On Monday, fans in Kauffman Stadium will see the most prodigious hitting talent to swing a bat in Kansas City since Inflated Hat Size Barry Bonds more than a decade ago.
Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is the game’s most famous player, and here in Kansas City his grander message of putting more fun in baseball will find friendly ears.
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He also happens to be the game’s best hitter, and if that sounds like hyperbole, you’re probably thinking of Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout. But please consider the following:
Cabrera’s best statistical season actually came the year after he won the Triple Crown, when he hit .348 with a .442 on-base and .636 slugging percentage in 2013. Adjusting for league and park factors, that performance was 90 percent better than the league average.
Trout’s best statistical season was probably the same year — Cabrera edged out Trout for MVP — when he hit .323 with a .432 on-base and .557 slugging percentage. That performance was 79 percent better than the league average.
Last year, Bryce Harper hit .330 with a .460 on-base and .649 slugging percentage, which was 95 percent better than the league average. He led the National League in on-base, slugging, OPS, runs and home runs. He walked (124) nearly as often as he struck out (131). He was the unanimous selection as MVP for a season. It was, by several measurements, the greatest season for a 22-year-old since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
When looked at as a comparison to a peer group, it was the best season and biggest outlier since Bonds’ run of terror in the early part of the last decade.
And, well, through the season’s first four weeks — small sample size, but still — Harper has been just as good:
Entering Sunday, he was hitting .286 with a .406 on-base and .714 slugging percentage, which was 86 percent better than the league average. He scored or driven in 31 of the Nationals’ 93 runs and, perhaps most absurdly, had more extra base hits (15) and walks (17) than strikeouts (13).
If a college player stood out from his peers as much as Harper, they would say he’s wasting his time against amateurs. If a minor leaguer stood out from his peers as much as Harper, they would say he’s too good for his level. Only now, here Harper is against the best in the world, and baseball’s 13th-youngest everyday player is again outplaying the older guys.
Harper is living a rare existence. He is baseball’s most famous player, and also perhaps its best. He was introduced to the American sports world through a Sports Illustrated cover story when he was 16, found a loophole to enter the draft when he otherwise would’ve been going into his senior year of high school, debuted in the big leagues at 19, and was immediately among the sport’s biggest stars.
The modern American sports machine is such a nasty beast that it hardly ever allows room for its most-hyped athletes to be better than expected. LeBron James — who also got the SI cover treatment as a teenager — did it. Serena Williams is doing it. Tiger Woods did it, until the fire hydrant.
Harper, after being (sort of) slowed by injuries in 2013 and 2014, has the look of another exception.
He homered his first time up this season, and has hardly slowed since. He has been on base every game but one, homered in four straight, and has at least one extra base hit in 13 of 23 games. The one time he was left out of the starting lineup, he hit a pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the ninth.
For a certain kind of baseball fan, the best part of Harper is not his absurd talent, or the joy found in watching what looks to be an all-time talent come of age.
No, the best part is that he could be, literally, changing the game.
For a few days this spring, Harper serendipitously found himself in the middle of one of those random flash points we all obsess over until being distracted by the next shiny object.
This was back in March, when a long feature in ESPN The Magazine quoted Harper saying baseball is “tired,” and needed to loosen up to let players show excitement and personality like in other sports. The article would’ve generated attention anyway, but the serendipity came in the timing — an ESPN radio report had Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage on a strong old-man rant about how bat flips disrespect the game.
Gossage’s message was widely dismissed, which is a good sign for those of us who agree with Harper — that baseball should allow more flair in the 21st century.
Harper is the sport’s single best ambassador for that change, occasionally using his postgame interviews to wear a “Make Baseball Fun Again” hat. It’s a message that has found an interesting ally — commissioner Rob Manfred endorsed Harper’s position as the de facto commander in chief of the sport’s fun revolution.
Here, too, starting Monday, Harper is among friends. There aren’t many places in baseball where his message is more accepted than Kansas CIty. The Royals have been collectively playing the way Harper has individually played for years.
The Royals have made their impact on baseball as a group, while Harper — the Nationals have lost their two playoff series in Harper’s four seasons — has done it individually.
But they do share a common appreciation for — depending on your perspective — showboating or having fun. If Harper hits a home run in Kansas City this week, he will almost certainly flip his bat, though probably not nearly as demonstrably as Eric Hosmer’s best.
And if the Royals win, Sal Perez will almost certainly run out from the dugout, to the surprise of no one, and dump what’s left of the Gatorade jug onto whoever is doing the on-field interview.
Somewhere, this will all make Gossage and like-minded dinosaurs very angry.
Here, it will be very good for baseball.