It’s a great story. A rookie — even young for a rookie — taking his league by storm. Already, at such a tender age, maybe the most complete offensive and defensive player on his team, which includes several All-Stars still in their primes. In the top five in his league in WAR, Batting Average, OBP and OPS. Now, in his first full season in the Major Leagues, he’s headed to the biggest in-season showcase the game has: The All-Star Game.
Only, that story isn’t about Bryce Harper. At least not until the last sentence.
No, everything else in that paragraph is about Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. Trout is second in overall WAR for the A.L., first in offensive WAR, first in batting average, fourth in OBP, third in OPS, eighth in runs and first in stolen bases. That’s the resume of an All-Star.
Harper has 13 fewer plate appearances this season than does Trout. Harper does not place in the top ten in the N.L. in any of the categories that Trout does, or any others for that matter.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column trying to assess Harper’s chances at landing an All-Star reserve position. I concluded at that time there were two dozen N.L. outfielders — based on performance alone — that deserved a spot before Harper did. And that was at a point when Harper was absolutely on fire. Nothing that has happened in the weeks since has made me change my mind. In fact, it’s reinforced my opinion.
Harper is doing remarkable things for this team and this organization. I’m not disputing that or selling his contributions on the field short. I see his all-out play every day. I see him do things with a bat and in the field that makes me marvel to think two years ago he was a junior college catcher. I see him and find it hard to believe he’s just 19 YEARS OLD.
But, at the same time, I’m able to look past what he may become and analyze what he is now. What he is now is an max-effort teenager who’s hitting .283/.357/.479 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs who can’t lay off the outside breaking ball even when he knows when it’s coming. Yes, that’s remarkable for a 19-year-old. Truly so. But those aren’t All-Star numbers.
Bryce Harper was named to the All-Star Game for one reason: to sell t-shirts. No, make that two reasons: so maybe folks will wait up until 10:30 pm to see if he’ll pinch-hit in a meaningless exhibition. If you simply evaluate his performance against his peers, he does not earn the honor. He’s there to sell product and contribute to ratings.
I know that complaining about a player making an All-Star team is a little like complaining about getting free ice cream, but not the flavor you like. I know it’s a meaningless exhibition. I know, with the way they allow fans to vote literally as many times as they like that San Francisco Giants’ fans almost voted in a player that hasn’t even played this season. But part of me still really likes the whole charade, and it’s obviously important to a LOT of people, not the least of which are the people who make money off of it.
You get the feeling, from Harper’s response after Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 win over Colorado (in which Harper went 1-for-4 with a strikeout), that he’s honored but might not feel he deserves it. According to The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore, Harper seemed like would have preferred to have the time off to go see his family.
When asked his first reaction to making the team, Harper replied, “I don’t get to go home.” Then he paused.
“No, I’m excited to get there and have a good time,” Harper said. “Enjoy it, take it all in, really just to try enjoy myself, definitely.”
Harper did not appear outwardly thrilled, perhaps because the honor overwhelmed him, or maybe because he missed the chance to go home, or a mixture of both.
Harper’s manager also seemed less than thrilled about the idea when he spoke to the media. Davey Johnson said that he hoped Harper would be able to take a mental break from a pennant race, but an All-Star selection will be anything but a break. It’s not the inning or at bat he might get. No, the game will be the easy part. But now, Harper will have to spend all day Monday and Tuesday glad-handing corporate sponsors, signing autographs for fans and doing promotional appearances for MLB and any television station or network that asks for it.
He’ll do it gladly and with dignity, because he understands that’s all part of the game. He’s been doing it since he was 15 years old. But he’ll also be doing it with humility, because he knows why he was selected. He knows his numbers don’t match up to other players that were left out, such as Atlanta’s Martin Prado or Jason Heyward, the Phillies’ Hunter Pence, Arizona’s Jason Kubel, Colorado’s Michael Cuddyer or Dexter Fowler or really, any other number of players. Use any metric you want, you can find several non-All-Stars above Harper in the standings.
Again, this isn’t to degrade what Harper’s done at this point. He looks like he’s got the talent to be an All-Star for the next two decades. But his selection this year is about ratings and t-shirts. If my opinion sounds cynical and jaded to you, well, maybe it is. But please don’t take this as I have anything against the guy. I don’t.
I just really wished Harper would truly earn his first All-Star selection. And I have the feeling he does too.