On account of winning a bet with my mother over how early this season Bryce Harper would get called up to the majors, I was in attendance last night (sitting in left field, no less) for Arizona's 5-1 win over the Nationals last night. Unless you are a starting pitcher, baseball is kind of an odd game to watch for the purposes of seeing one player do his thing, because there are a limited number of opportunities for that player to do something remarkable, quite unlike basketball or football. But even if the final box score does not show it (0-3 with a couple of putouts in the outfield), Harper still managed to leave an impression and get everybody out of their seats.
Whatever can be said about Harper's arrogance (plenty), he is a tremendous athlete who tries hard all the time. As long as he keeps running out routine grounders at top speed, he should eventually get full appreciation from all the nostalgic types, particularly sportswriters, who worship such things. Last night, though, the only skill he really showcased was his outstanding throwing arm. With the bases loaded and one out, Arizona right fielder Justin Upton (himself a teenage phenom not that long ago) lofted a high fly ball about 290 feet into left. At least in our section of the park, EVERYBODY got on their feet, and not because we thought it might be a home run. We were eager to see if John McDonald would dare to do what Houston's Jordan Schaefer would not do against the equally impressive howitzer of Rick Ankiel. McDonald took off for home, and for the second time in two games, Harper fired a strike to the plate that appeared to beat the runner, but plate umpire Jeff Nelson called McDonald safe. And so also for the second time in two games, Harper failed to register an assist (against the Dodgers on Sunday, the catcher had the ball poked loose). But even with what looks like a fairly unimpressive stat line from his first three games, Harper has shown all of the abilities that have made him the most hyped teenage baseball player since at least Alex Rodriguez, if not Ken Griffey Jr.
That Harper is in the major leagues now is not so much a way of boosting attendance (as Stephen Strasburg's call-up two years ago was carefully engineered to be) as it is something of a necessity, given the Nats' dreadful offense to start the season. The team may still be in first place at 14-9, but their bats have failed to even remotely keep pace with their outstanding starting pitching. When you are giving a full fifth of your plate appearances to the likes of Roger Bernadina (just not a good hitter), Rick Ankiel (still a good defender, but useless against lefties, including probably my aunt Pam), Xavier Nady (a declining platoon player), and Mark DeRosa (in the final stages of decomposing), then you cannot expect to score lots of runs. And, in point of fact, the Nats have scored 75 runs in 23 games, ahead of only mighty Pittsburgh in that respect.
To be fair, not all of this ineptitude can be blamed on those particular players. Michael Morse and now Ryan Zimmerman, ostensibly the team's two best hitters, are still on the shelf, and so only good starts by Adam LaRoche (.314/.398/.523) and Jayson Werth (.275/.383/.425) have kept the Nationals from being a one-through-nine parade of out machines. Ian Desmond and his career .303 on-base percentage are still getting penciled into the leadoff spot every game, and Danny Espinosa, whose immediate predecessors at Long Beach State's shortstop factory were Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki, is hitting a whopping .195/.287/.256. Add it all up and Washington has an OPS+ (on base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for league and park factors) of 74 (100 is supposed to be the mean), ahead of only Oakland. A lot of those numbers can be chalked up to statistical noise this early in the season, but let the record show that the Nats finished 25th in the majors in OPS+ each of the last two years as well. This is a bad trend, and management hopes that Harper can help now as well as later.
But the track record of 19-year-olds in the majors rarely allows for early sustained success. Upton, for example, one of Harper's most recent comparables, hit .221/.283/.364 in 152 plate appearances in 2007, while his brother B. J. hit .258/.324/.409 in HIS age-19 season. If you reach back a little further, you will find Rodriguez (.224/.257/.352 over parts of two seasons as a teenager) and Griffey (.264/.329/.420). Only twice in baseball history has a teenager a) played most of a full season - as Harper likely will unless the Nationals miraculously find another outfielder besides Werth and Morse that can mash - and b) registered an OPS above .800. Those two were Mel Ott (.322/.397/.524), who went on to the Hall of Fame, and Tony Conigliaro (.290/.354/.530), whose career was, as most baseball fans are aware, tragically cut short by a nasty beanball that permanently damaged his eyesight. So to those people who expect or hope that Harper will carry the Washington offense on his back into the postseason, I would say to temper your expectations and be happy with someone who is more likely to be league-average this year.
Rather than rely on their phenom, what Mike Rizzo and his brain trust might want to do instead is explore a change of coaches, at least in the hitting department. The Nats, as mentioned above, are on a three-year run of poor hitting, and the numbers at least superficially show that they need to not only be patient hitters (3.81 pitches per plate appearance last year), but more selective (they led the majors in strikeouts last year but finished 22nd in walks, after finishing 6th/19th in those categories in 2010). When you watch this team, it is hard not to notice how often that they seem to labor through at-bats, particularly against a diet of off-speed stuff. Perhaps a change of emphasis is needed in order to help an offense that should really not be this atrocious, and thus help their starting pitching, which has been nothing short of outstanding.
Unless he totally implodes and shows definitely that he is not ready for the majors, I expect that Harper will stay throughout the season, if for no other reason than that the Nationals' other options in the outfield just are not very good. A cursory glance at the AAA roster in Syracuse shows that the other outfield options are 26-year-old Corey Brown and 29-year-old Brett Carroll, neither of whom are exactly lighting it up for the SkyChiefs. The only other serious outfield prospect, 22-year-old Destin Hood, is hitting .228/.305/.337 for the AA Harrisburg Senators. I have little doubt that Harper can hit better than the poop sandwich of Ankiel, Bernadina, DeRosa, and Nady (Speaking of which, Ankiel hit third last night! THIRD!!!), and even with rookie adjustments he should be more reliable against either righties or lefties than any of those guys. And so the plan will be to wait for Morse and Zimmerman to get back, cross their fingers that Espinosa digs out of his early funk, and beat some sense into Davey Johnson so that Desmond is no longer leading off. Then the Nationals might have an offense to match their pitching and defense, and be a very real contender in the months ahead.