By Jay Jaffe
September 06, 2012

A recent power surge by Bryce Harper has helped the Nationals reclaim the lead in the race for the NL's best record. (Chuck Myers/Landov)

Bryce Harper is back. The 19-year-old Nationals phenom has emerged from a second-half slide in recent weeks, bopping seven homers and collecting eight multi-hit games in his last 16 starts. Two of those homers came on Wednesday night, as Harper went deep — both shots traveled over 420 feet — against the Cubs' Chris Volstad and Michael Bowden. He had plenty of company in teeing off on the downtrodden Cubs, as the Nationals combined for six homers for the second game in a row.

Thanks in part to Harper's recovery, the Nats have backed a five-game losing streak with a 7-1 tear, reclaiming the league's best record from the Reds in the process. As it stands, they're 84-52 compared to Cincinnati's 83-55, and they now own a 7 1/2 game lead in the NL East, and a major league best +128 run differential. Across that eight-game stretch, Harper has hit .400/.471/.976 with five homers in 34 plate appearances.

As one might expect from the league's youngest player, Harper has had a rollercoaster season. His monthly splits tell part of the story (I've lumped his two April games in with May's stats):

April/May 129 4 14 21 .274 .357 .504 .861
June 116 4 10 28 .274 .336 .443 .780
July 111 1 12 22 .222 .306 .313 .619
August 115 6 8 25 .243 .292 .456 .748
September 19 2 3 2 .375 .474 .875 1.349

As the season has worn on, Harper's on-base percentage has declined in every month, in part due to eroding plate discipline, and in part due to drops in his batting average on balls in play (by month: .303, .338, .276, .257, .333). What the monthly splits conceal is a dreadful stretch that ran from the All-Star break through August 15, before his fortunes turned: .171/.257/.244 with just two homers and four extra-base hits in 141 PA. Fatigue may have been a contributing factor; after all, Harper is in just his second season as a professional, having played 109 games last year with significantly less travel in terms of time zone changes.

Fatigue wasn't the only factor, however. As ESPN's Keith Law noted in late August, Harper has had longstanding problems against off-speed stuff on the outer half of the plate, and where he was able to adjust earlier in the year, his slide began when the Yankees used that approach in striking him out five times in seven plate appearances in a 14-inning game on June 16, providing a template for other teams. He has also proven vulnerable against lefties; dating back to that game (which was started by Andy Pettitte), he has hit .161/.228/.277 against southpaws, and his overall platoon split (.277/.351/.482 against righties, .226/.291/.390 against lefties) is sizable. His recent results do offer some hope in that department; since August 16, he's 6-for-21 against southpaws, with a pair of homers.

Harper's recent power surge has pushed him to 17 home runs, to go with a respectable but not exceptional .259/.330/.449 line. His slump may have cost him a shot at the NL Rookie of the Year award, as the Reds' Todd Frazier has been superior in terms of basic statistics, hitting .289/.349/.531 with 18 homers while doing an exceptional job filling in for the injured Scott Rolen and Joey Votto. The Diamondbacks' Wade Miley has gone 14-9 with a 2.90 ERA and a strong 3.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Both players are much older — Frazier is 26, Miley 25 — and while they lack Harper's future potential, the award is based upon current performance, not projections of superstardom.

Even so, Harper still has an outside shot at eclipsing the single-season home run record for teenagers, held by Tony Conigliaro, who hit 24 for the Red Sox as a 19-year-old in 1964. Mel Ott is second on the list, with 18 for the Giants in 1928, so with one more, Harper can own a share of the NL record. More reachable is the teenage record for extra base hits, co-owned by Ott and the Cubs' Phil Cavaretta (1935) with 48; Harper is at 43. Meanwhile, his 47 walks are just 12 off of the teenage record held by Rusty Staub for the Colt .45s in 1963; while less sexy from a statistical standpoint, the total does testify to the maturity of his approach even at his tender age.

Finally, with 3.5 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference's version), Harper is just 0.2 wins off Ott's mark for value among teenagers:

Rk Player WAR Year Age Team PA HR BA OBP SLG
1 Mel Ott 3.7 1928 19 Giants 500 18 .322 .397 .524
2 Bryce Harper 3.5 2012 19 Nationals 490 17 .259 .330 .449
3 Edgar Renteria 3.1 1996 19 Marlins 471 5 .309 .358 .399
4 Ken Griffey Jr. 2.9 1989 19 Mariners 506 16 .264 .329 .420
5 Ty Cobb 2.3 1906 19 Tigers 394 1 .316 .355 .394
6 Travis Jackson 2.0 1923 19 Giants 350 4 .275 .321 .391
7 Buddy Lewis 1.9 1936 19 Senators 657 6 .291 .347 .399
8 Cesar Cedeno 1.7 1970 19 Astros 377 7 .310 .340 .451
9 Tony Conigliaro 1.4 1964 19 Red Sox 444 24 .290 .354 .530
10T Robin Yount 1.3 1974 18 Brewers 364 3 .250 .276 .346
Mickey Mantle 1.3 1951 19 Yankees 386 13 .267 .349 .443

That's fine company. Of the other 10 players on the list, five — Ott, Cobb, Jackson, Yount and Mantle — are in the Hall of Fame, with Griffey likely to join them in 2016, his first year of eligibility. All of which should serve as a reminder of just how special Harper is; players able to succeed in the majors at such a young age tend to have great careers.

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