Image credit: Bryce Harper (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
In the fall of 2005, Mitch Sokol got a call from his Las Vegas-based associate scout, Glen Evans, telling him there was a player he had to see.
There was only one caveat. The player was in seventh grade.
“I said ‘Woah, I mean jeez Glen, I don’t really go see seventh graders,’ ” said Sokol, the Nationals area scout for the Four Corners region and Las Vegas. “And he goes ‘Just trust me, come see this kid.’ ”
Bryce Harper was worth the trip.
Harper has been in the spotlight since his earliest teenage years. Baseball America highlighted him as “possibly the country’s best hitter” for his age when he was 12. Scouts labeled him a prodigy at 15 and he was dubbed “Baseball’s Chosen One” when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. When the Nationals selected Harper first overall in the 2010 draft, with Sokol as his signing scout, he was still just 17 years old.
At every step of his youth, Harper shouldered the burden of colossal expectations. Becoming a superstar was the expected outcome. Anything else would be a disappointment.
Harper is now in his 10th major league season. He has not been the perennial MVP or unquestioned best player in baseball many predicted. And yet, at the same time, his career can hardly be called disappointing.
At the 10-season milestone of his career, Harper ranks in the top seven in home runs, runs scored, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS and fWAR among players with at least 1,000 games played since he entered the league in 2012. He’s made six All-Star Games, won a Rookie of the Year award and an MVP award by age 28. He is more than halfway to 500 career home runs and is on track to reach that mark in his late 30s if he can maintain his current pace.
What’s more, Harper is still in his prime. He entered Wednesday leading the majors with a 1.014 OPS, the highest of his career aside from his MVP year in 2015, and has become significantly more consistent as he’s aged. Harper’s batting average fluctuated more than 50 points and his OPS swung by more than 115 points every season from 2014-18, with his best seasons frequently followed by underwhelming ones. Since signing a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies before the 2019 season, his batting average and OPS have steadily increased each year.
“I’ve just gotten older,” Harper said in an interview with Baseball America during the Phillies’ recent road series in San Diego. “I think the biggest thing is understanding failure. Understanding success. Not getting too high. Not getting too low. Just understand that ride that you go through for that whole season. No matter where you’re at, you play 162 games and try and finish and end the way you want to. Some years are going to be good. Some years are going to be bad. You just gotta try to ride it out as best as possible.”
In many respects, Harper represents a conundrum. He was hyped as one of the best prospects ever and has become a star by almost any measure. At his current pace, he has a legitimate chance for induction into the Hall of Fame.
And yet, precisely because of how high expectations were in his youth, perceptions of his career at times undersell just how successful he has been.
Harper received MVP votes only three times in his first nine full seasons. Prior to this season, he barely cracked the top 25 in ESPN’s (25) and MLB Network’s (22) rankings of the top players in the majors.
There is some justification for those perceptions. The prodigious power Harper showed in his youth has led to only one home run crown so far. Outside of his MVP year in 2015, when he led the NL in home runs, runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, the only category he’s led the league in is walks, which he did in 2018 and 2020.
As far as team success, Harper has yet to play in a postseason series beyond the Division Series and has hit .211 in four career playoff appearances. The year after he left Washington, the Nationals won the World Series.
Those are all facts of his career that can’t be entirely discounted. At the same time, the totality of his career still cements him as one of the top 10 position players in the game since he debuted, something that isn’t lost on his peers on the field.
“He’s one of the best players in the game,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “There’s only a handful of people in modern-day baseball that can sort of talk about trying to live up to expectations and anticipation. I can think of Ken Griffey Jr., certainly Bryce, maybe Alex (Rodriguez). There are very few guys that were that young coming into the game and to have that pressure to be the face of an organization, the face of an industry, and to perform … He’s great for the game and I love watching him compete.”
“I knew a lot of eyes were on me, big expectations, all that type of stuff, and his was magnified so much more than mine at a younger age,” said Phillies righthander Zack Wheeler, who was also a top-10 draft pick and multiple-time Top 100 Prospect. “For him to stay humble and live up to those expectations is pretty wild, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that because it’s not easy, especially at a young age.”
It hasn’t always been easy, even if Harper has often made it look that way. He famously earned his general equivalency diploma to skip his final two seasons of high school and enroll early at College of Southern Nevada. He promptly set a national junior college record with 31 home runs and led the Coyotes to a third-place finish at the Junior College World Series, all at the age of a high school junior.
CSN games became one of the hottest attractions in Las Vegas, a city with no shortage of entertainment options, with Harper in tow. The school, for its part, took advantage of the business opportunity.
“CSN’s prices went up,” Sokol said. “I’m dead serious. They started charging more money just to get in the ballgame and I think they made a killing. Bryce brought people to the ballpark.”
Outwardly, Harper reveled in the attention. He projected flash and confidence, earning a reputation in some circles as cocky and self-centered. Inwardly, the truth was very different.
“I think that was probably the most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life,” Harper said. “It definitely makes the game today a little bit easier, just knowing what I went through at that age. Understanding that it was kind of ‘You gotta be the No. 1 pick or it’s kind of a bust,’ you have nothing else really. You could go back to college, but there’s a lot of people around you counting on you to get to that level. That’s just how it was. I got through it.”
Sokol had a unique insight into Harper that allowed him to understand him more deeply than most others. In addition to seeing Harper play since he was in seventh grade, Sokol drafted Harper’s older brother, Brian, for the Nationals in the 31st round out of high school in 2008, when Bryce was a high school freshman. Sokol got to know the family, know Bryce and his brother, and understand the competitiveness that runs through Harper’s veins.
“Everybody made it kind of like he was all about Bryce, and really it wasn’t about Bryce,” Sokol said. “Bryce was always about winning. That’s it. Bryce wanted to win. He made his teammates better. He made his club better. He raised the bar and you had to jump on the wagon and mind you, he’s a junior in high school and he’s playing with college guys, and they were following him. Kind of shows you the level of competitiveness that the kid had and level of leadership he had.”
Whatever pressure Harper felt, he excelled. That was true at 17 when he led CSN to the Junior College World Series and became the No. 1 pick in the draft. That was true at 19 when he became the second-youngest player to ever win the National League Rookie of the Year award. That was true at 22 when he became the third-youngest player to ever win an MVP award. That’s been true since, after signing what was then the largest free agent contract in major league history before the 2019 season, he’s posted the fourth-highest OPS of any player.
Harper still has 10 more years left on that contract. He still has plenty of time to live up to expectations in the minds of doubters and burnish his Hall of Fame candidacy.
He’s not particularly focused on any of that, though. As far as goals for the next 10 years, he only has one thing on his mind.
“I just wanna win,” Harper said. “That’s it man. All the stuff on the field, it will take care of itself. I’ll play as many games as I can and try to be the best out there and try to help my team win each night. I think at the end of the day that’s all I want to do.”