"Don't get comfortable."
The scolding from Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond hit Bryce Harper, his teenage teammate, like a cold hand across the face. Desmond kept going: "You look too comfortable right now."
"Yep," confirmed Washington third base coach Trent Jewett, standing in the Nationals Park dugout before batting practice last Aug. 17. "You do look comfortable."
Baseball fate, like a Dickensian schoolmaster, had reproved the kid after fiendishly allowing him the illusion of instant success. After making his major league debut last April 28 at age 19, Harper hit a jaunty .302 in his first 42 games. But he batted .203 over the next two months, including a 3-for-32 sit-in-the-corner humiliation on an early August road trip. When Desmond and Jewett cornered him upon the team's return to D.C., they were telling Harper that he looked as if he was simply happy to be a big leaguer and waiting for providence to pull him out of his slump.
February 25, 2013
"What?" Harper barked. "I can't believe you just said that to me. Trust me, I'm not comfortable. I've never been comfortable in my life."
"I was furious," Harper recalls. "And that game I went off. I really think that's what lit my fire."
A few hours after the dugout reprimand, Harper smashed a 412-foot home run off Johan Santana of the Mets—a line drive that left his bat at 110 mph, the second fastest he turned around any of his 22 home runs in 2012, according to hittrackeronline.com. Beginning that night he put up an impressive slash line of .327/.384/.660 over his final 44 games—in the middle of a pennant race, no less—to help Washington win the franchise's first National League East title in 31 years.
It was a historic performance by Harper, who of course was named the NL Rookie of the Year. Perhaps only Beethoven and Bieber have been better before their 20th birthdays: Among teenage major leaguers, Harper set records for total bases (254), extra-base hits (57) and WAR (5.0, displacing Hall of Famer Mel Ott, who had 3.7 WAR as a 19-year-old in 1928) while ranking second in home runs (behind Tony Conigliaro's 24 in 1964) and runs (98, behind Buddy Lewis's 100 in 1936).
Don't get comfortable? That goes double for this season, and not just for the Nationals' outfield prodigy. With Harper and the American League Rookie of the Year, Angels centerfielder Mike Trout, at the fore, the 2012 rookie class was among the most accomplished ever. Now, as camps are in full swing across Florida and Arizona, those players are facing a task that has often proved more difficult than a breakout rookie season: producing a worthy sequel.
Harper is as confident about meeting this challenge as he was the one from Desmond. The day after Washington's season ended with a collapse against St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, Harper decided on his 2013 statistical goals and stored them in his phone, where he, at least, can access them easily. "Some numbers on there are kind of crazy," he says. "I don't want to say [them] because I don't want people to blow up. They're possible, but I think everything can be possible. It's more like, Hey, I'm going to set the bar as high as I can. But your average person or team would look at it and go, 'This kid's an idiot.'
"I want my team to win 105 games to have a shot at winning the World Series. If I achieve the numbers and we don't win, I'll be furious."
So littered is the landscape with second-year regressions that baseball mythology has embraced a most unscientific explanation for second-season flops: the sophomore jinx. Recent history has done nothing to weaken belief in dark forces. Of the 32 pitchers and 48 position players who received Rookie of the Year Award votes from 2007 to '11, 59 had a worse ERA or OPS in their follow-up act—a 74% attrition rate. Among those hit hard with the malediction were White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham (2010), Braves outfielder Jason Heyward (2011) and Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (2012).
This year's sophomore class may be talented enough, however, to dismiss the jinx. There's not only Harper, who had the best season ever by a teenager, but also Trout, who can make a claim for the best season ever by a rookie. The American League Most Valuable Player runner-up, Trout became the first player to hit 30 home runs, steal 45 bases (49 to be exact) and score 125 runs (129 at final count). In his age-20 season, he replaced Alex Rodriguez as the youngest 30--30 player while supplanting Ty Cobb as both the youngest player to steal 40 bases and the best 20-year-old as ranked by adjusted OPS, a measure of offensive production that adjusts for ballpark and league factors.
It's not difficult to imagine Harper or Trout joining Cal Ripken (1983), Ryan Howard (2007) and Dustin Pedroia (2008) in the exclusive club of players who have followed their Rookie of the Year acts with an MVP. But this year's second-year crop also includes Rangers righthander Yu Darvish, 26, who last season joined Dwight Gooden (1984), Herb Score (1955) and Pete Alexander (1911) as the only first-year players to win 16 games and strike out 220; A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, 27, whose 23 home runs were the most by an Oakland rookie since 1987; Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, 20, the former shortstop who hit .262 after being called up on Aug. 9 and thrown into a pennant race at a new position; A's righthander Jarrod Parker, 24, who won 13 games; Reds third baseman Todd Frazier, 27, who hit 19 home runs; and Diamondbacks lefthander Wade Miley, 26, who won 16 games.
"In this case," says Padres general manager Josh Byrnes, "I'd like to think talent overwhelms precedent, especially for Trout and Harper. These guys are really good, and they hit in good lineups. I'd be more inclined to think we'll see improvement [from them] rather than drop-off."
Perhaps not surprisingly, given their youth, Harper and Trout still are growing. Indeed, Harper blamed his two-month funk partly on growing an inch or two during last season, a spurt that may have thrown off his timing and mechanics. Drafted in 2010 at 205 pounds, the 6'3" Harper played last season at 220, now weighs 231 and aims to be 245 pounds by the time he's 25. Likewise, the 6'1" Trout was drafted in 2009 at 190 pounds, played last season at 220 and said last month he weighs 238 pounds after an off-season regimen of twice-daily workouts. "I'm going to have to make sure [Angels manager Mike] Scioscia is not worried when I get to camp," Trout says. "I'll show him I'm just as fast."
Says Byrnes, "These guys have such great strength, but they're speed athletes as well. You don't want to lose top-of-the-scale speed as a tool.... Trout's speed is unbelievable. One day I was sitting with some veteran scouts, and somebody asked who was the fastest guy from home to first you've ever seen. I was expecting to hear about Bo Jackson, Mickey Mantle or one of those guys. And one scout goes, 'I'd have to say it's Trout.'"
In 1954, Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting at age 19. The following winter he packed on weight to beat the sophomore jinx. "I got married that October and put on 10 to 15 pounds," he explains. "I got a lot stronger for the next season."
It worked: In one of the alltime great sophomore seasons, Kaline led the AL in batting (.340), hits (200) and total bases (321) and finished second in the MVP balloting. "There wasn't a lot of pressure on me going into the season," Kaline says. "The Tigers were not a very good team at the time. I had hit .276 the year before. So there wasn't a lot of attention or pressure on me. If you struggled or had an off night, not that many people paid attention.
"The attention is a lot different now, especially after the years these guys had. Trout, he reminds me so much of Mantle, even with how he's built. He's so strong but can run like a deer. He's one of the best rookies I've ever seen."
Added weight, however, did not help Heyward. After hitting .277 with an .849 OPS as a 20-year-old in 2010, the 6'5" Braves outfielder bulked up from 240 pounds to 256. His average sunk to .227 and his OPS to .708 in '11. Last year he cut his weight to 235 and hit .269 while adding more than 100 points to his OPS (.814) in a bounce-back season. Heyward also spent the winter after his sophomore year retooling his swing because pitchers had discovered and exploited a weakness on the inside of the plate. "The main thing [in a sophomore season] is staying healthy and not trying to do too much," says Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "When you expand the strike zone, pitchers can take advantage of you. That was something [Harper] went through last year for a period. But as a young hitter gains experience, you see the improvement.
Similarly, last season was Hosmer's turn to learn why there are practical reasons for sophomore slumps. "The big difference is when you get called up to the big leagues, the league is trying to figure you out," says Hosmer, whose average plummeted from .293 in 2011 to .232. "In the minors they don't have as many resources—the video, scouting and all that. In the majors, after enough time, whatever you see that works against you, everybody will know."
Hosmer started his second year hitting .188 in April. Anxiety crept into his swing, causing him to "leak" forward—to start earlier so he wouldn't get beat with hard stuff. But cheating in that way left him vulnerable to breaking balls. He hit .218 in May. "I was trying to get it all back in one swing, instead of just letting it come to me," Hosmer says. "I went home after the season, got a house in South Florida, put a batting cage in the backyard and went out and hit every day with my brother, who I've been hitting with since I was five. I asked him if he saw something different. He looked at me and said, 'You're leaking out front a little bit.' I shortened my swing, concentrating on staying on my back foot and letting it come to me."
His advice for this year's sophomores? "Harper and Trout, those guys are gifted," says Hosmer, who, like those two, began his rookie year in the minors and so didn't endure the full grind of the major league schedule. "I don't think they'll miss a beat. The only thing I'd say about the second year is that you don't realize how long the season is. The key is to get off to a good start. That way it's almost like you're continuing the last season."
Harper has a word for this sophomore jinx talk.
"Stupid," he blurted out while leveling a tower of gourmet buttermilk pancakes at a New York City restaurant last month. Here's what he figures: He's had to make adjustments every year of his baseball life. Adjusting to a 90-foot diamond from a 60-foot diamond as a kid. Adjusting to playing varsity baseball at 14 against 18-year-olds. Adjusting to top junior college competition at age 16 after ditching high school following his sophomore season and getting his GED.
"It's totally different [in the majors], I understand that," he says. "But in my head it's not. You have to go into your second season saying, 'What more can I do?' You go into your third year, your fourth year saying, 'What more can I do?' So many guys with great careers did have great second years. And I had to make adjustments my whole first year. Every at bat you're making adjustments to a new pitch, a new pitcher.
"Sophomore slump? I was a sophomore in college and I raked. Why can't you rake in the big leagues?"
Harper is still a kid, and looks the part with a gray wool beanie pulled tight over his head and a casual gray sweater over a T-shirt. He's not exactly as underexposed as Kaline was in 1955, but in midtown Manhattan he can still dispose of the pancakes, which disappear like young elms through a woodchipper, without so much as a picture or autograph request. Stretched out in an upholstered booth, he gives the appearance of a muscular thoroughbred colt in a pen, the sinews within him fairly announcing the need to fire.
In his first at bat in the big leagues, Harper grounded back to Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley—as routine an out as can be made—but he sprinted to first as if his house were afire. Nobody since Pete Rose, one of his heroes and someone who played his last game six years before Harper was born, has run the bases with more overt passion than Harper. With his chest out, chin up, arms pumping and helmet ready to pop like a champagne cork, Harper is powered with visible fury. It's nothing pretty. It's an open display of powerful machinery, like some exotic sports car blasting around turns with its hood off. "I want people to know that wasn't a show," he says. "That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to frickin' run through a wall and bust my butt every day. I'm going to run as hard as I can, hit the ball as hard as I can and swing as hard as I can every time. It's something I've been doing my whole life."
Harper never stopped running like that during his rookie season, and to hear him tell it, he held up well under all those rpms. Physically, he says, life in the major leagues was kinder to his body than the minors, thanks to trading fast food for steak houses; cramped, dusty weight rooms for plush training facilities; and bus rides for charter flights. "I felt great," he says. "Mentally? It was exhausting. My process starts from the moment I wake up in the morning and goes to the time I go to bed: 12 o'clock until midnight. It's, What can I do to be better? What is this guy going to throw me? What did he throw me last time? My mind is always going. At the end of the season I was like, Whew. I can laugh again."
Harper's dedication to preparation runs so deep that he breaks down opposing outfielders the way most hitters break down pitchers. He knows which ones take a bad at bat with them to the field and thus might get a slightly slower break to field a base hit, allowing Harper to know that one of his mad dashes to turn a single into a double isn't the risk it appears to be. He studies himself on video—but never his outs and rarely his home runs. Outs are negative reinforcement. Homers are synchronic; you simply react to a pitch in the right spot. What Harper wants to see on film are his singles and doubles. Those are the results of true hitting artistry. A single the other way or a double inside the rightfield line prompts detailed study of his feet and hands.
Better still, he prefers to watch video of Chase Utley of the Phillies and Joey Votto of the Reds, the current master craftsmen among lefthanded hitters. Each of them is a simple machine. They put their front foot down early and bring the barrel to the ball in the shortest possible path. Their front shoulders, like infantrymen on the front line, are admirable in their courage, never bailing in the slightest against a lefty whose pitches start at their bodies then run toward the plate. Harper wants to know: How do pitchers attack them, especially with two strikes? How can they be so efficient with their movement? "I need to be more like that," Harper says. "Be as patient as you can and get as set as you can."
Such searches for incremental adjustments fill Harper's head. So why, he wants to know, should his sophomore season be any different or any more challenging? "Why would anybody even put that in his head?" he asks. "It's dumb. I really do think it's stupid."
Can I say something?"
The man sitting across from Harper in the restaurant booth is as calm as Harper is animated. It's Scott Boras, Harper's agent. Boras proceeds to tell the story of people warning Harper about playing varsity as a high school freshman in Las Vegas. "That's stupid," Harper said then of such concerns. He dominated.
Boras then tells the story of those who advised Harper not to take the GED, which contained subject matter the kid never had in class. "That's stupid," Harper told him. "Of course I can take it." He passed the test. ("Didn't study, either. Got like a 98 [percentile]," he says.)
Boras continues. He tells the story of warning Harper about playing junior college ball at 16 against 22-year-olds, mature men throwing 94 mph that he might not find as easy to hit as high school pitchers. "That's stupid," Harper said. And then he dominated again.
"So," Boras says, "this is like the fourth time I've heard [that phrase]. One thing I think his unusual, precocious experiences have brought him is that he's [succeeded] without the benefit of experience three or four times in his life."
Maybe, more than pitchers and scouts searching for weaknesses with the fervor of geneticists, more than all the scrutiny young stars attract in the Internet age, what brings life to the idea of a sophomore jinx is the added weight of expectations. Maybe having succeeded the first time is the real curse. Suddenly you're Hosmer last April, out on your front foot, leaking and lunging under the pressure to do it all again, if not more.
"You come to the big leagues, and you can do it for yourself," Boras says. "But when you have to repeat it for your team, it's different. Because now you have others relying on you, and that's the first time in your life the focus is really on performing for your team. [Harper has] already been relied upon that way three or four times. Not many backgrounds have prepared somebody like this."
There is a point to the agent's stories, just as there is a point to the secret goals embedded in Harper's phone, and a point to what makes him run, and a point to why this growing 20-year-old kid laughs at some ancient baseball jinx.
"My point," Boras says, "is That's stupid is not so stupid."
The writers of spring: Tom Verducci, Albert Chen, Ben Reiter and Joe Lemire report from Florida and Arizona as they tour major league camps, at SI.com/mag