The nature of what Bryce Harper has accomplished in his first 41 games for the Washington Nationals makes you wary of hyperbole - before you realize it is the quickest way to approach the truth. If you compare him to his peers, he could become the youngest ever all-star position player, despite spending the first month of the season in the minor leagues. If you compare him to history, he might be the best teenage hitter of all time.
"We're at places that I've never been," Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "You know what I mean?"
Over the past week, Harper surpassed the already high standard he had set for himself. He laid waste to American League East pitching, going 10 for 21 with two homers. The Nationals have won six straight games and hold a 41/2-game lead in the National League East, the widest gap in the majors. The Nationals are the hottest team in baseball as they brace for a first-vs.-first showdown beginning Friday against the New York Yankees at Nationals Park. And Harper, 19, is their hottest player.
Harper is hitting .303 with a .384 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage. Over his past 21 games, he has authored one of the hot streaks that makes him, in his word, "scary," batting .370 over the period. He has an overall on-base plus slugging percentage that ranks first all-time among teenagers with at least 150 plate appearances, surpassing Mel Ott in 1928.The season is not yet half over, and opposing pitchers have not had a second look at him. But for now, he is at places no one has ever been.
Could he also be an all-star? The youngest player to make the Midsummer Classic is right-hander Dwight Gooden in 1984, then a 19-year-old rookie also managed by Davey Johnson. Harper would be 19 years 8 months old on the day of the All-Star Game, one month older than Gooden and the youngest position player ever to make the game.
"It would be a lot of fun to make it the first year, I think," Harper said. "But that's for the best of the best. That's for guys who are hitting .350 with 20 home runs, 70 RBI. If I make it, I make it. If I don't, there will be next year and beyond that."
Harper spoke Tuesday afternoon, before the Nationals' second game at Rogers Centre. He expressed doubt that he had done enough to make the game, comparing his season to Los Angeles Angels rookie Mike Trout, the 20-year-old sensation he played with in last year's Arizona Fall League.
"I think I have another level, absolutely," Harper said. "I'm not hitting .300. I'm not doing what Trout's doing. Trout's hitting .350, .360, so he's blowing my numbers away. I want to come in here every day and play and win. As long as we get that W by the end of the day, that's all that matters."
Harper was hitting .295. That night, he went 3 for 4 and hit a home run an estimated 438 feet, off the facade of a restaurant, sending a ripple through a smart phone advertisement. By the end of the night, he was hitting .307.
Harper is not listed on the paper all-star voting ballot found in every ballpark, and he has not been added to the online ballot, which makes his manager doubt he'll be included. "Probably not," Johnson said. "He missed a month. If you miss it by the voting, how you going to get in?"
Harper could find his way into the game as a substitute via the player vote or as a selection of NL All-Star Manager Tony La Russa, who retired after leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series last year. Major League Baseball could also include him among the five players eligible to be voted into the game by fans - which, given his popularity, would be a virtual lock.
With 177 plate appearances, Harper is still shy of the requisite 3.1 per team game - 189, in the Nationals' case - to qualify for league leader boards. But he should reach the mark soon.
"He's playing terrific," Rizzo said. "If Tony La Russa picks him, he knows what's at stake in this game. If Tony La Russa picks him as a deserving player, then he would deserve it. If it's not a publicity stunt to get him in the game. If he's deserving of it, and the manager believes he's deserving of it, I'll be honored if he makes it. That would be great."
Harper is not preoccupied with the showcase. Last year, he played in the Futures Game, an all-star weekend appetizer for top prospects. Harper could have stayed for the All-Star Game, but he left after the Futures Game, preferring a weekend at his family's home in Las Vegas. He has not given much consideration to whether he should make it this year.
"I don't know. I'm not sure," Harper said. "I don't really think about that. I just worry about today. I don't worry about the All-Star Game. It's just something that's more for the fans. If I can go home for three days, I'll be happy."
Harper could make the showcase on a vote by players, whom he has been winning over. "He's the real deal," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said during the Nationals' series in Boston. They respect not only his ability, but his style.
"He's setting a standard for playing hard," said Nationals reliever Brad Lidge, an 11-year veteran. "He's playing his butt off. And it energizes the whole team. He's fun to watch. The consensus around the league might have been, 'What's this guy going to be like? Let's drill him.' I think the consensus now is, 'This guy is working really hard. He's keeping his head down.' I think he's made a lot of people like him a lot."
Said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: "He's different. Mentally, he's way older than 19. I think there's a bunch of people who are physically able to play at this level at that age. I don't think that really impresses me as much as his mental side. That's what people should be impressed by."
The buzz surrounding Harper will only grow this weekend at Nationals Park. Friday and Sunday, the Nationals will be televised nationally, Harper a bigger draw than "the big, bad Yankees," as Johnson called them.
Harper took a unique path to majors, skipping his final year of high school to compete in college and enter the draft early. The summer is just starting, and the youngest player is again doing things no one has before.
"You don't do the things he's been doing his whole life without having some talent and without having some mental toughness," Johnson said. "Any segment that you took of where he was, he was exceeding expectations. That doesn't stop here."