I’m typing this while facing a poster of the otherworldly place in Utah called Bryce Canyon. Directly west of Utah is Nevada, home of the nearly as unfathomable Bryce Harper.
Last season at 19, Harper put together one of the greatest seasons ever by a teenager in the majors with 144 hits, 22 home runs, 98 runs, 59 RBI, 18 stolen bases and a .270 batting average after being called up by the Nationals on April 27 from Class AAA Syracuse. He also displayed one of baseball’s best outfield arms and recorded eight assists as many as veterans Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, who usually flanked him, posted between them.
The teenagers of the past century who had debuts comparable to Harper’s were Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Mel Ott and Al Kaline, cinch Cooperstown enshrinee Ken Griffey Jr., and Tony Conigliaro, whose career was ruined when he was beaned during his fourth season.
Cobb batted .316 with a homer and 34 RBI for Detroit during the deadball era of 1906 after playing in 41 games for the Tigers during the previous season.
Ott hit .322 with 18 homers and 77 RBI for the 1928 New York Giants after playing in 117 games over the previous two seasons.
Kaline batted .276 with four homers and 43 RBI for Detroit in 1954 after playing in 30 games for the Tigers during the previous year.
Conigliaro hit .290 with 24 homers and 52 RBI for Boston in 1964 as a 19-year-old rookie, like Harper, with no previous big-league experience. The same was true for Griffey when he batted .264 with 16 homers and 61 RBI for Seattle in 1989.
In their second full seasons, Cobb led the American League with a .350 average and 119 RBI, Ott soared to 42 homers and 151 RBI (both ranked second in the National League), Kaline rocketed to an American League-leading .340 average, Conigliaro led the AL with 32 homers, and Griffey hit .300 for the first time.
No wonder there’s a “sky’s the limit” aura surrounding Harper this spring. As he shifts from left field to center to make room for newcomer Denard Span while taking the departed Morse’s old spot, Harper has declined to reveal his personal goals for 2013, saying, “I have goals in my head but I’m not ready to share those because people are probably going to think I’m crazy.”
Not really, Bryce. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Harper’s WAR (wins above his potential replacement) was 5.0 last season. At 19, Ott’s was 3.7, Griffey’s 2.9, Cobb’s 2.3, Conigliaro’s 1.4 and Kaline’s just 0.9. Judged that way, Harper was not only clearly the best of the teenagers, he was nearly twice as good as any of them except Ott.
That’s simply astounding, but Harper has done nothing in the Grapefruit League to make one think he won’t take as big a step forward at 20 as Cobb, Ott, Kaline, Conigliaro and Griffey did.
Through his first 18 games this spring, Harper hit .400 with three homers, 12 RBI, eight runs and two steals in 53 at-bats. Since he had 533 at-bats in 139 games while winning National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, let’s give him 600 at-bats in his first full season this summer. Multiply those 50 at-bats in Florida by 12 and Harper would hit 36 homers with 144 RBI, 96 runs and 24 steals in 2013.
Of course, spring training stats don’t project to the games that count, but after the terrific season he posted as a 19-year-old rookie, there’s no reason to think that Harper couldn’t put up those kind of numbers for the Nats this year. After all during the final 40 games of 2012 (a quarter of a season), Harper hit .330 with seven homers, 14 RBI, 27 runs and five steals. He should only improve in 2013.
No Hall of Fame player ever suited up for the expansion Senators. That has also been the case for the Nats during the first eight seasons since they came to Washington in 2005. In fact, slugger Harmon Killebrew (1954-60) is the only man with a plaque in Cooperstown who wore a W on his cap since the Truman Administration.
It seems preposterous to put Harper and Hall of Fame in the same sentence at such an early point of his career, but the greatest teenagers of the previous century – save poor Conigliaro — all went on to such lofty status (assuming Griffey is elected). Harper was at least as good as they were at 19. Why shouldn’t he remain so at 20, 30 and forever?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin