I've said before that Bryce Harper is on his way to being the most hyped teenage athlete since LeBron James. With that in mind, I've decided to add to the hype-machine. While I haven't had a chance to see him play in person -- I always seem to get distracted when I'm in Vegas -- I've spent a good deal of time the past week talking to scouts, front office personnel, and breaking down scores of videos on YouTube.com.
Even though he is very well rounded, it is Harper's bat that makes him special. As even an amateur can tell, the power Harper generates with his swing is remarkable. I've never seen a high schooler with that kind of bat speed, and neither have some of the baseball execs I talked to. Every part of Harper's swing is meant to maximize his power, and punish unsuspecting balls. Starting with his high leg kick. The high leg kick is a trick not everyone can pull off successfully, but not everyone is Bryce Harper. His leg kick works as a timing mechanism, and starts a very aggressive weight transfer. If you're going to hit the ball 570-feet - as Harper reportedly did as a freshman - you've got to get your whole body into it. An exaggerated leg kick can cause timing problems against good off-speed stuff, but Harper is able to maintain great balance at the plate and his mind-blowing bat speed give him extra time to track the ball from the pitcher's hand.
A problem with some high leg kick hitters, Harper does not over-stride. Instead he takes a relatively short, controlled stride. He maintains balance, and starts his rapid hip rotation. This is where power is created. The core-strength, flexibility, and shear velocity of his hip rotation (sometimes referred to as 'core stretch') all point to Harper's prodigious power potential. Actually, potential may not be the right word. He could hit big league fastballs today. He'll need some experience to be able to lay off big league breaking balls but Harper is as close to his power potential as any hitter this young has ever been -- at least of anyone within my lifetime.
Two paragraphs, and I haven't even mentioned his swing. But that's pretty good, too. Harper helicopters the bat through the zone, some how combining his insane power with the potential to hit for a high average. Unlike many who swing for the fences, Harper maintains a fairly short, direct swing-plane that stays in the hitting zone for a long time which maximizes his ability to make contact. Adding to his power, Harper has very quick hands and strong forearms. He gets ideal extension, and shows and uncanny ability to consistently square up the ball. Turn up your volume and watch it again, the ball sounds different off his bat. Is sounds like there's a small explosion, or shotgun blast each time cowhide meets wood. With Harper, the wood almost always wins.
In short, Harper's swing is pretty much flawless. He has an aggressive weight shift but has a controlled stride and ideal balance and he couples amazing hip rotation with quick hands. Despite all this power his swing doesn't get long, or loopy and he should hit for average as well as power.
Harper's arm is also a plus tool, as he has hit the mid-90's off the mound. With what happened to Luke Bailey this spring, I think it's safe to say that Harper's days as a pitcher are over. However his arm strength and solid control translate well defensively, and make Harper a weapon who can shut down opposing running games. Harper is also a well above-average runner and strong all-around athlete who moves well behind the plate. Despite all of his defensive tools, a few people I talked to thought ultimately Harper won't stay at catcher. While he should be a good defender in the short term, Harper's frame, he's 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, doesn't bode well for a long-term future behind the plate. A few people also thought that his offensive potential is simply too high to play at a position that takes so much out of you. Since he's capable of playing pretty much anywhere on the field, you may see Harper as a third baseman, or right fielder in a few years.
The thing that most surprised me when researching Harper was that right behind his power, the virtue most often extolled was Harper's passion for the game. I heard Pete Rose's name come up more than a few times, despite that he lives in Las Vegas, this has nothing to do with gambling. His hustle and drive set him apart. Very few people who have something come easily to them work this hard. He really seems to love the game and wants to be great.
There will always be a good deal of uncertainty in trying to project what a 16-year-old will be like in a decade. No one can be a 'sure-thing'. Can't-miss guys do in fact sometimes miss. Harper will face more scrutiny than any other teenage baseball player likely has ever faced. He'll be likely the youngest junior college player in the country, and playing on a top program. Some fans will likely set their expectations unrealistically high. With those caveats out of the way, Harper seems to have as good a chance at his age to be not just good, but truly great as anyone in recent memory.
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