clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bryce Harper and Greatness

On one of the new franchise greats

MLB: San Diego Padres at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When he hit it, I did what he did, and maybe what you did: I just looked. I stared at the screen, mouth open, and watched the ball’s flight. The FS1 announcers, who were pretty good the whole series, did the boss move of letting the crowd noise tell the story; they got that they had nothing to add to the mass emotion of the scene.

So the camera lingered on Bryce Harper, watching the baseball he’d just struck clear the seats in left-center field. His whole life had been leading up to this moment, and he did the thing that almost nobody ever actually does. He met it.

Harper has been a magnet for bad vibes from opposing fans since he got the majors. Part of it is that he initially presented as an entitled, somewhat smirky Bro character to whom everything had come easy; that’s how it is when you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. It didn’t help that he played with a style that was hard-nosed and energizing if you were a Washington fan, provocative and antagonizing if you preferred one of the 29 other teams. He’s not that guy anymore, if he ever was; his work ethic seems to be second to none, and his teammates and coaches clearly revere him. But first impressions are sticky.

Phillies fans saw this early. We got our introduction to Harper early in his rookie year, on May 6, 2012. In a nationally televised Sunday night game, Cole Hamels got the first two outs, then decided to welcome Harper to The Show by hitting him on an 0-0 count. Ex-Phil (and Harper mentor) Jayson Werth followed with a single to move him to third. Then Harper recorded his first career steal. Of home.

The Phillies won that game, but Harper’s Nationals—who hadn’t posted a winning record in ten years, going back to when they were the Montreal Expos—went 98-64 that season and took the division, breaking the Phillies’ five year streak of NL East dominance. Harper, age 19, hit 22 homers, stole 18 bases, and earned Rookie of the Year honors. In the Division Series, he went 3 for 23, and the Nats lost to St. Louis in five. He got back to the playoffs two years later and mashed three homers, but Washington was in the way of the Even-Year Dynasty Giants, and fell in four.

In 2015, Harper was the NL MVP at 22 years old with a season for the ages: .330/.460/.649, 42 homers, 9.7 bWAR, an OPS+ of 198. But he got into a dugout scuffle with Jonathan Papelbon, and the Nats slipped to 83-79 and missed the playoffs. They made it back the next two years, winning 95 and 97 games, and Harper earned his fourth and fifth all-star appearances. He wasn’t bad in the postseason either year. But he also wasn’t Bryce Harper, and Washington again lost both series in the maximum five games.

You know what happened after that: the Nationals were barely over .500 in 2018, they let Harper walk after the season to the division rival Phillies for a 13-year, $330 million contract… and then they won the World Series in 2019.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Phils plunged into the second of what would be four straight September collapses. Harper was very good that season: he played 157 games, hit 35 homers, set a career high with 114 RBI, stole 15 bases, bowed to the home crowd from right field, rocked a lot of Phanatic merch, delivered some big moments. But it was all overshadowed by his former teammates down I-95, and some people around baseball thought the Nats’ change of fortunes without their former franchise slugger was at least as much causality as correlation.

Harper was even better in the COVID-shortened year of 2020, posting a .268/.420/.542 line with 13 homers in 58 games and more walks than strikeouts. He was spectacular in 2021, delivering a .309/.429/.615 triple-slash and almost single-handedly dragging a badly flawed team into the postseason. But yet again, they ran out of gas in September, and Harper had to content himself with his second MVP award. He was 28 years old, three years into what amounted to a lifetime deal, and the team to which he’d tied himself couldn’t get out of first gear.

If the 2022 Phillies had lost three more games in the regular season, it’s doubtful Harper would have remembered this year very fondly. In April, he tore his UCL making a throw in the outfield; without the offseason rule change that brought the designated hitter to the National League, his season might have ended right there. After a short adjustment to the DH role, he found his form and was riding a .985 OPS on June 25 when a Blake Snell fastball fractured his left thumb.

The team’s record was 38-35 when Harper went on the injured list. He missed 52 games, of which the Phillies won 32. When he came back on Aug. 26, they were 70-55; of course, they finished 87-75, which means they went 17-20 after Harper returned. A little bit of addition tells us the 2022 Phillies went 55-55 with Bryce Harper in the lineup. He batted .227/.325/.352 over those last 37, as the team barely avoided a fifth straight September catastrophe.

The Phillies snuck into the National League playoffs through the back door, then proceeded to burn down the house. Harper didn’t reach base in his first three postseason appearances, back in the Wild Card round opener in St. Louis on Oct. 7. He came up again in the ninth, with the Phils down 2-0 and J.T. Realmuto on first base with one out. Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley got ahead of Harper 1-2, and then Bryce looked at three pitches just off the plate to draw a walk. He eventually scored the equalizer in the six-run uprising that set this whole glorious rampage in motion. Facing an allegedly unhittable closer in his first postseason appearance in five years, and finding a way to extend the rally, he also might have found the mystical “it.”

That he hasn’t gone hitless in any of the team’s ten playoff games since seems almost inane in the context of Harper’s folkloric October. The next night, as the Phils dispatched the Cardinals, he hit a home run so majestic that David Robertson injured himself celebrating it. He went 3-3 with a double and a walk in the NLDS opener against Atlanta, and added two more homers back in Philadelphia to help celebrate the city’s first home playoff baseball since the year before Harper broke in. He turned 30 the day after eliminating the defending champs.

In the NLCS opener against the Padres, he gave the Phils a 1-0 lead with his fourth home run of the playoffs, though it was overshadowed a bit both by Kyle Schwarber’s later 488-foot blast and Harper’s immediately memeable reaction to it. After a couple relatively quiet games, he erupted again in Game Four with a first-inning RBI double to pull the Phils within 4-3, and then in the fifth after Rhys Hoskins’ second two-run homer had tied it at 6, he put the Phils ahead for good with a second RBI double. Harper’s Phillies were one win shy of the pennant.

Had the Phillies not scratched out those few wins needed to secure the #6 seed in the NL playoff bracket, Bryce Harper would still be on a clear Hall of Fame trajectory. Cooperstown comes to call for those who deliver year-in, year-out excellence, and through his age 29 season Harper has 285 home runs, a triple-slash of .280/.390/.523, and 42.5 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball-Reference. His closest career comp, also per B-R, is Barry Bonds. Future inductees Mike Trout and Freddie Freeman are fifth and eighth on the list. Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Carl Yastrzemski are sixth and ninth.

But there’s excellence, and then there’s greatness. What Harper did in the bottom of the eighth inning against Robert Suarez was greatness: falling behind early in the count, fouling off three pitches, laying off an exquisite 1-2 changeup… and then blasting a 98 mile sinker over the wall for what we might remember as the biggest home run in 140 years of Phillies history.

He didn’t make the moment on his own. Without Zack Wheeler shoving through the rain for six plus innings, the game might not have been close enough to allow for heroics. Without J.T. Realmuto cracking a leadoff single to left after falling behind 0-2, Harper couldn’t have put the Phils ahead. Hell, without Padres skipper Bob Melvin making the deeply questionable decision to leave Suarez in against Harper rather than turning to his imposing lefty closer Josh Hader, the team might be back in San Diego right now prepping for Game Six.

But when Harper stepped into the biggest moment, he delivered in the biggest way. And it wasn’t a teenaged prodigy, a cocky young star or even a free agent signing a record deal who crushed that fastball. It was a giant of the game, in full mastery of his talents, living out the dream he’s probably cherished since he first picked up a plastic bat. To witness such things is one great joy of being a fan. Another is anticipating the next one.