The Harper Brand

We knew he was coming when that issue of Sports Illustrated came in the mail on June 8, 2009 with a wiry 16-year-old on its cover. Furious smears of eyeblack streaked down both sides of the kid’s face as he stood in the Nevada wastelands, taking a powerful left-handed cut of his bat without wearing gloves to protect his hands. Next to the kid was a caption by SI’s Tom Verducci: “Baseball’s Chosen One.”

We knew it at the 2010 MLB draft, 364 days later, when Commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig swaggered to the podium and announced that the lowly Washington Nationals had selected that kid with the first overall pick. Following the ensuing applause, Commissioner Selig joked that he couldn’t see why everyone seemed so surprised.

We knew it on May 6, 2012, in the first inning of Nationals-Phillies on Sunday Night Baseball. The kid, now 19 and in his second week with the big club, was standing on third base as Phillies ace Cole Hamels attempted to wriggle out of a first-and-third jam. With two outs in the inning, Hamels took a moment to keep Washington’s Jayson Werth honest at first base. When he threw over to the bag, he wasn’t counting on this happening:

For six years we knew that kid was coming, we just had to be patient as his physical development caught up to his competitive spirit. He was already a good professional player in his own right, the youngest hitter to ever make an All-Star team. But there were much bigger, much better things in his future. Then came the 2015 season, and we knew that Bryce Harper was here.

He was now 22, a little bulkier, much more experienced, and having one of the greatest statistical seasons ever. Every stat on his baseball card ballooned that year, as if he was playing MLB: The Show and turned the difficulty down between seasons:

C/O Bold text indicates a league leader.

Harper was the National League’s MVP that season, and he asserted himself as baseball’s second best player after the incomparable Mike Trout in the process. Advanced statisticians were now struggling to find historical comparisons for someone who was this good at this age. According to Fangraphs, only three other players in the live ball era produced a higher single season WAR before turning 23: Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Trout.

His stock hasn’t fallen much between then and now, despite an injury-plagued 2016 season. He’s healthy again in 2017, and that’s all that matters. No one is happier about that than the Nationals, who are currently on cruise control atop the NL East with Harper in the middle of their league-best lineup. His numbers through June of this season closely parallel his 2015 figures, and he’ll receive a fair share of MVP votes in the fall.

While both the Nationals and Harper are surely focused on the goings-on of the present, there still exists the knowledge that Harper’s time in the nation’s capital may be limited. 2018 will be his last season as an arbitration-eligible player. The Nats can forget about signing him to an extension; he is a client of super-agent Scott Boras, and Boras clients virtually never re-sign before testing the waters of free agency. Harper will be on the open market, there’s no question about it, and teams will be waiting for him.

The rumors have already started to loiter. Will the Yankees sign Harper and take their young core to the next level? Will the Cubs get him and turn their super-team into a super-duper-team? Will my team be in play for him? Will yours? Moreover, how much money is he going to make? The current standard is Giancarlo Stanton’s 12 year, $325 million deal with the Marlins. Harper’s going to beat that, the only question is by how much. Major League Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, so your guess is as good as anybody’s.

Not that any of this matters for the next 16 months. Putting any thought into what will happen two winters from now is a waste of everyone’s time. We have no idea where Harper will sign if he chooses not to return to Washington. And we shouldn’t care, not in the summer of 2017.

But that’s the power of Bryce.

Harper’s greatest strength has never been his youth or his talent, nor has it ever been directly about baseball. But it’s been with him ever since that Sports Illustrated came out eight years ago and we all saw who this kid from Las Vegas was. The eyeblack. No batting gloves. “Baseball’s Chosen One”. That’s the Harper Brand.

The Harper Brand is stealing home in the first inning of a game in May. It’s turning the phrase “That’s a clown question, bro” into a baseball phenomenon. It’s having perfect hair no matter how many times you slide for a base or dive for a catch. It’s wearing a hat during postgame interviews with the slogan “Make Baseball Fun Again” on the crown.

It’s hitting this titanic home run in a playoff game…

…and fighting the same pitcher when he beans you three years later.

There is no discernible value to the Harper Brand, but its the one area wherein he is head and shoulders above anyone else. Mike Trout, in comparison, has boring hair, runs out nearly every ball he hits, and doesn’t get into fights. He is baseball’s best player. Harper is its biggest star.

Who do you value more? I’d take the better player, as would any team. But the game of baseball, a sport doing everything it can to shed its antiquated identity and connect with young fans, may need the star a little bit more. That would be Bryce Harper, and that’s why we’re already looking at the winter of 2018.

Oh, and remember: Musial, Williams, Trout. That doesn’t hurt either.

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