Spending this week at the Arizona Fall League has been a great opportunity to check an item off my Baseball Bucket List, but from a practical standpoint, an equally great opportunity to try and match reputation to reality with many of the players I write about. No player in this league comes in with a reputation larger than Bryce Harper, so to see him play one game and take two batting practices has been a good chance to decide how much of what I’ve read is hyperbole. Turns out, not much. I didn’t get to see Harper at this best — he was 0-for-4 with 2 Ks in the game — but the process is worth writing about. I realize that at this point Bryce Harper stories are a dime-a-dozen, but until you all have had a chance to see him, you should pain yourself to read another.
To me, one of the most amazing parts of seeing Bryce is seeing the amount of attention he draws from his opponents. When I saw him take batting practice in Scottsdale on Tuesday, the other team was stretching on the third base side when Harper entered the cage. Each time he was up, a number of players stopped what they were doing to watch him take batting practice. You can’t help it. And, during the game on Wednesday, his approach on the opposing pitchers is palpable. Starting pitcher Robert Carson hit 94 mph only twice during the game, both during his lone shot at retiring Harper. In his next at-bat, this time against Chris Carpenter, we saw the Cubs prospect pull back and hit 98 on the fourth pitch of his at-bat.
The other thing worth pointing out, that has nothing to do with his physical tools or swing, is that it’s clear that Harper is a baseball rat. What Jason Grey wrote on Twitter Monday is absolutely true: “You can tell Bryce Harper not used to sitting – for multiple games constantly on front step of dugout fidgeting with a glove & ball or a bat.” When the Scottsdale offense registered the third out, Harper was always the first out of the dugout. When he was not up at the plate, he was always on the top step, and the most vocal of any player. Normally, make-up stories don’t do it for me, but I think Harper being a baseball rat is going to be a massive help in marrying his potential with his ultimate results.
Because, in case you haven’t been told this when things get hyperbolic with Harper hype, there is work to be done. The most glaring is the new position, right field, which Harper is clearly still learning. His reads of balls off the bat are still slow, as they are going to be while he learns to judge angles and distance from a new place on the field. The physical tools are more than enough to succeed at the position, however, and my belief in his work ethic gives me confidence the move will work. We saw Harper’s arm on a couple occasions, the most impressive of which is when he threw out Kirk Nieuwenhuis at home plate when the Met prospect tried to tag from third base. It’s either a 60 or 65 grade on the 20-80 scale, which means that it’s more than enough to be an asset in right.
The other thing that needs development is Harper’s approach, which will be hard to help much with two games a week in the Arizona Fall League. Harper swings too often: the last seven pitches he saw on Wednesday were all swings. He flied out in the last pitch of the Carpenter at-bat, then three straight swings (two of which were misses) in a strikeout against Brian Leach, and three straight swings in a groundout against Chris Kissock. Harper will find that his great power is much easier to use when he gets in good hitter’s counts. It will be interesting to see how often he walks in a full season league next year.
The weakness you’ve probably read about, which is true, is that Bryce Harper is going to strike out. Probably a lot. Power hitters often do, and Harper is no exception — he swings incredibly hard at the baseball, and sometimes goes after pitches that he shouldn’t. What I will point out, though, is that we should not be worried about his strikeout rate. Because Harper swings so hard, and is so strong, what was clear in batting practice is that he is going to hit a ton of line drives. Like he will with home runs, he will be among the top of the Major League leaderboards in that category one day. All this leads me to say that we safely project Harper to have BABIPs above league average, which will help mitigate a strikeout rate north of 20%.
I saw Bryce Harper go 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. I saw him take a batting practice where he failed to hit a single home run. And I can say, unequivocally, that Harper is the best player I saw in Arizona, and one of the two best prospects in baseball. Swings this mature, with the balance, the extension, the load and the transfer, don’t find themselves with teenagers often. But there I go, telling you something you’ve already read again.