Jul 14, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
CINCINNATI — Inside a ballroom at the Cincinnati Westin on Monday sat the best players the game of baseball has to offer, dynamic young talents like Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson, recent MVPs like Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen, one of the great hitters in history in Albert Pujols and 3-time World Series champion Buster Posey.
And not one of those guys will be batting third for the National League in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. Nope, the guy who gets that honor is the guy who was drawing rave reviews from just about everybody in attendance at the 86th Midsummer Classic.
The guy who will be wearing the curly W cap and blazing gold cleats when he’s introduced at Great American Ball Park.
“I mean, he’s the best hitter in the game,” Braves right-hander Shelby Miller said.
There wasn’t much dispute about that designation among the 67 other All-Stars here in town. Bryce Harper has taken that mantle over the last three months, a remarkable three months that has the baseball world abuzz.
“To see the success he’s having right now, it really doesn’t surprise anybody,” said Miller, who has surrendered two hits to Harper (including a double) in six head-to-head at-bats this season. “He’s a hell of a player. He’s an athlete. He’s a tough guy. Obviously being the first overall pick, a lot of expectations, and he’s done well in that spotlight.”
Few embrace the spotlight more than Harper, who has found himself the center of the attention since he was a teenager launching 500-foot home runs in high school showcase events and landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
And few know how to genuflect toward his fellow All-Stars in a setting like this like Harper, who may be as confident as anybody in baseball history but recognizes this isn’t the time or place to show it.
“I’m excited to play in a lineup with these guys, a certain group of guys that are some of the best in baseball,” he said. “I’m very excited, very humble to be in this lineup. Just excited to be part of the whole thing.”
And who does Harper believe is the best player in the game?
“Right now? It’s gotta be Mike Trout,” he said without hesitation. “Everybody knows that.”
Well, maybe in 2013 and 2014 everybody knew that. Now, it’s not so clear-cut.
For all his remarkable achievements, Trout hasn’t ever hit .339 with 26 homers and an 1.168 OPS before the All-Star break. Neither has anybody else in the last decade, for that matter, with Derrek Lee the last player to put up those kind of first-half numbers back in 2005.
And this is a very different game today, with offensive production at its lowest point in more than two decades.
“Especially with how great pitching is these days, for him to be able to put up these kind of numbers is pretty incredible,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “Very scary. You’ve got to give Bryce a lot of credit. He knows what he’s doing at the plate. He’s not just up there swinging at everything.”
Harper’s remarkable plate discipline impresses his fellow All-Stars more than anything else. During his first three big-league seasons, he could be counted on to chase more than a few pitches out of the strike zone. Now, he patiently watches them fly by, happy to take his walks, leading to a league-best .464 on-base percentage.
“He’s obviously got a good approach this year,” Miller said. “He’s looking for a good pitch to hit. Not saying he hasn’t done that in the past. But this year, he’s got it figured out. He knows what he’s doing.”
And he may not be done figuring things out.
“The thing is, he’s still growing,” teammate Max Scherzer said. “He’s still learning the game. And that’s what makes him exciting to watch, because he’s going to continue to get better. He’s not going to necessarily hit for a higher average or hit more homers. But he’s going to understand the game more. As pitchers start to figure him out, he’s going to have to do things differently. And that’s a game he understands. We’ve talked about it. It’s really exciting to see him grow in certain ways.”
Wait, Scherzer isn’t suggesting there might still be more to Bryce Harper than we’ve already seen, is he?
“Oh, there’s still more there,” the right-hander insisted. “I firmly believe it. That’s how good I think he is. He’s just going to be able to do more things more consistently and understand more situations to be more productive. It’s not that he’s going to hit the ball now 700 feet. He’s just going to understand what the pitcher’s trying to do and still be able to get the job done.”
Watch out, baseball. You’ve been warned.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
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