This article appears in the March 30 edition of SI. To subscribe, click here.
Here he comes again, full bore, the only gear he knows, like the baseball version of a top fuel car. When Bryce Harper answers a question, just as when he chases a fly ball to a wall or zooms helmetless around the base paths—with the most vigorously windblown hair since Pete Rose’s—he fairly leaves in his wake the aromas of spent nitromethane, burned rubber and exhaust smoke, which is to say, he wears the scent of danger like cologne.
“You’ve got to have the confidence to win the World Series,” the Nationals' rightfielder says, seated on a folding chair on the warning track near first base after a spring training workout at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. “I truly believe if we’re hitting on all cylinders and guys do what they need to do, we’ll win, plain and simple.
“Am I saying that it’s going to be easy for us? No. But do we have the confidence? One hundred percent. You have to. I don’t care if you pick us to win the World Series or not. [Editor’s note: We’re not.] Every day when you get out of your car and walk into the park you better have that chip on your shoulder, that confidence to believe, We’re the best team in baseball.” [Editor’s note: They are.]
Like Woolworth’s, Standard Oil, the Soviet Union and the Rolling Stones, the Nationals reek of an old-world superpower. In an age of parity when no team has won 100 games since the 2011 Phillies—the longest such drought over full seasons in the history of the 162-game schedule—and when starting pitching has been de-emphasized in favor of a bottomless supply of hard-throwing relievers, Washington, which led the National League with 96 wins last year, looms as exceptional. It has assembled five elite starters: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez.
The free-agent signing of Scherzer prompted another infamous incendiarism from Harper on the day the outfielder reported to camp: “I was like, Where’s my ring?” After all, last year, the Nats’ starting staff joined the 2011 Phillies’ as the only ones in baseball history with four times as many strikeouts as walks in at least 1,000 innings—and now Washington has added the ’13 American League Cy Young Award winner, who over the past two years led the majors in strikeouts and tied for the lead in wins. Only 28 pitchers have won 15 games with an ERA of 3.25 or better in any of the past three seasons, and the Nationals have hoarded six of them, including Tanner Roark, whom Scherzer bumped from the rotation.
And yet, the most critical player in Washington’s World Series plan is a 22-year-old who in 1,489 major league plate appearances has never faced a pitcher younger than himself, has never driven in 60 runs and has missed 35% of his team’s games since running face-first into a wall in May 2013. Harper, who most often batted sixth and played left last season, graduates to the third spot and rightfield this year. And because of the departure of first baseman Adam LaRoche, who signed with the White Sox, he represents the lineup’s lone lefthanded power threat.
Despite their superb pitching last year, the Nationals flunked out of the playoffs because of a lack of clutch hitting, a season-long flaw waiting to be exposed. Washington had a 1.23 ERA against the Giants in the NL Division Series, but lost by one run three times in four games while hitting .164. In 2014, the Nats struck out more than any other winning team in the majors, ranked 11th in the NL in hitting with runners in scoring position (.242) and tied the ’12 Reds as the worst-hitting team with two outs and runners in scoring position (.198) among all division winners since 1969.
The Nationals, who also fielded a stellar rotation in 2012 (when they won 98 games but lost in the Division Series), know full well that having elite starters does not necessarily translate into a title. Over the past nine years, the team that led the NL in starters’ ERA has played .355 baseball in the postseason in those seasons—11–20, the equivalent of a 104-loss year—while losing six of seven series.
Hitting third—or possibly fourth when leftfielder Jayson Werth recovers from shoulder surgery—Harper inherits more responsibility for not letting all that superior pitching go to waste again. And yet, he is a career .234 hitter with runners in scoring position, including .186 with two outs.
“I guess there’s a little bit of pressure, but I put more pressure on myself than anybody,” Harper says. “I’m not scared of it. I’m not scared to be the only lefty power hitter. I want to do damage. That’s what I want to do.”
This is Harper’s fourth big league season. Because of injuries caused by high-velocity collisions—twice running into walls and once spraining his thumb diving headfirst for a triple—he has never made 600 plate appearances. (He had 597 in his rookie year, when he hit 22 home runs with 59 RBIs, still career highs.) So the lineup fulcrum for the presumptive best team in baseball remains something of an unknown even among those closest to him.
When asked if he knew what Harper could produce over a full year, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo says, “I don’t think I do. I’m really anxious to see what he can put up with a healthy season.”
Answers manager Matt Williams, “I think he’s ready to hit in the middle of the order. With 600 plate appearances, I think he’s capable of driving in 100. I really don’t know as far as the home runs. I do know that when he hits them, he hits them in bunches.”
Harper, given the same question about his potential production, leaves the bat on his shoulders.
“I go into every single year knowing if I go out there and play hard and bust my butt, that will take care of it,” he says. “I don’t need to go, C’mon, just give me one full year! I know how hard I work to get ready. People are going to say what they want.”
Here’s what Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post wrote about him on Feb. 25: “Bryce Harper is the face of the Washington Nationals, but there can be no doubt he has been underwhelming since his arrival in the big league [sic].”
Underwhelming? In 2012, his only healthy season—at age 19, in what for most people would have been freshman year of college—Harper set major league records for a teenager in total bases (254), extra-base hits (57) and WAR (5.1). And even with the two injury-shortened seasons that followed, Harper is only the sixth player in history with 50 homers and 30 steals through his age-21 season, joining Orlando Cepeda, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Mike Trout.
Harper was hitting .303 on May 13, 2013, when he crashed into the rightfield wall at Dodger Stadium with the Nationals leading 6–0. He hit .226 over the next two weeks before finally going on the disabled list with pain and swelling in his left knee. He sat out all of June, hit .212 in his first three weeks after the layoff, and though he hit .284 thereafter, required off-season knee surgery.
A similar scenario occurred last year: a fast start (.289 on April 25) derailed by a collision injury (those torn thumb ligaments), followed by a lengthy DL stay (57 games), followed by rust (.220 in his first 35 games back), followed by a strong finish (.305 over his final 43 games).
Harper’s best months are his healthiest: April and September. If you prorated his career numbers from those two months over 150 games, you get a .306 hitter with 25 home runs and 67 RBIs—all for a player who still is younger than all four Rookies of the Year named since he won the award in 2012. Harper is younger than Cubs phenom Kris Bryant (who, at 23, has yet to play a day in the majors).
Says Nationals centerfielder Denard Span, “He’s been through a lot at a young age. But I know what I saw last year in the playoffs: I saw a man. I saw someone step up and put the team on his back.”
Harper hit three home runs in the four games against San Francisco, giving him four career postseason homers through age 21—matching Mickey Mantle, Miguel Cabrera and Jones as the only young sluggers with that many. And yet no doubt underwhelming and worse follow him. He runs into walls (though Williams did bench him last year for not running out a routine grounder), shares a fun personality on social media and helps promote the game as one of the few players with national endorsement deals. Still, people are quick to vilify him, including Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler (career record: 18–16), who in early March told the New York Daily News, “I guarantee you we all saw what Bryce Harper said. He said, ‘Give me my ring.’ ”
Actually, that’s not what he said, but on the Richter scale of reaction, Harper’s comments still blew away the stillness that reigned when Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, on the heels of the franchise’s five straight last-place finishes, promised Chicago would win the NL Central. Was Harper surprised at the backlash?
“No, because it was me,” he says. “Was it meant for harsh remarks? Was I going after somebody? No. Seriously, if you have a staff of five Cy Young candidates, what else are you going to say?
“I don’t care. If you don’t like me because I’m in the other dugout, so be it. I don’t like you, either. We’ll be friends off the field, but I want to kick your teeth in on the field no matter what.”
How is it that Harper can tick off people with playful comments?
“Because you wrote a story when I was 16,” he says.
Harper, introduced nationally with an SI cover story in 2009, is the rare baseball player who was famous before he was a professional—a star before he put up a star’s numbers.
“I mean, it’s just some of the things I do,” he continues. “I’m very genuine with what I say. It’s not like I go out there and I’m an ass. Maybe on the field and between the lines I am. Walking out of the clubhouse, I feel like I’m one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. If I say something it’s because of the confidence I have in my team, not because I want to be in the media attention.
“Maybe I’ve been hurt the past two years and haven’t lived up to everything people think I should live up to. But I’d rather piss people off playing hard than piss people off playing soft.”
Like Harper, the Nationals labor under the burdens of great attention and promise. Last year, they won their division by 17 games, the most of any team. They have 280 victories in the past three years—tops in the majors—but have not taken a postseason series in that span, making them the only NL team in the wild-card era to lead the majors in wins over any three-year period while getting skunked in the playoffs. Viewed as a city, not as a franchise, Washington has waited longer in between World Series titles—91 years since the 1924 Senators won it all—than any current major league metropolis.
The presumptive favorites are not without cracks. Werth and Span (abdominal surgery) could miss part or all of the first month of the season. Veteran third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is learning to play first. Shortstop Yunel Escobar, who was slowed by an oblique injury in spring training, is learning how to play second. Span, Zimmermann, Fister and shortstop Ian Desmond are all potential free agents after the season. And Harper, cast in the middle of the order, gets greater responsibility, a role he admits will require more discipline at the plate.
“Thing is, I’ve hit pitches out of the zone before and taken them to left-center 380 feet,” he says. “So I feel like every time I see the same pitch I can do the same thing. But if I can lay off that pitch two inches off the plate I can get another one that may be better.”
Harper wants to believe that what comes next for him actually began with his last at-bat of last season. “My favorite one of the year,” he calls it. With Washington down to its final out in the top of the ninth, trailing the Giants 3–2 in Game 4, Harper faced closer Santiago Casilla. He fell behind 0 and 2. He took three pitches for balls, fouled one off, then took a breaking ball for a seven-pitch walk.
Harper remembers thinking, If I can have that at bat in front of 50,000 people in a playoff atmosphere, why can’t I do that in the regular season too? He took it as a sign he is ready for something bigger. For in that moment of stillness, Harper could be as dangerous as ever.