are built on faith, on a belief we don't want to be deprived of, that he's baseball's Luke Skywalker and he has a destiny of greatness to fulfill. You look at his Baseball Reference "similar batters" through age 25, and you see the scope.
He could be Griffey or Frank Robinson.
He could be Justin Upton or Ruben Sierra.
Because he's Bryce Harper, we might believe the first. If he were Glenn Strider, a nobody from South Euclid, Ohio, we might think something else.