Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Hate for Harper

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Hate for Harper

by Matt Smith

WHGB11When you watch an MLB game on BT Sport or ESPN, the chances are high that at some point – probably more than once, in fact – you will see an advert containing the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper.

Harper is shown on the field with some of the greats of the game stood next to the likes of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, all leading to the final statement:

“Bryce Harper is only 21 years old, but he already looks like a legend”.

It’s a neat feat of production skill to make his image seamlessly blend in with footage of the past and as a 30 second promotional piece for MLB and one of it’s young players, it works really well.

However, it doesn’t half rile up some people, especially Stateside.

There’s a growing group who look at Bryce Harper’s career so far, not least his performance in 2014, and start tapping furiously at the keyboard or on their mobile device to explain that Harper is not a legend and is instead an overhyped kid who hasn’t done anything to deserve being associated with such a label.

And it’s not just the online loonies and big-mouth media ‘personalities’ that are piling in. On Wednesday, Harper’s manager Matt Williams lost patience with the latest reporter to question if the outfielder might be better off heading back to the Minor Leagues to work on his game. Williams responded in no uncertain terms that this was not going to happen and that he was fed up of such nonsense being stirred up, stating his case so strongly that he felt the need to apologise the next day for his behaviour.

Harper has had to live with lofty expectations ever since he appeared on the front of Sports Illustrated in June 2009. At the time he was 17 years old, still at Las Vegas High School and a year away from even being eligible to be drafted by a Major League team. In baseball, where the college scene doesn’t garner anywhere near as much attention as the gridiron and basketball competitions, a player doesn’t receive such national recognition until they are making waves as a rookie in the Majors and this often comes when the player is around 23 years old and has ‘paid his dues’ in the Minor Leagues.

Harper essentially had a target on his back before he had ever got near a Major League field. He has been firmly under the spotlight since that point and every transgression, and he had a few where his competitive spirit – being kind to him – got the better of him, and every dip in performance was always going to be picked over.

In many ways Harper has always reminded me of Wayne Rooney, who gained national attention in the U.K. when he made his debut for Everton as a sixteen year old. They both come across as being a bit rough around the edges, not your usual permanently smiling completely media-savy young guys. They are precociously talented and the fire within then has a tendency to push them over the edge at times.

Harper has faced criticism for his 110% style that sees him banging heavily into outfield walls trying to make stunning catches (and then facing even more criticism the very few times he gave anything less than 100% running down the line), whilst Rooney has been accused of letting his team and country down by letting his temper get the better of him, most notably after being sent off for stamping on Portugal’s Riccardo Carvalho in a 2006 World Cup quarter final (and then criticised heavily when he wasn’t charging around and ‘showing passion’).

The comments in parentheses drive home the point: because of who they are, anything less than complete success will be jumped on.

Both of them have already benefited handsomely from all the attention with lucrative contracts and promotional deals, so there’s no need to take violin lessons so as to serenade their poor downtrodden souls. The criticism is also a back-handed compliment to them: we expect and hope for great things from them and we’re disappointed when they don’t do something special.

In Harper’s case, it’s valid to look at his numbers to date on their own and to say they are not of a legendary level yet. Across his first 312 MLB games he has produced a .268/.350/.462 batting line with 46 homers.

They are not outstanding numbers, but they are good numbers and the whole point about Harper is that he’s such a talent that he has played those first 312 games at an age when the vast majority of players who make it to the Majors were competing against High School, College and low minor league competition.

I suspect the majority of baseball fans do understand this and the analysts fighting back against the Harper haters shouldn’t lose sight of baseball being a compelling drama of heroes and villains.

A lot of the grief Harper receives is because sports fans enjoy having a pop at a talented young player who doesn’t wear their chosen team’s uniform. It’s the way it works: those looking at the game from a rational perspective criticise players that aren’t very good, those looking at the game from a fan’s perspective criticise opposing players precisely because they are very good.

It all makes sense in a moment such as happened on Thursday, a day after Williams’ defence of his outfielder, when Harper launched a two-run walk-off homer against the New York Mets. It was a dramatic, exciting moment, made all the more so because Harper is a lightning rod for attention, both good and bad.

And that’s exactly why MLB has him starring in a promotional video.

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