By STEPHEN RECHTER
Is Bryce Harper, the rock star-like icon of the Washington Nationals’ fan base, an overrated player? Could he be the most overrated in all of baseball? With just three seasons of injury-ridden experience in the big leagues all coming before his 23rd birthday, is it even fair for Harper to receive the “overrated” label? Apparently, major players in baseball believe so.
According to a poll conducted by ESPN Magazine, Harper’s peers have labeled him decisively the most overrated player in baseball for the second year in a row heading into the 2015 season. This time it was no close race, as Harper received 41 percent of the vote. The runner-up to the dubious honor, talented Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, received just 15 percent of the vote, a drastic shift from last year’s poll when the same two players received 24 and 21 percent of the vote, respectively. Is this a fair judgment? Harper’s ascent through baseball shows promise and glimpses of results, but injuries have largely obscured just what kind of talent the Nationals have with their still just 22-year-old outfielder.
Fans and scouts alike have long touted Harper as the next big thing in baseball since being selected by the Nationals number one overall in the 2010 amateur draft. He quickly skyrocketed up prospect rankings to become the number one-ranked prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2011 and 2012 seasons, according to Baseball America. He began the 2012 season as a 19-year-old in Triple-A, among the youngest in the league, struggling to a 0.243 batting average with just one home run in his first 21 games. Despite the struggles and dangerously quick ascent through the Nationals’ minor league system, outfield injuries to the major league squad opened up a gaping hole that needed filling, and the teenage phenom with massive expectations was called up to the big leagues.
Somehow, despite the impossible expectations and lack of professional experience, the kid came into the fold, saw his bat heat up and never looked back. As an unfathomably young player standing on the same field with veterans twice his age, Harper hit for a solid 0.270 batting average with 22 homers, 59 runs batted in, 18 stolen bases and a remarkable 56 walks. His combination of power, patience and speed made him among the most dynamic outfielders in the league that year, earning him his first All-Star nod, 30th place finishing in the MVP voting and the Rookie of the Year award. Going into the 2013 season as a 20-year-old, still younger than most prospects in the early minors, expectations for Harper only increased beyond their already astronomical levels. If he can do what he did at 19 years of age, just imagine what he will do next. He could break baseball, right?
Well, it has not all worked out as everyone hoped. Harper’s 2013 season was not a complete throwaway by any means, but he didn’t blast off of the map like fans and scouts hoped. Instead, his numbers only marginally improved before his season was cut short by injury. The injury was the scapegoat for Harper’s proponents.
“Just wait till he’s healthy,” said supporters.
Then health came in 2014, but mediocrity and another injury eventually followed, this time limiting Harper to only 100 games and 395 plate appearances. This time, the numbers were not so pretty. Harper managed to keep his average afloat at 0.273, but his power greatly waned. He managed only 13 home runs and 10 doubles to go along with a huge 104 strikeout tally. His play in the outfield too, a highlight upon his arrival in the majors, began taking criticism.
Meanwhile, Harper’s contender in the overrated poll, Yasiel Puig, who received criticism from baseball veterans for showboating in his very first season, has continued to produce above expectations. This past season, he hit for a strong 0.296 average with 16 homers, a whopping 37 doubles and an equally impressive 67 walks in 148 games; numbers that far outclass Harper’s. He was an All-Star and was voted 19th for the MVP award.
Now Puig obviously has not had the same injury history as Harper, but there is no denying that he has met, and perhaps even succeeded, his lofty expectations as a high-profile signing. On the other hand, Harper, whose expectations may have been even higher than Puig’s, has not lived up to the hype, regardless of injuries. Durability is important in baseball, especially in recent years, as players have started dropping like flies. Puig’s relatively good health and Harper’s lack of it cannot be dismissed. Too many young phenoms have never reached their potential due to injury and Harper cannot be viewed as immune to this possibility.
On the other hand though, here we have a 22-year-old outfielder whose first three years in the majors have produced a 0.272 batting line with 55 homers, 155 walks and 60 doubles. For the majority of time he has also played above average in the outfield. Every team in baseball would kill to have a 22-year-old player with that track record. Whether or not he has lived up to his superstar hype at this point is a bit irrelevant. History shows that few of baseball’s greats play their best in their age 19-21 seasons. Most were either still seasoning in the minors or actually struggling in their first few years. Barry Bonds, one of the most talented outfielders in history, was called up at age 21 but initially struggled more than Harper and would not fully break out until age 25. The simple fact is that most of the greats were not able to produce like Harper could at his historically young age.
In this sense, we still need to wait and see with Bryce Harper. Injuries have clouded just what kind of player the Nationals have on their hands here. Is he on his rise to all-time greatness? Or are his best, healthy days behind him? The drastic disparity of these questions is what leads to his “overrated” label. There is really no one else out there to claim it. He is the obvious choice until he proves to everyone that he is the player he is hyped up to be. Critics do not care about age or injury; they want to see results. For as remarkably productive as Harper has been, he still has a ways to go to prove everyone he is the real deal.