It's hard not to keep your attention on Harper
WASHINGTON -- Just watch. If you're wondering what the hype is all about, sick of the focus on a kid still yet to make his 600th professional plate appearance, weary of a seeming cult around a 19-year-old, just watch. Watch Bryce Harper play.
Many more than the listed crowd of 19,000-plus will say they were watching at Nationals Park on Monday night, when Harper hit a mammoth no-doubter for the first home run of his big league career in the Nats' 8-5 win over San Diego. The ball easily traveled 420 feet, perhaps more, to straightaway center. Harper got ahead of Padres right-hander Tim Stauffer, 2-1, waited out a rolling but not terrible Stauffer slider, and committed an act of extreme violence on the baseball.
It only counted as one run. But if you're looking at the numbers with Harper, you're missing the point. As he gets older, more polished and more refined, the numbers will come. Right now, he's a spectacle. Maybe the best spectacle in baseball.
Even his home run trot was worth seeing -- but maybe not for the reason you expected. Harper, hyper-conscious of his status as low man on the totem pole in a game dominated by service time, practically sprinted around the bases. According to the "Tater Trot Tracker" maintained by Baseball Prospectus, Harper had the second-fastest trot for a non-inside-the-park homer in the big leagues this season at a brisk 17.07 seconds.
The only thing he did slowly was accept the curtain call that the assembled Nats fans insisted upon. He waited, and waited, hesitant to make himself the center of things. Harper knows his reputation in some circles. He knows anything showy that he does will be taken as a sign of immaturity or worse.
But he also knew that those fans were calling for him. Surely, some had come just to see him. Finally, he got permission to acknowledge the crowd, and he did so with style, pointing to both sides of the infield seats before returning to the dugout.
"Everybody started cheering and whatnot," he said, "and I was just like standing there and waiting, like 'Should I go?' and I was like, nah, don't do it. And [Jayson] Werth was like, 'Go. Get up there, kid.' I don't want to show up those guys in the other dugout, ever. Didn't want to show up that guy at all. I was waiting until somebody said something like that."
Over the course of the evening, Harper displayed nearly all facets of his game, not just the thrilling but also the occasionally frustrating. He absolutely obliterated the home run, hitting one of those balls that you don't even need to see to know that it's leaving the yard. The sound made it plenty clear.
But he also dropped a fly ball, costing his team just as many runs as the homer provided. And in a couple of key situations, he came up short, grounding out in an RBI situation to end the first and popping up with two on in the fifth.
Those rough edges will be smoothed out in time, though. Harper is smart, he cares and he works. Besides, when you watch a player like Harper, not that there really are any others, it's easy to forget the hiccups. The strengths can be so spectacular.
Power was always the one thing we knew Harper had. It was the one tool that, even if it turned out he was overmatched in the big leagues, he was expected to show. So it was mildly, slightly surprising that it took him 15 games to hit one out.
But take a minute and think about that. A 19-year-old kid, with fewer than 150 professional games, and people were wondering why it took him more than two weeks to hit a home run.
That's the kind of talent that we're talking about. That's the show. That's what you're watching for when you watch Harper.
"He's a talented, young player, an exciting, young player," said Padres manager Bud Black. "He plays hard, runs the bases hard and looks like a guy who takes an aggressive swing. At 19 ... that says something."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Paul Casella and Kristen Zimmerman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.