It seemed that more than a few fans in the Washington Metropolitan Area, and to a larger extent the baseball community as a whole, were surprised by the performance of Washington Nationals 19-year-old rookie Bryce Harper this weekend.
In case you missed it, Harper went 4-for-8 through the weekend set with a triple, two home runs and four RBIs – an effort that helped the Nationals take two of three from the New York Mets and extend their lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East to five games. His efforts also put him in elite company, joining Tony Conigliaro, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mickey Mantle as the top home run hitters at 19 years of age. As if that were not impressive enough, his sixth triple ranks first among teenagers with at least 12 home runs.
It would be less than honest to say that I am not surprised. In fact, I am shocked. I am shocked that anyone is surprised with Harper’s performance because to be surprised is to undermine his talent. What Harper did this weekend was not surprising. He did nothing less than what is expected of him.
Ever since the 2010 Golden Spikes Award winner was drafted number one overall in the 2010 MLB First Years Player’s Draft, Harper has been expected to hit multiple home runs in a series. He has been expected to hit at .500 clips. He has been expected to be successful. Ask Bryce. I am sure he will be more than willing to tell you about his great expectations. He did as much in a post-game interview after yesterday’s 5-2 win over the Mets.
“I’m never satisfied with my work,” Harper said. “I’m never satisfied with anything I do.”
When Harper comes through with a game-changing play, it should not be met with shock because he is meeting our expectations. He is also meeting the expectations he has set for himself, which have apparently been set higher than anyone can imagine. And anyway, since when is an expected outcome met with surprise, even if it happens to come in the middle of a long-drawn-out slump?
Surprise, surprise – it is time once again to discuss Harper’s slump, which has lasted for nearly the entire 35 post All-Star break games in which he has appeared. In those 35 games, Harper has posted a .191/.275/.321 line with just one double, two triples, four home runs and 11 RBIs.
The slump comes on the heels of a first half in which Harper posted a .282/.354/.472 line with 15 doubles, four triples, eight home runs and 25 RBIs – much more in line with what everyone expects.
But even if Harper’s second half does not meet expectations, it should not come as a surprise, as one would expect, and should be very familiar to Nationals fans.
This time last year, Nationals fans became disillusioned with then-rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa, whose first-half numbers had him in contention for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. But after batting .242/.332/.460 with 15 doubles, 16 home runs and 52 RBIs in the first half, Espinosa suffered a drop-off in production that had fans calling for his job. Needless to say, people were surprised. They probably should not have been.
Why should we be unfazed when players fail to meet expectations? We should not be – provided said players are rookies.
In a post-game interview yesterday evening, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman explained both the highs and the lows that are often experienced by first year players.
“Just like everyone when they come up, whether they’re 19 or 29, you’re going to have struggles where you go up and down. It takes a while for the league to learn you, and then it takes a while for you to learn the league. So it kind of goes back and forth until you get consistent.”
It is what happens to rookies. Many may not remember the 40 games in which Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim rookie Mike Trout played last season. To say the least, his performance was nothing like it has been this year. As such, it is important that we do not lower our expectations for rookies to the point of being surprised when they accomplish what we expect them to accomplish.
Bryce Harper’s expectations, both ours for him and his for himself, will always remain sky high. It is something that comes with having your face printed on Sports Illustrated at 16 years of age. Right now, the league is making its adjustments. But you can rest assured that Harper will readjust to the league. And when that day comes, the fun will truly begin.