I first saw Harper play in the 2010 Arizona Fall League. He turned 18 just after play began. I had the opportunity to speak with him on several occasions, finding him much more affable and congenial than his press clippings had warned. Harper showed the poise and graciousness of a seasoned veteran. Each time I spoke with him, he conducted himself as a gentleman, mature beyond his years.
I saw him play even more extensively in the same league last fall. After a sluggish start, pitchers couldn't get him out. He finished the season hitting .333 with six home runs and 26 RBIs in 25 games, in which he had 93 at-bats. It was an eye-opening performance.
I often wonder how I would have handled the immense pressure heaped upon Harper after he signed his contract. Some labeled him as the savior of the Washington franchise, a "can't miss, bigger than life" superstar in waiting. Some characterized him as selfish, conceited and incapable of playing to anywhere near the expectations that had been articulated. The words didn't faze him in the least.
Harper has the ability to make things happen, with his bat, with his glove, with his arm and with his legs. He has legitimate, measurable skills. He has an amazing amount of natural talent, which he is bound and determined to utilize to its fullest. He is driven by determination to succeed.
What makes Bryce Harper special?
Offensively, I have seen a swing that generates both extraordinary bat speed and backspin loft on the ball. He has the ability to take pitches to all fields because of his quick hands and wrists and the enormous strength of his forearms, wrists and legs. During clear fall days in Arizona, I saw Harper hit some of the longest home runs in memory. His aggressive approach is rewarded more often than not. He has the type of quickness with his hands that allows him to foul off pitch after pitch waiting for one he can drive. His hand-eye coordination, patience, and his athletic reflexes add to the equation of a gifted power hitter born to wreak havoc.
There is little doubt Harper hits everything with authority. The ball just blasts off the barrel of his bat. He doesn't generate many blooper-type hits or dribblers. Even his outs are loud.
Enormous power sets Harper apart from many good hitters. With the extension and very slight uppercut of his swing, when he connects there is not a park in baseball that can hold his majestic rocket shots. Yes, there are times he swings and misses. He does strike out. He's human.
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Harper looks like he was chiseled from concrete. He is like a finely tuned machine with every working part functioning at peak efficiency. Harper has grade 80 power potential, the highest grade available in the scouting evaluation system. At whatever age he realizes that potential, 80 power will translate to 35 homers or more. Bear in mind that Bryce Harper is nine or 10 years away from the traditional maximum production age. He could very well reach 35 homers sooner.
Probably the second-most impressive tool Harper brings is his top-of-the- scale 80 arm strength. He has the ability to keep runners from taking extra bases because of the power and accuracy of his throws. He has outstanding instincts and advanced mechanics in the outfield, taking increasingly improving routes to the ball and planting his feet properly to make maximum use of his throwing ability.
Using a quick first step and good running speed, Harper can steal bases or take an extra base when he believes he can beat the throw. While he won't be a stolen-base champion, Harper has enough pure speed to be a legitimate stolen-base threat whenever he reaches base.
Washington's decision to promote Bryce Harper had a great deal to do with team circumstances. Quality hitters Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman are on the disabled list, increasing the need for offense on their contending club.
Since Harper's signing, questions have been raised about the preparation time needed for a player to be ready for the Major Leagues. It varies. For comparison purposes, Andrew McCutchen joined Pittsburgh at age 22 after having 2,223 plate appearances covering 511 Minor League games. Jason Heyward went to the plate 1,003 times in 238 games before he joined Atlanta at age 20. The D-backs' Justin Upton was promoted at age 19 after playing in 233 Minor League games and getting 1,034 plate appearances.
All were first-round selections. Each enjoyed a "future star" reputation. Harper arrived at age 19 after 534 plate appearances and 240 games, not counting his Arizona Fall League experience. If anyone can handle the pressure and intensity playing with the world's greatest baseball players, Bryce Harper is that person. He really is special.