In a game that doesn’t come easy to most, Bryce Harper makes it look effortless. Nevertheless, he has his own challenges to deal with.
Dubbed Baseball’s Chosen One when he recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, Harper was well known to every opponent he faced this season, even though he was just a high school sophomore. So they were going to do everything they could to avoid getting beat by him.
As everyone in baseball has learned in recent weeks, though, there is no avoiding Harper, and that was particularly true on high school diamonds this spring. His desire to win drove Harper to work harder and find a way to be successful, and the results make him Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year. No junior had ever won the award, much less a sophomore, so Harper continues to go where no player has gone before.
As we found out after the fact, Harper’s sophomore season at Las Vegas High was effectively his senior year because he has enrolled at the CC of Southern Nevada and will pursue his GED diploma this fall. He certainly doesn’t have anything left to prove at the high school level, with a line of .626/.723/1.339 in 115 at-bats with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs during his sophomore campaign. A spectacular line for any other high school player, Harper expected those numbers and says he wasn’t at his best early on.
“I was getting walked a lot and getting frustrated,” he said. “My coach and dad sat down with me. We were just talking about me being a little more patient. Seeing more pitches and working to the opposite field. I only hit 14 home runs.”
|1992||Preston Wilson, of/rhp|
|1993||Trot Nixon, of/lhp|
|1994||Doug Million, lhp|
|1995||Ben Davis, c|
|1996||Matt White, rhp|
|1997||Darnell McDonald, of|
|1998||Drew Henson, 3b/rhp|
|1999||Josh Hamilton, of/lhp|
|2000||Matt Harrington, rhp|
|2001||Joe Mauer, c|
|2002||Scott Kazmir, lhp|
|2003||Jeff Allison, lhp|
|2004||Homer Bailey, rhp|
|2005||Justin Upton, ss|
|2006||Adrian Cardenas, ss/2b|
|2007||Mike Moustakas, ss|
|2008||Ethan Martin, 3b/rhp|
Only 14 home runs? That’s pretty good in most people’s eyes.
“It’s pretty all right,” Harper said. “I pulled one ball for a home run. That was my key this year, to sit back on everything and work opposite field a lot.”
The conversations between Ron Harper and Las Vegas head coach Sam Thomas did the trick, as Harper racked up 72 hits in 39 games and ended the season on a 23-game hitting streak. His work in the batting cage, on top of his tremendous natural talent, helped Harper get his hits. He spends most of his cage time working on hitting to the opposite field and timing offspeed pitches. He takes hacks for 45 minutes, working from up the middle to the left side. It’s only in his last 20 cuts that he unleashes fury to all fields.
“That’s what I’ve been working on my whole life, is working oppo,” Harper said. “If I get a pitch inside, I’m going to crush it.”
Not only did the effort show up in his numbers, but it was also evident in results only seen by those watching the games. Like his 13 home runs that cleared the fence to the left side of second base, or the ground balls that were hit so hard they rolled to the wall for extra bases.
“He hit a ball that the shortstop bailed out of the way and it rolled to the wall for a triple,” Thomas recalled. “That’s how hard it was hit. And it was opposite field. It could have been a good play by the shortstop, but it was hit so hard that he elected to move, which in my opinion, that was probably his best choice.”
All of Harper’s strength is put into his swing, but that’s not all that he puts maximum effort into. It continues as he hustles down the line and takes extra bases on balls in the gap, overthrows and passed balls. Harper is the poster boy for a theory Thomas preaches at Las Vegas High: Every hit is a double. The defense has to hold you to a single.
“Bryce came into our program already with this stuff,” Thomas said. “With that in mind, he’s always thinking an extra base. You tell a kid, watch TV. These infielders, how often do you see them throw the ball as hard as they can? On a routine play they don’t throw it as hard as they can because it’s an out and they want to save it for the big play. Well, Bryce doesn’t understand that, which is good. You don’t ever want to tell a kid to take a break. He goes all out, all the time.”
All-Out, All The Time
That all-out mentality also has Harper calling his coach throughout the season, with his ideas of what the team needs to do to get better and win. While not an extremely vocal leader, Harper is still able to raise the level of play of those around him. During his freshman season he was surrounded by seniors, including his older brother Bryan, something he loves. This season was different with new and young faces and he had to help rally the team.
“I’m not a very vocal leader,” Harper said. “But if I want to get my point across, I’ll get it across. Maybe not vocally. Maybe it’s just playing hard. This year I had to take control of the team and say that we needed to be a team and not be individuals. Our whole team was leaders. Every guy on the team did something. All of us contributed. We were all leaders together.”
Las Vegas marched to the playoffs before being eliminated by perennial power Bishop Gorman, which ended up as BA’s national high school champion. Missing out on a state title disappointed Harper, but he was still able to add bullet points to his already amazing resume. In seven playoff games, Harper hit eight home runs. He was named player of the year in his conference and made the all-state team, again.
He clearly left the supposedly frustrating start behind. The talent obviously helps, but he also showed a better approach after a series of text messages with Thomas. After their conversation about being patient at the plate and being themselves instead of what others want them to be, player and coach had this exchange of texts:
Thomas: How many home runs did Hank Aaron hit in high school? How many records did Greg Maddux break in high school?
Harper: How many state championships did Maddux win?
Thomas: One, but not everybody knows that. Everybody knows he won four Cy Youngs and one World Series.
Harper: I get your point.
Thomas: How many no-hitters did Nolan Ryan throw in high school?
Harper: OK, OK. I get your point.
The message was clear and they both had a good laugh. Harper settled down and focused on continued improvement.
“What he’s doing right now isn’t really that important,” Thomas said. “Everybody knows who he is. Everybody knows what he can do. All these people are making these comments, but they don’t know the kid. They’ve never seen him play. Hopefully, there’s going to be a time where everybody gets a chance to see him play.”
That chance is approaching. After making stops around the country this summer for various tournaments and showcases, Harper’s high school career will end. Assuming all goes smoothly, he’ll be eligible to play junior college baseball in the spring and be available for the 2010 draft. Harper looks and feels ready. Thomas knows he is ready.
“The one downfall to him going early is I’m going to miss him,” Thomas said. “He’s going to be very missed. He’s the type of kid that makes a coach look like a genius.”