In a poll of anonymous major leaguers in ESPN The Magazine’s 2015 baseball preview issue, Bryce Harper was selected as the game’s “most-overrated player” for the second consecutive year.
He ran away with the title, receiving 41 percent of the vote; Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig was a distant second with 15 percent. The outcome was much more decisive than in 2014, when “only” 24 percent picked Harper as most-overrated.
Now, after producing an MVP-caliber first half and setting a National League record with nearly 14 million votes in All-Star Game fan balloting, perhaps he’ll drop to second or third in next year’s poll.
As far as Washington Nationals fans are concerned, Harper can remain on the list for the rest of his career. Being “hated” and “overrated” is working out pretty good.
Harper’s reputation as a polarizing figure appear to have taken a hit, though, based on the All-Star vote. But it’s for D.C. if he doesn’t become a warm-and-fuzzy who’s welcomed around the league.
The chip-on-the-shoulder fits better, giving him and the Nats a bit of much-appreciated nastiness.
A good portion of the animosity and, frankly, jealousy isn’t his fault. Part of it was inevitable from the moment a 16-year-old Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which dubbed him “Baseball’s Chosen One” and called him “the most exciting prodigy since LeBron.”
Premature adulation is great for getting off to a bad start.
The same qualities that attract the spotlight – athleticism, production and confidence – are easily recast as arrogance, petulance and cockiness. Not that the latter traits are nonexistent in superstar athletes (true greatness is impossible without a trace, even if concealed). But they have been magnified and over-emphasized in Harper’s case.
“I mean, it’s just some of the things I do,” he told SI earlier this year. “I’m very genuine with what I say. It’s not like I go out there and I’m an ass. Maybe on the field and between the lines I am. Walking out of the clubhouse, I feel like I’m one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. If I say something it’s because of the confidence I have in my team, not because I want to be in the media attention.”
But he doesn’t shy from the attention. There’s too much fun to be had.
He’s the face of the franchise. He’s one of a few major leaguers with national endorsement deals. Along with AL counterpart Mike Trout, Harper is poised to be among MLB’s most marketed stars over the next decade.
Oh yeah. He’s still only 22 years old.
He’s a good kid who’s been painted as a punk kid, due to immature acts like going overboard with the eye black, blowing a kiss to an opposing pitcher and getting mouthy with umpires. And not running on apparent outs, like the groundball that led to his removal from a game last season and the fly ball that led to his postgame chat with manager Matt Williams recently.
“He didn’t even get out of the dirt circle,” Braves announcer Joe Simpson said during the June 30 broadcast . “And if you want to know why people boo him when he goes to other cities, that’s because he only plays hard when he wants to play hard. He only runs when he has a chance, like he did a minute ago, to stretch a single into a double.”
There was no excuse last season and there was none last month. But Simpson is dead wrong.
Those two lackadaisical plays are glaring exceptions. Harper’s motor typically runs at overdrive, to the point where he’s been too aggressive at the plate, in the field or on the bases. He’s better at downshifting this season (and, fingers crossed, staying off the DL). He hasn’t slowed down but it appears that the game has.
“Maybe I’ve been hurt the past two years and haven’t lived up to everything people think I should live up to,” he told SI. “But I’d rather piss people off playing hard than piss people off playing soft.”
Even more amazing than the prodigious statistics – a Triple Crown-contending .339 batting average, 26 homers and 61 RBI – is the fact that protection in the lineup has been minimal. Injuries among the team’s other top hitters have forced Harper to do most of the heavy lifting and power-hitting, despite pitchers’ best efforts to avoid the barrel of his bat.
He is a player who peers and fans (notwithstanding the 14 million votes) love to hate.
It’s actually kind of cool, making his personal numbers and the Nats’ success that much sweeter.
Here’s hoping he continues to receive vociferous boos on the road and “most-overrated” votes in spring training.
D.C. shouldn’t mind at all.