By Marc Normandin
Sometimes it's hard to remember that Bryce Harper is all of 20 years old. It was maybe easier when he wasn't a big-league hitter, and he seemed like kind of a young punk -- with his hair, his since-retired face paint, the loud whispers about his attitude, and, presumably just to round things out, his loud music, too. (Probably dubstep, am I right?)
Now, though, with a little more than a full year and season behind him, his age is the second thing you think of when you see him. Harper had a good year for anyone, never mind a teenager, in 2012. When you consider his age, it's one of the most impressive ever, as seasons like his just don't come along often at 19. Now, one year older, armed with one year more experience as a pro, Harper has come out with a start that looks to blow away his impressive 2012 with a year where all the numbers are too eye-popping to even notice how old the dude producing them is.
It's too early in the season to make any hardcore declarations about what Harper is and isn't doing -- these things take time, you know -- but we can get some ideas about possible developments from what is there. For one, Harper to this point has cut his strikeout ratio down to 15 percent, or a little less than what he produced in the high minors, rather than last year's 20 percent of the time. It's how he was hitting .344 entering action on Wednesday night, despite a batting average on balls in play of "only" .338. That latter figure is a lofty one, 44 points above the current league average BABIP, but unless strikeout figures are high, there tends to be some separation between standard average and BABIP's version.
In addition, he's boosted his walk rate from 9.4 percent to 13.1 percent. Like with strikeouts, it's a bit early to say that he's going to keep doing that, but you can infer that it's likely an intentional shift by Harper: he's seeing 4.16 pitches per plate appearance, up from last year's already high 3.85. He was already disciplined, and seeing more major-league pitchers (and more importantly, their major-league pitches) is only going to help him improve his selectivity, and by extension, his production, as he waits for pitches he knows he can cause damage with and lays off those he cannot. His P/PA probably won't stay that high all year, as pitchers might find a weakness and try to exploit it, but if Harper keeps hitting for power, it's going to be difficult to outright challenge him, too.
That power is unbelievable right now, with Harper already having logged 16 extra-base hits, largely due to nine April homers. He won't keep going yard on every third ball he hits, but he does have room to grow there: he hit a homer at about half that rate in 2012. You could easily see 30 homers out of him, or more, and you don't even have to wait for what will likely be his peak years to see it: he's nearly a third of the way there with over 130 games left on the schedule.
It would be unexpected to see Harper improve year-to-year in the way his early season numbers suggest. However, Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA, has a lot of faith in Harper to improve. That's unusual, too, as the system has a habit of keeping optimism in check with the young and inexperienced. Apparently that year in the majors did wonders for Harper, though. While his mid-level projection -- the one PECOTA expects has the best chance of happening -- was low at .258/.325/.439, the projections go deeper than that.
PECOTA pegged Harper as the most likely to player in all of major-league baseball to improve beyond the system's expectations for him. "Improve," as measured by PECOTA, comes in at 50 percent if the system expects no change: basically, it's a coin flip of whether they will improve or not. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the game's best young players, came in at 59 percent, not that much higher than the coin flip threshold. Mike Trout, who is a bit younger, came in at 69 percent, but his 2013 projection was also a lot less attractive than his 2012 production, so that doesn't mean quite what it sounds like without context. Harper, though, saw an Improve of 83 percent -- that's essentially PECOTA telling you there's a good chance you'll want to ignore its carefully crafted projections, in which Harper isn't Lord of Baseball in Washington, because Harper is working with Sistine Chapel-esque ceilings while the rest of the baseball world is stuck without quite as much artistry.
So, if PECOTA could talk, rather than defend the projections it spit out for Harper when confronted with his 2013 to date, it might simply nod, knowing all along there was a chance -- the best chance of anyone -- to make the baseline projections look silly. There haven't been a whole lot of Harper types in general, and that's how you end up with comparisons to players like Ken Griffey Jr., Justin Upton, and given his incredible 2012, the aforementioned Trout, in his comparable players list. Players with this much talent, at this young age, don't come along all that often, but when they do, they tend to be very, very good at their jobs. At the least, they have the potential to be very good despite their youth. PECOTA has to account for that, while also trying to remain realistic and grounded about what we should expect. That's how it can hedge about Harper -- as we all should with relative unknowns -- but at the same time admit that pretty much anything could happen, so long as it's good.
It'd be silly to flat-out expect Harper to come in and crush the competition in his sophomore campaign, but when it is happening, given his immense talent, it's easy to believe in it. His average will likely fall. The walks, or at least the insane volume of pitches per plate appearance, will also dip eventually. The power, much as we'd like him to have an Isolated Power approaching .400 all year, is going to come down, too. With all that being said, Bryce Harper's 2013 season is looking like it's going to trump his inaugural campaign, and that's not an easy feat. The best might be yet to come with the 20-year-old Harper, but this right here is pretty great, too.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.