WASHINGTON -- Since making his Major League debut on April 28th last year against the Dodgers, big things have been expected out of Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. After all, he was labeled the Lebron James of baseball before the team made him the first overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Exactly one year into his Major League career, it's safe to say that Harper has lived up to expectations -- so far. Besides being the reigning National League Rookie of the Year Award winner, Harper is currently the Nationals' best hitter and has put his name in the team's record books. Entering Sunday's action against the Reds, for example, Harper has nine home runs and 18 RBIs, a Nats record for the month of April. Harper is also among the NL leaders with a .373 batting average and .453 on-base percentage.
If one talks to Harper about what he has accomplished at age 20, he'll tell you it's too early to discuss what he has done on the field.
"I haven' really thought about it. I'm the type of person that puts everything behind me and just looks ahead," Harper said. "I live for that moment right then and there. Don't look back, try to get better every day, try to be the best that I can and play the game the right way."
Manager Davey Johnson has known Harper since the outfielder was in high school, and he's is not surprised by what Harper has accomplished in his short time in the big leagues.
"If you know him, it's not [a surprise]. He probably thinks he is having an off year right now," Johnson joked. "I talked to him last year, and even through the bad times he had a great frame of mind. He expects a lot of himself. That's a good trait."
Harper was off to a slow start for Triple-A Syracuse before getting the call to the Major Leagues a year ago. He was hitting .243 with a home run and three RBIs in 21 games. But the Nationals needed offense, because third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had been placed on the 15-day disabled list with a shoulder injury.
Despite the low batting average, executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo saw Harper play his final three games with Syracuse and was convinced Harper could help the Major League squad. The Nationals also needed a left-handed presence in the lineup.
Harper received word of his promotion to the big leagues from Syracuse manager Tony Beasley. It meant Harper would make his debut in Los Angeles, which is four hours away from Las Vegas, his hometown. Harper went 1-for-3 in a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers that day.
"I was very happy to tell my parents that I was going to be in the big leagues, and I would able to open up in L.A., which is close to home," Harper said. "I would have my friends and family out there. It was a very cool time.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to stay [in the Majors] or go [back to the Minors] or anything like that. I was going to take those 15 days and really play my butt off, work as hard as I could. When I was younger, I wanted to be a game-changer and really try to do things the right way in this game, play hard and try to make a difference every single time I went out there."
Those who watch Harper play on a regular basis know he's a big reason the Nationals have survived a tough early schedule. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein said Harper has a passion for the game that is unbelievable.
"It sounds like a broken record, but the man comes to the field every day with a passion to be at his best," Eckstein said. "He studies, he works, he talks to everyone [looking for] advice. He is very disciplined about his work habits. He is an impressive young man in every sense of the word."
Detroit's Al Kaline won the batting title at age 20 in 1955. Can Harper do the same 58 years later?
"I don't see why not," Eckstein said. "I don't always measure success by your batting average, but I measure it by other qualities. Everything that he shows -- he shows the ability and feel for the game and feel for his body in making adjustments. So yeah, I don't think that is out of the realm of possibilities at all."
Harper is the first to say that he isn't perfect. He has a tendency to overthrow the cutoff man, and he sometimes commits baserunning blunders.
"It's not how you start. It's how you finish. I really believe that," Harper said. "I try to stay as even keel as I can -- not get too high, not get too low -- and improve on everything that I can, whether that's hitting or baserunning or playing defense.
"The only thing I can do to help my team win is get better, succeed on the field and try to make things good for our team."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less