- Bryce Harper is on a run we haven't seen since Barry Bonds' last MVP season. Plus, a look at the fantasy baseball week ahead.
Welcome to Shohei Otani Appreciation Week across the MLB and the news outlets that cover it. We here at SI.com are fervent in our dedication to worshipping Ohtani’s brilliance. Jon Tayler wrote about Ohtani’s budding stardom, and Tom Verducci covered his Ruthian week to kick off the newest edition of Nine Innings.
Given that we already have your Ohtani needs covered elsewhere, this week’s Table Setter will start with a look at another headline-dominating player who is already making waves this season. Bryce Harper has had himself quite the nine-game run to open the 2018 campaign.
Heading into Monday’s game with the Braves, Harper and the Nationals have played nine games. Harper has homered in more games than he hasn’t, leaving the yard on five different days. All told, he’s 10-for-28 with six homers, 12 RBI and 13 walks. Conversely, he has struck out five times. I don’t really care if it’s just nine games, when you hit homers more often than you strike out (and walk nearly three times as often as you whiff), you’re doing something worth celebrating. You’re doing something, in fact, that we haven’t seen since the greatest slugger of all-time was putting together his last elite season.
Back in 2004, Barry Bonds was 39 years old and the winner of three straight NL MVP awards. He made it four straight that season by hitting .362/.609/.812 with 45 homers, a record 232 walks and just 41 strikeouts. To be clear, Harper won't make an honest run at Bonds’s numbers, and he could fall off the three-walks-per-strikeout pace sooner rather than later. Still, the mere fact that he has given as a look at peak Bonds for two weeks should strike fear into the hearts of every team with World Series aspirations this season.
Harper has been with us so long that it’s easy to forget he’s still just 25 years old. A list of players older than Harper includes Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Judge, Manny Machado and Mookie Betts. It’s an incomplete list, but it gets its point across. Harper is younger than some of the league’s very best players who all joined the majors after he did. We think of them as the leading edge of the league’s new wave of stars, yet it’s the guy who has been in the league the longest that is the youngest. In that, Harper is something unique. A true veteran who is already on the short list of the game’s best players and is almost certainly still getting better, as well.
From a logical standpoint, it’s easy to see where Harper would improve. At 25 years old, he’s likely beginning his physical peak. It seems impossible given where he already is, but he could develop more natural power and bat speed as he progresses in his mid- and late-20s. Additionally, no player reaches the heights Harper did before his 25th birthday without being among the game’s most cerebral. Harper’s mind for the sport should also open up more growth as he becomes even more comfortable in all facets of the game.
This is rightfully Shohei Ohtani Appreciation Week, and we should all embrace that. Do take some time, however, to appreciate another guy who may finally challenge Ohtani’s best teammate’s primacy in the baseball world. Injuries have prevented Harper vs. Mike Trout from becoming our most heated modern debate. If Harper keeps reminding us of Bonds, the debate may finally commence.
Hitters to Watch this Week
Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves
Swanson made our Waiver Wire column for the second straight week, and then proceeded to go 2-for-4 with his first homer of the season on Sunday. The 24-year-old is hitting .382/.400/.618 on the year, with three doubles and a triple to go along with his homer. Swanson was such a disappointment last year after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft that it’s easy to forget he was a rookie. There are few players for whom it clicks right away, regardless of pedigree. Swanson’s history as an elite college player and first overall pick were good reason to dismiss last season and bet on him again. He’s proving why in the early going this year.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
The oft-promised, yet-to-occur Polanco breakout may have finally arrived. The Pirates outfielder has been one of the best hitters thus far this season, slashing .310/.447/.759 with three homers and a league-leading 13 RBI. He has also drawn eight walks against six strikeouts, showing the sort of plate discipline that could help carry him to a new level. He likely played all of last season at less than 100% because of shoulder and hamstring injuries, but with both of those in the rear-view mirror, he’s starting to realize the immense potential he has always had. Through the first 11 days of the season, he’s the No. 3-ranked player in standard 5x5 leagues, trailing Harper and Didi Gregorius.
Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox
A couple spots down from Polanco you’ll find Anderson, who is just one of multiple bright surprises on the South Side of Chicago. The 24-year-old is hitting .276/.364/.586 with three homers and five steals, without having been caught once. Anderson was a former first round pick and a consensus top-50 pick before he broke into the majors for good in 2016. The first 1,000 plate appearances of his career were a bit lackluster, but, as we just discussed with Swanson, it’s going to take more than just one season for even future stars to establish their footing in the majors. Anderson may still be short of future stardom, but he’s showing this year that he can be a reliable, productive everyday player, especially from a fantasy standpoint where his power-speed combo should have him among the most-added players in the early going.
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Votto is 7-for-31 with one walk, six strikeouts and zero extra-base hits in the Reds’ first eight games. In other words, the Phillies and Cardinals—the Reds’ opponents this week—should be very afraid. Every hitter in the majors will go on a bad run like this from time to time, but the best ones, like Votto, typically break out of it in a big way once they finally get going. He could be in line for a monster week.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins
Take a look at Sano’s early line this season, and the three homers and .741 slugging percentage jump out. That’s not what I want to talk about, though. Instead, I’d like to focus on the five walks he took in his last four games. Over the first three games of the season, Sano had eight strikeouts and zero free passes. In the last four, he has just six whiffs counterbalancing those five walks. Sure, that’s still quite a few strikeouts, and he has fanned at least once in every game, but it’s encouraging to see him making strides with his understanding of the strike zone.
Sano walked three times in the Twins 11–4 loss to the Mariners on Saturday, the third time in his career with that many walks in one game. A large volume of strikeouts is always going to be part of his game, but if he can offset it with above-average plate discipline, he could force pitchers into the zone more often, and that could help his power numbers take off.
Pitchers to Watch this Week
Shohei Ohtani, Angels
What, you thought we weren’t going to find a way to work Ohtani in here? Come on, it’s Ohtani Appreciation Week! Just because he’s leading the way in a few other stories on the site doesn’t mean we have to ignore him in the Table Setter. Ohtani will follow up his run at a perfect game with an outing against the start against the Royals over the weekend, though the exact date has yet to be determined. Ohtani is going to dominate even the best offenses in the league, but the Royals are decidedly on the other side of the spectrum. Matchups aren’t everything, but it would be a surprise if Ohtani didn’t enjoy his next trip to the mound. And, as he showed against the A’s last weekend, the possibility for something special exists every time he takes the ball.
Jameson Taillon, Pirates
Taillon’s last start came on the same day as Ohtani’s, so he was overshadowed by baseball’s newest sensation. Taillon, however, was arguably even better than Ohtani on that day, tossing a one-hit shutout against the Reds. Taillon struck out seven and walked two in what was not only the first shutout of his career, but also his first complete game. Taillon’s career has all too often been interrupted by health issues, most recently his cancer diagnosis last year, but this is what he can be when he is at his best. His next start is scheduled for Saturday in Miami.
Jake Arrieta, Phillies
Arrieta made his Phillies debut last week, allowing two runs on three hits, including a homer, in four innings. Arrieta is known for being a pitcher who hates giving up the ball, even if he had, say, thrown 150 pitches through seven innings, so it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which he eventually clashes with manager Gabe Kapler. More importantly, however, it was discouraging to see Arrieta so inefficient with his pitches in his first start this season. He got into trouble over his final two years in Chicago by too often missing the zone, forcing him to labor through tough innings with alarming regularity. He threw 74 pitches in the outing, with 47 going for strikes, including just five whiffs. Arrieta is still capable of dominating from time to time, but there was a reason that the team he helped carry to a World Series title had essentially zero interest in bringing him back this season. He’s slated to make his next start Saturday against the Rays.
Reynaldo Lopez, White Sox
Lopez was excellent again in his second start of the season, allowing one unearned run in seven innings against the Tigers. He did walk five batters, but he surrendered just two hits and racked up five strikeouts, as well. He’s also the latest example of why pitcher win-loss records have lost most of their cachet. Lopez is 0-1, and his team has lost both of his starts, despite the fact that he has allowed all of one earned run in 13 innings. He’s among the vanguard of prospects in the White Sox impressive rebuild, and his flashing his top-of-the-rotation ability thus far this season. He’ll next take the ball on Friday against the Twins in Minneapolis.
Luke Weaver, Cardinals
Just like Ohtani, Taillon and Lopez, Weaver, too, threw a gem on Sunday. His exploits? One run on three hits and a walk in 6 1/3 innings, with seven strikeouts. He whiffed the mighty Paul Goldschmidt twice, and the only run credited to him came with him in the dugout and Matthew Bowman on the mound. Weaver has what it takes to be the best pitcher in the Cardinals rotation this season, something he has showed going back to his 60 1/3-inning run in the majors last year. He draws a matchup with the Reds in Cincinnati on Friday.
GIF of the Week
Charlie Morton has enjoyed a late-career breakout over the last few seasons, thanks in large part to embracing his curveball since arriving in Houston. Eric Hosmer learned all about the curve on Sunday, when Morton struck out seven Padres in six innings in a 4-1 Astros win.