The Bryce Harper Conundrum

Nationals fans, I feel for you, I really do.  When you were finally given a baseball team in 2005, you were excited.  Expectations weren’t sky-high, as most knew it would take a while to build a winner.  But here we are, over six years later, and you’re still waiting.  Apart from their inaugural season, which saw the team finish right at .500, the franchise hasn’t sniffed a meaningful late season game since moving to DC.

And yet, there’s been a flurry of excitement in the past two years.  First, in 2009, Stephen Strasburg was drafted by the Nats first overall and signed in the nick of time.  Possibly the best pitching prospect in the last 20 years was now in the Nationals’ system.  Point Nationals.  Then, in 2010, Strasburg shot through the minor league system, dominating both AA and AAA for a total minor league line of 55.1 innings, a 1.30 ERA and 10.6 K/9 innings.  Even the most conservative baseball minds, myself included, knew he was ready for prime-time.  I expected some bumps and bruises once he reached the majors, but they never really came.  Strasburg pitched 68 marvelous innings, logging a 2.91 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, 2.3 BB/9 and an otherworldly 12.2 K/9!  Crowds flocked to Nationals Park in record numbers and were ignorant enough to complain when Strasburg had an “off” game.  And then it happened.  On August 21st in Philadelphia, Strasburg grimaced after throwing one of his deadly changeups.  The result: Tommy John surgery and about a year on the shelf.  All hopes of a quick turnaround for the franchise were dashed.

But there was another new toy to play with.  That summer, the Nats again had the #1 pick in the MLB Draft and selected phenom catcher Bryce Harper, whom they would later move to right field.  A prodigy during high school, Harper had graduated early to test his skills at the junior college level.  He was an excellent athlete and an absolute monster at the plate.  Comparisons ranged from Mickey Mantle, to Daryl Strawberry to Babe Ruth.  Needless to say, the bar was set quite high.  Harper came to Spring Training with the big league club this season, and while he didn’t set the world on fire, he certainly didn’t embarrass himself.  He was sent to Low-A Hagerstown to start the season.  Low-A is no picnic for 18 year olds, but Harper has pretty much shattered that stereotype so far, posting a line of .340/.425/.615.  That’s outstanding, especially when you take into account that most kids drafted out of high school generally spend AT LEAST one year in short season ball before even getting a shot at A ball.

And so, after 156 minor league at bats, it has begun.  The fans have started to ask, “When are we going to see Bryce Harper in DC?”  I knew this was going to happen.  And yet it still pains me to hear.  So, Nationals fans, I pose to you a simple question: do you want Bryce Harper now or do you want him at his best?  Because you can’t have both, that’s the simple truth of the matter.

Baseball is unlike any other professional sport.  In basketball, we have seen young prodigies come into the league and dominate right away.  In football, we don’t see teenagers in the professional ranks, but we do see a lot of high impact rookies, usually around 21-22 years old.  In these sports, it is commonplace to see a kid drafted and immediately turn around and make an impact for his pro team.  It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.  A lot more than baseball at least.

Baseball is a different game.  There’s three types of players who get drafted in baseball: high school kids, junior college kids and college kids.  For all intents and purposes, Bryce Harper is a high school kid.  Yes, he went to junior college, but he’s 18 years old, just like any other kid that gets drafted out of high school.  When a team drafts a kid out of high school, they are drafting him based on projection, or what they think he can develop into.  If you threw that kid in the majors right away, he’d get killed.  It’s just how baseball works.  The game is based much more in the brain than in the body, at least much more than any other sport.  As such, there is a steep learning curve.  And for this reason, we have minor league baseball.  The minors are split into six levels:

– Rookie Ball (easiest)
– Short Season Ball
– Low-A
– High-A
– Double-A
– Triple-A (hardest)

Some prospects will spend only a short time at each level, or skip a level entirely, but most prospect gurus, including the renowned John Sickels, recommend that a prospect spend about a full season, or 400-500 at-bast, at each level.

Why?  Good question.  Harper is tearing apart Low-A right now, a level he really has no business even playing at at his age.  Why not skip High-A and bump him right to Double-A?  Heck, let’s get him on the fast track, have him spend about a month tearing up each level, and have him in the majors by September!  Great idea, right?  While some might think so, it’s really not.  Each level teaches a player different skills.  For hitters, one level teaches pitch recognition, while another teaches them how to hit breaking balls, while yet another teaches them to take the ball the other way, etc.  The different levels are set up this way to help the players slowly develop their skills, providing a challenge to help them learn, while keeping them from falling flat on their faces as they would in the majors.  Teams walk this fine line, trying to push players while shielding them from catastrophic failure.

Let’s use this hypothetical (and completely plausible) situation as an example: Let’s say tomorrow the Nats promote Harper to Double-A, skipping High-A Potomac.  He gets to Double-A and in late August, after about three months at the level, his line looks something like this: .280/.310/.520.  That would be a fantastic line for an 18-year-old in Double-A.  But take a look at that line closely.  While he’s still hitting for a lot of power, the on-base percentage is not much higher than the batting average.  That means he’s not taking many walks.  Odds are, his strikeout total would be very high too, considering it’s already fairly high at Low-A (roughly 20%).  Despite the high strikeout rate and low walk rate, the Nats figure they will give him a September call-up to boost attendance for the last month.  Harper gets to the majors, causing a Strasburg-like stir in DC, including the huge attendance spike they were hoping for.  However, Harper has trouble picking up breaking balls out of the pitcher’s hand.  Because he’s having trouble with pitch recognition, he starts guessing what pitch is coming, not an uncommon thing for a struggling young hitter.  He ends the season with a .260/.286/.489 line in about a month of major league action.  Outstanding for an 18-year-old in the majors, but below average in terms of major league outfielders.

So he got to the majors and had some success.  But what have we really accomplished here?  What’s happened is this: because he was rushed, and afraid to struggle/fail, Harper deviated from his approach at the plate.  He started guessing at pitches, because he had not been afforded the time in the minors to learn how to identify pitches out of the pitcher’s hand.  Because he skipped Triple-A, he also didn’t learn how to hit quality breaking pitches, which he couldn’t recognize anyway, and basically became a dead fastball hitter.  The team will now be pretty much forced to keep him in the majors after exposing the fans to him in September and after he actually put up a relatively solid line. 

So, because he’s lacking specific skills at the plate, namely pitch recognition and the ability to hit good breaking balls (not to mention he’s a lefty and most lefties have to learn how to hit left handed pitchers), he’s been reduced to guessing and does not take many walks and strikes out a ton.  He’s too overmatched to develop those skills while in the majors and is too frightened to try because doing so would probably result in a horrid statistical line for at least a few months, and more likely an entire season (or two).  So what have they done here?  Well they’ve gotten him to the majors quickly, but at the expense of his performance and probably his long-term development.  He might develop into a good player, but probably not the Pujols-like menace that everyone was anticipating.

This scenario is not outlandish at all my friends.  In fact, it happens all the time in baseball.  Players are rushed to the majors, and as such, don’t develop the necessary skills to handle that level of play.  Most wash out, while some scrape together respectable careers.  How about some examples.

Andrew Miller, out of the University of North Carolina, was the 6th overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Tigers.  He was the consensus best talent in the draft, but fell due to signability issues (read Scott Boras was his agent).  The Tigers started him at High-A that summer and he was pitching in the major league bullpen by the end of the season.  In 2007, he made 13 starts in the minors (where he excelled) between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, as well as 13 starts in the majors (where he got shelled).  He was traded the following offseason to the Marlins in the Miguel Cabrera deal and has struggled ever since.  He was released by the Marlins after 2010 and was signed by the Red Sox.  He’s now at Triple-A Pawtucket trying to resurrect his career.

How quickly the mighty have fallen, eh?  And that guy was drafted out of college, not high school!  But this guy was a pitcher?  Ok, I hear you.  Let’s take a look at a comparable hitter.  How about Twins outfielder Delmon Young?  In 2003, Young was drafted #1 overall by Tampa Bay straight out of high school, coming with nearly as much hype and fanfare as Harper.  The next summer he made his debut at Low-A Charleston, spending the entire season there.  His .322/.388/.538 line was outstanding, especially for an 18-year-old at Low-A.  It was so good in fact, that the following season the Rays had him skip High-A and move right on to Double-A (sound familiar?).  After 370 at-bats, his line was an excellent .336/.386/.582.  That is fantastic, especially at age 19.  They promoted him to Triple-A for the second half of the season where he had a respectable .285/.303/.447 line.

However, as you can see, the levels had caught up with him.  His average and on-base percentage were now very close together, meaning he was not walking much, and his BB:K ratio was in fact a ghastly 4:33.  That statistic alone should have had a siren going off in every Rays executive’s head.  As you can see from the drop in slugging percentage, his power had also taken a large hit.  The following season, Young started back at Triple-A where he posted a .316/.341/.474 line in 342 at-bats before being promoted to the majors for good.  As anticipated, he struggled off and on, and has for years now, eventually being traded to the Twins for Matt Garza.  He put together a solid season with Minnesota last year (.298/.333/.493), but nothing close to what was expected of him coming up through the minors.

No, you’re not mistaken.  The story of Delmon Young is almost a carbon copy of the hypothetical scenario I outlined for Harper above.  It’s entirely possible that this exact situation could occur with Harper if the Nats move him too quickly.  In baseball, it’s best to err on the side of caution.  I completely understand why Nats fans are excited and why they want to see him move quickly.  No fan wants to see a guy who is tearing up a level continue to sit there all season.  But baby steps are the key.  Personally, I’d like to see him get bumped to High-A Potomac in a few weeks.  If he hits well there, and maintains his plate discipline, a late season cup of tea at Double-A would be a good reward.

There really shouldn’t be any reason to rush him.  The Nats core group of players (Ryan Zimmerman, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, et al) are all signed well into the future.  Zimmerman is the only one who is even remotely close to free-agency, and he’s signed through 2013.  Strasburg should be back in September and should be at full strength by Spring Training 2012.  The rest are all gaining valuable experience at the major league level.  The roster is coming together nicely, even if the standings don’t reflect it.  Be patient and you will be rewarded my friends.  The Nats will be contenders before you know it.

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2 Responses to The Bryce Harper Conundrum

  1. tad says:

    Excellent article. I’m looking forward to seeing what the nats can do in the future, now that they are developing players and not stuck with the Expos’ miserable excuse for a farm system

    • Ross says:

      Health and patience are the keys here. They have done a much better job with their minor league system since that idiot Jim Bowden resigned. They’ve drafted better lately, but the farm is still a little thin. They need these kids to stay healthy (i.e. Zimmermann and Strasburg) and they need to resist the temptation to try for the easy fix by trading young players for expensive veterans.

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