It might not be too much of an exaggeration to place Bryce Harper’s name on a list with Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone.
The 18-year-old doesn’t have a blue ox or a coonskin cap as a trademark, just a bat. Still, Harper’s amateur career is legendary.
Harper has had an ability to play up to the level of older players and outperform them. He was more than a blip on the major league radar by the time he reached his early teens. It all led to the Washington Nationals making the phenom the first overall selection of the 2010 amateur draft.
Harper’s talents have him christened as the future of the Nationals. Many can’t figure out why he is starting his professional career with the Hagerstown Suns instead of further up Washington’s farm-system ladder.
According to Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach, hitting coach Marlon Anderson and Nationals senior adviser Davey Johnson — all former major league players — the course of Harper’s future is plotted to allow the mental part of his game to catch up to his physical attributes.
“The organization isn’t going to push him,” Johnson said during the Suns’ media day last week. “His performance is what is going to get him promoted.
“He had a remarkable spring. He played like he was going to have a job. He has an old-time zeal for the game. He has an aggressiveness for the game. He is not afraid of failure. It allows him to set his goals as high as he wants. He has all the promise to reach the big leagues by the time he’s 19.”
Harper had varied experiences on the amateur level, from high school to junior college to a stint with Team USA. But professional ball is a different animal that needs to be played at a certain pace.
“He has a ton of talent, as advertised. We are excited to have him here,” said Daubach, Hagerstown’s first-year manager. “This is about learning to adapt to the grind of playing every day. It’s about coming out and being able to put an 0-for-4 day behind you and coming out ready to play the next day. He will be experiencing taking a long bus ride and then getting off the bus and playing.
“You don’t play seven days a week in high school. He is moving from catcher to the outfield. He has to slow down and learn to swing at good pitches. He has to realize that the Nationals have a plan. They want him to learn.”
Harper cut his teeth professionally in the Arizona Fall League and as part of the Nationals’ spring training team before being optioned to the minor league complex. In each instance, Harper’s experiences were controlled and choreographed.
Now with the Suns, the situations will be more like those he will deal with throughout his career. There is no real handbook for developing a player with Harper’s talents. The big thing is not to mess up what has made him successful to this point.
“I’m not trying to do anything with him,” said Anderson, who is in his first year as a hitting coach. “I’m just trying to stay out of his way. He has a bright future.
“Every minor league player thinks he should be in the majors. They all have talent. He can get a lot of growth by playing with players close to his age group. It’s about making adjustments to how to play the game.”
Harper’s education is two-fold. First, he needs to master playing the outfield on a regular basis.
“When you are a catcher, you are playing on every pitch,” said Daubach, who was converted from a catcher to an outfielder and first baseman in his career. “You are setting the defense, working with the pitcher, looking for the signs from the manager. When you are in right field, you might get one ball hit to you the whole game, but you have to be ready. That ball might be the difference in or could cost you the game.
“It is a matter of tempo. The challenge will be for him to stay focused out there. He will be learning where to throw for cutoff men and backing up plays. It all comes with playing games. He’ll learn quickly.”
Second, Harper needs to sharpen the instincts he already possesses.
“He has to be selective and patiently aggressive as he goes up the ladder. He’ll have times where he will be overly aggressive as opposed to passively aggressive,” Johnson said. “Here is where you set good habits for yourself. He already has good habits.
“Down on this level, you will be facing pitchers who can get you out by using one or two pitches. You have to be able to be selective and patient to hit pitches in the right zone. Down here, there aren’t as many in there as there are when you move up. And as you move up, the pitchers can throw more pitches. You want him to get seasoning from all different levels.”
The early going has been interesting for Harper. He has played both right and center field and has had more than his fair share of chances to experience the defensive part of the game. Offensively, he is just 4-for-19 (.211), with all four hits singles. He has driven in three runs and scored twice, while walking twice and striking out seven times.
So the process continues with one objective in mind.
“The worst thing you can do is rush the kid,” Daubach said. “You want him to learn everything so that once he gets to Washington, he will be there to stay.”