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The Only Comparison That Counts

December 25, 2009

I blame Sports Illustrated for being sucker-punched by publicists pretending to be scouts. I blame the hype for getting in the way of player evaluation and not letting a player be the kind of player his physical nature and talents hint that he’s going to be.

I have no problems with Bryce Harper as a first-round pick, but he wouldn’t be my 1/1 because I’m not convinced he’s going to be vastly better as a professional than he is as an amateur. Maybe he will, but that’s my opinion.

What he has as an amateur is enough to play in the major leagues. Harper is going to play in the big leagues even if he goes 0-for-the-minor leagues. He’s going to get special treatment all the way to the top. But I have a problem with this “once in a generation” tag, no matter who the young player is. It creates unrealistic expectations and distorts what the physical signs say a player is going to become. Baseball has a bad case of the Bryce complex.

Harper has two above-average tools: power and arm. Within those tools, he hasn’t shown adjustability against hard breaking balls, which calls into question his future hitting. His arm action needs to improve or he’s going to risk injury. As a catcher, he is stiff defensively, with stiff hands, and he needs shoring up. As a runner, he’s slightly above-average or average at best.

He might look perfect as a prospect, but I’m not judging him against other prospects. I’m judging him against himself and where he wants to be.

Last summer, two big league veterans cut out the image of Harper from the cover of Sports Illustrated. One taped it to a popsicle stick and put it atop the name plate of his locker. His teammate had torn out Harper’s image and put it up on the back of his locker. High school players don’t scare big league veterans. It was sarcastic, boorish big league behavior, and if that’s what they were willing to show with the media around, then I guarantee you what they were joking about while they made their Bryce action figures was a lot worse than what I’m about to say.

Why was Harper, whose amateur career path has been so adamantly about a man-child staying ahead of the curve, still playing in high school events last summer if he was leaving high school? Why was he allowed to play in the Aflac game if he wasn’t going to play his senior year of high school baseball?

I have no problem with going the JC route, but from a scouting perspective, his usefulness on the showcase circuit is expired. He can dominate high school boys. We know that. He can kill a fastball. We know that. He should have finished his GED earlier, enrolled in a junior college, and played on the Cape in 2009 instead. Maybe he was playing with no name and number on his back in a wooden bat league in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn’t surprise me and it would have been the smart thing to do. He should be shrewd enough to avoid detection.

But if you’re going to allow yourself to be sold as a player who is more advanced than anyone in decades, then don’t go to corporate home run hitting contests. Go face the guy from Vanderbilt who throws 95 and has the nerve to put it on the outside corner.

Go show us you can catch velocity and curveballs. Go face older pitchers with less talent and better breaking balls. Show us what happens when you see a left-hander with a good pick-off move. Show us how you go first to third instead of showing us how many BP balls you can launch.  We know the power is there. We don’t dispute it. But show us what kind of player you are going to be when it’s a one-run major league game. You’re going to be rushed, so you better be ready.

The big leagues are not the same as showcase baseball. Dominating one does not ensure dominating the other.  I have seen some very good draft picks stomp through the parking lot late at night in the minor leagues, cursing and angry, belittling their 0-for-5 with five strikeouts. Show us you can bounce back from that. You’re going to run into it eventually.

Good baseball people don’t care what magazine covers you’ve been on. We want to see you get better. We want to see projection. I want to see development and not a highlight reel, I want to see adjustability and not a media kit, I want to see progression and not propaganda.

Amateur and professional baseball suffers from the same complex, which is that a player must possess power to be a prospect. No disputing Harper has first-round power, but I can’t see a Ryan Zimmerman-type cornerstone major leaguer. I can see a guy who has a chance to be a good everyday major league run producer if he can show us adjustability, if he can smooth out his arm action and not kill his elbow, if he can show us his body will not change in the minor leagues, if he can show us that he can play the game.

If you want a former 1/1 who you can fairly compare Harper to, try 1969, when right-handed power-hitting outfielder Jeff Burroughs came out of Long Beach Wilson High School and went on to have a very good major league career.

 Burroughs hit amateur home runs that legends are made of. Sound familiar? 

Burroughs won the 1974 AL MVP. He was a two-time all-star. He hit 240 home runs. A very solid career, he made good money, he played for a long time. For a short time, he was a franchise cornerstone for the team that used to be the Washington Senators.

If Harper has this career, is he a failure because we spent his amateur days expecting more?

Before it was called the Bryce complex, Sports Illustrated and the general media did the same thing for Gregg Jefferies, who had a nice little career. He got a pension out of the deal, too. Was he Ted Williams, as Sports Illustrated wondered? No. Gregg Jefferies was Gregg Jefferies, a .289 lifetime hitter, and to this day, people remember a player whose actual skills did not match his hype.

Why is it perceived as a failure if a player fails to match his paper scouting, yet gets the most out of his ability with a sound major league career?

This is baseball’s cultural flaw. Stop looking for every prospect to be the best player in the history of baseball. Time has taught us you are only as good as you are capable of being. Willie Mays does not come around every 10 years. Try every 50.

David Clyde was considered the best high school left-handed pitcher in baseball history when he was 1/1 in 1974, though he could have asked Paul Pettit what it felt to be called the best high school left-handed pitcher in baseball history in 1950. The Rangers bit, bought Clyde, rushed him and ruined him, and Robin Yount and Dave Winfield went to the Hall of Fame from picks 3 and 4.

Harold Baines went 1/1 in 1977. I think Harold Baines was a better major league hitter than Bryce Harper will be.

Bob Horner went 1/1 out of Arizona State to the Braves in 1978. Horner set NCAA home run records and had a very nice major league career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he was a solid player, and this kind of career is within Harper’s reach if he makes the right decisions and puts the work in. Last I checked, there’s nothing wrong with 218 career home runs, a .277 lifetime average and 685 RBIs in the major leagues.  

Darryl Strawberry, 1/1 in 1980, is one of the few high school prospects who could have done what he was expected to had he made better decisions. Comparing Strawberry as a high school-aged athlete is a bad comparison for Harper, who lacks Strawberry’s loose athletic actions and easy power. Strawberry could have been Mays, but he ruined it all by himself.

Shawon Dunston, 1/1 in 1982, was a high school player considered the best in his class. He didn’t have a Hall of Fame offensive career, but he had the best shortstop arm of his generation and was one of the top defenders. He hit enough to hang around and he could beat you with a bat. If you made me choose between Harper’s arm and Dunston’s arm, I’d take Dunston’s every time.

Ken Griffey, 1/1, in 1987. This is where I have sympathy for Harper. He has no chance to be the same kind of dynamic offensive and defensive player. He lacks the athleticism, the speed, the power, the body, the hands, the defense and the vertical jump in center field. Remember when I said Willie Mays comes around every 50 years? Here he was.

Chipper Jones, 1/1, in 1990. The Braves didn’t take the Todd Van Poppel bait. He was, after all, the best high school right-handed pitcher in baseball history. Jones was a switch-hitter with a leaner, looser, lankier frame than Harper has. The baseball culture makes me compare and choose. Chipper Jones in high school or Bryce Harper out of a JC? Chipper Jones in 1990 and Chipper Jones in 2010.

Phil Nevin, 1/1, in 1992. This was supposed to be a cornerstone major league third baseman for years to come. He had power, but he was a poor hitter. He had a strong arm, but he was a poor defender. Turned out, Bob Horner and Jeff Burroughs were better with extra weight than Nevin was with all the muscle he could squeeze out.

Alex Rodriguez, 1/1, in 1993. This is another bad spot to put Harper in. True, people thought Rodriguez was the best high school hitter they had ever seen. I have never spoken to a single scout who feels Harper belongs in the conversation. Remember Rodriguez earlier in his career, when he was leaner and looser? Compare Rodriguez’s smooth actions to Harper’s fidgety and violent motions.

I’d hate to be a baseball player in a position where if I didn’t become Alex Rodriguez, there are people who would call me a failure. I do not envy Harper for that, though he’s partly to blame, because he never met an interviewer he didn’t try to charm.

Darin Erstad, 1/1, in 1995. At this stage you may think I’m piling on, but athleticism was Erstad’s asset. Harper is not the same athlete Erstad was. Erstad had multiple tools – hands, running, defense, throwing and modest power. He won Gold Gloves at center field and at first base. He also played so hard that he shortened his career. Is Harper’s power going to take him further than Erstad’s athleticism? Do I have to choose again?

Pat Burrell, 1/1, in 1998. Again, this is a much more realistic comparison for Harper. Burrell’s tool was power. He was a third baseman in college and a first baseman and corner outfielder as a pro. Burrell has had a very good major league career, but like Nevin, he did not become the cornerstone player people envisioned. Why? Because he lacked multi-dimensional tools, as Harper does. I don’t see anything wrong with Harper having Burrell’s career. He’d make a lot of money and get everything he wants, and then some.

Yet because he was called the next Babe Ruth, would this career be viewed as a failure to fullfill a prophecy?

At this point, I’m not even getting into Joe Mauer in 2001. Enough is enough.

It’s time to stop measuring the hype and start comparing Bryce Harper to Bryce Harper.  He will be whatever he will be, but he will never be judged against  himself, the only comparison that counts.


One Response to “The Only Comparison That Counts”

  1. […] Now is also a good time to drop some more links from Baseball Beginnings, including an excellent article where John Klima put down some of his thoughts on Bryce Harper. […]

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