Harper adjusting to life of a pro, while everyone adjusts to him
HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- If Bryce Harper had the life of a normal high-school senior, he would be in his hometown of Las Vegas, getting ready for finals and putting the finishing touches on his graduation party.
Instead, Harper, 18, the hottest prospect in a generation, is using his checklist of tools to dominate the Class-A South Atlantic League while learning a new position and dealing with exhausting logistics.
In his first five weeks as a pro, Harper, the top pick by the Washington Nationals in last year's draft, has switched from catcher to the outfield. He has adjusted to wearing contact lenses. He has had an 18-game hitting streak and hit nine home runs, including one a grand slam. He has rammed into walls, stolen key bases and started rallies with bunt singles.
Never mind that he and his Hagerstown Suns teammates have logged 66 hours and 3,316 miles curled up on the team bus since the South Atlantic League opener April 7 in Rome, Ga.
"I don't know what else he could do for us,'' Suns manager Brian Daubach says. "He's learning a lot. The travel can be wearing, especially when you are not used to it.
"But, it's a good experience to learn how to play when you're tired. In the big leagues, there are more games, unfamiliar hotel beds, cross-country flights and 4 a.m. arrivals.''
That is at least one thing Harper is already getting used to. The Suns returned from a road trip at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning and had a game later that night. It's that kind of grind that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wants Harper to get used to before serious talk of him reaching the majors can begin.
"In high school, he played three games a week and in junior college, there was time off between games,'' Rizzo says. "His challenge is to make adjustments that go with the mental and physical parts of the game. That takes time. He has to have repetition.
"He has to see all kinds of pitches, arm angles and deliveries and then adjust. On defense, he has to learn routes until they become routine.''
Rizzo is mum on any possible promotions for Harper, but the next step, to high-Class A Potomac in Woodbridge, Va., likely won't be long from now. However, Rizzo has maintained all year that Harper will not join the big club until at least 2012, even though the Nationals need the sort of offensive jolt that Harper -- who is batting .366 with .447 on-base percentage and .656 slugging percentage -- could provide.
In the meantime, Harper will use his time in the bushes to figure out how to combat pitchers who are progressively tougher to hit the higher up the minor league ladder one goes. For instance, the biggest difference between low Class-A and high Class-A is that pitchers at the advanced level will have a better idea of how to exploit a hitter's weaknesses, Daubach says:
"In high-A, a pitcher will continue to throw to a player's weakness and [the batter will] be tempted to chase. Here, a pitcher will continue to throw to the weakness, but will miss more often.''
Harper, who left high school after his sophomore year to get his GED and attend junior college, is learning his craft at Municipal Stadium, a ballpark built in 1932 with a classic old-time, minor league atmosphere.
It's the third-oldest park in the minors. Hall of Famer Willie Mays played his first pro game at Municipal Stadium, and his orange-and-black No. 24 jersey hangs above the right field bullpen.
The video board in left field has a purple border, because it was purchased second-hand from Texas Christian University's football program. Harper's at-bats have been sold, so when he comes to the plate, the public-address announcer says that the at-bat is sponsored by Miss Utilities, a Baltimore company that surveys land, and an advertisement pops up on the board.
The team shop has brisk sales of Harper T-shirts, including one that says "Harperstown.''
"The surreal thing is seeing little kids walk by wearing Bryce's number,'' says Harper's dad, Ron, sitting next to the first-base dugout. "We don't make a big deal of it, but it is neat to see.''
The Nationals will not allow Bryce Harper to do one-on-one interviews, and reporters have access to him only when he's involved in situations that dictate the outcome of the game.
"We are trying to build something special, and we want him to focus on baseball,'' says Doug Harris, the Nationals' farm director. "He's strong fundamentally, and we want him to have a well-rounded game.''
In addition to his raw talent, Harper impresses baseball people with his instincts, composure and willingness to learn. He has played mainly right field in his brief professional career, but he's had time in center, too.
He was hitting .231 on April 19 when he took an eye exam and found out that he needed a prescription for contact lenses. He's been raking ever since.
Harper had contacts in high school, but they gave him headaches, so he stopped wearing them. Now, he has said in previous interviews with reporters, that he's found lenses that are comfortable, and its like "seeing in HD.''
Harper, who along with pitcher Stephen Strasburg gave the Nationals two consecutive top draft picks, hit .389 in 13 spring-training games with the Nationals. Suns batting coach Marlon Anderson, a former infielder whose big-league career ended in 2009, says that early in the season, Harper was trying to do too much to prove that he could play.
"He was trying to make it happen, but he needed to be patient and let the game come to him,'' Anderson says.
Anderson told him to "not be so anxious,'' but hasn't changed Harper's swing.
"I'm not an idiot, I don't touch something that's not broken,'' Anderson says. "For me, the amazing thing is how far he hits the ball to left and left-center field. It's special to see, especially from an 18-year-old. There are players who are 23, 24 and 25 who can't do that. He's ahead of the curve. Where does that take him? We don't know, but it's going to be fun to watch.''
Defensively, Harper is working with former big-league outfielder Tony Tarasco, who is emphasizing passion for the fundamentals and teaching Harper how to stride and not run hard so that he can see the ball better.
"He's a thoroughbred learning to trot,'' Tarasco says. "You have to know your responsibilities, and you can't be out there day-dreaming.''
As an example, Tarasco uses a first-inning scenario: Opposing batter singles to right-center, Harper cuts the ball off and holds the runner at first. The next batter hits into a 4-6-3 double play and the final out of the inning is a fly ball.
The flip side: Harper doesn't cut off the ball, and the leadoff batter takes second, advances to third on a grounder and scores on a sacrifice fly.
"It sounds so simple, but if you don't do it right, that scenario can be a momentum-changer and decide the outcome of the game,'' Tarasco says. "And, that's just one scenario. He has to learn to anticipate. He has to know the pitch, the batter's swing, his speed, and all kinds of things. My grandmother can catch a fly ball. You have to do know what to do with it.''
The Rome Braves have played two series against Hagerstown -- one at the start of the season and then a month later -- and their manager, former catcher Matt Walbeck, was struck by Harper's growth as a player.
"By far, you can see the difference,'' Walbeck says. "His offensive approach improved dramatically the second time. He stayed back on pitches. He wasn't as much of a pull hitter. He had better plate discipline.
"You can see that he has all the tools, instinct and attitude. He has everything.''
Walbeck says that Harper's instincts keep him from being a selfish player.
In one game, Walbeck had his infielders play back against Harper, who reacted by trying to bunt for a hit down the third-base line.
"Then, when I moved the infield in, he noticed our left-handed pitcher was falling off to the third-base side,'' Walbeck said. "So, he bunted to the first-base side for a hit that led to a five-run inning.
"The rally meant game over for us. He can hit the ball over the fence, but you can see him thinking, How am I going to help my team win? At his age, with his feel for the game, you just shake your head and say, 'Wow.'''
Tuesday's game was stopped by rain in the third inning, but afterward Harper stood along the fence and signed everything that fans put in front of him. He thanked them for their support as he as put his name on everything from balls and bats to T-shirts and posters.
Harper declined to talk to reporters, but it wasn't because he was tired and wanted to go home early after the all-night bus ride the night before.
Instead, Harper, who had gone hitless for two straight games and struck out in his only at-bat on Tuesday, went to the cage and hit for another 45 minutes. "He's always working and wanting to learn,'' his dad says. "Sparky Anderson said that he never stopped learning, and that's the way Bryce wants to be.''