May 26, 2011
Breaking Down Superman
The most impressive part about Bryce Harper's career so far has arguably been his ability to consistently exceed expectations while being among the most-hyped prospects in baseball history.
Tales of his achievements across Las Vegas’ high school diamonds were already the stuff of legend when he cut his prep career short by two years to play a season of junior college baseball in preparation for the 2010 draft. Entering the spring as the overwhelming favorite to be the top pick, scouts would have been impressed if Harper merely held his own in a good conference that used wooden bats, but instead he re-wrote the College of Southern Nevada record book, hitting .443 and slugging 31 home runs to eclipse the school record by a mere 19.
Just 17 years old when signed to a record deal by the Nationals, Harper began his professional career in the Arizona Fall League, playing against and with upper-level prospects, many of whom had already reached the big leagues. After slugging .639 in limited play, one scout said, “He’s a child, and he not only belonged on the field with those guys, he stood out.”
His official career got off to a slow start in April, but a pair of contacts got him back on track, and heading into Tuesday night's action he was batting a whopping .346/.429/.627 for Low-A Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League. Harper has been intentionally walked five times in his last 22 games. That's nearly unheard of at this level; last year's season leader had six.
There is no statistical or scouting evidence to say the Harper is not good, or even not very good. But just how good can he be? To find out, let’s go through the traditional five tools and walk through the ranges a number of scouts projected for him as a big-leaguer on the 20-80 scale (with 50 being major-league average) based on early-season looks.
The 20-80 scale is on a bell curve, so 80s are rare, but even more difficult is to find such a grade that scouts are universal on. There are plenty of big and strong teenagers out there, but finding one with the type of advanced, right-now ability to drive balls to all fields while adding the necessary loft and backspin forces scouts to dig deep for comparisons. “I don't think we've seen a high school player like this since Alex Rodriguez,” said one talent evaluator, referring to the Yankees third baseman who was the first overall pick when Harper was not yet eight months old. Before he was mashing 465-foot home runs in the big leagues, Mike Stanton was seen as the prospect most likely to hit 50 home runs in a single major-league season, and now Harper wears that crown.
“I think that when he comes up, he could steal 15-20 bases per year,” said one scout.
The real debate concerns what he will look like physically by the time he is in his late 20s. Already 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Harper is a massive human being for an 18-year-old and not done filling out, leaving some scouts to fear that by the time he has matured, he'll be a 250-pound beast more in the mold of a massive first baseman as opposed to a multi-tooled outfielder. Such growth would certainly limit him at the very least to an outfield corner, but it could also affect his offensive numbers in other ways, as reduced speed means fewer singles, doubles, and triples.
“I'm still not sure what he's going to be in the end, other than a really good hitter,” said another scout. “He's could be this superstar who could beat you in a bunch of ways, but if he keeps growing, he could end up being a big, slow first baseman who reminds one physically of Ryan Howard.”
“It's seems to happen every night, and it might not change until he gets to the big leagues where teammates won't put up with those antics,” said a team executive. “Then again, maybe he'll hit four home runs in his first week and everyone will shut up.”
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .