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Harper’s MVP season deserves to be celebrated

Nov 19, 2015, 6:00 AM EST

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Neither the Nationals nor their fans are likely to remember 2015 with a whole lot of fondness. This was the season a World Series favorite failed to reach the playoffs, the season a lineup full of big names was ravaged by injuries, the season the best rotation in baseball never lived up to its billing, the season a volatile closer attacked his star teammate in the dugout, the season a manager lost a grip on his clubhouse and as a result lost his job.

All of that, of course, happened. And all of that should be remembered. But what should be remembered above all else was this simple fact: The best player in baseball produced one of the best individual seasons in baseball history, and he did all of it while wearing a Washington uniform.

And tonight, Bryce Harper will be honored for that accomplishment, overwhelmingly favored to be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, perhaps even by a unanimous vote of 30 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

When Harper’s name is called out at roughly 6:15 p.m. EST, none of the disappointments that defined the 2015 Nationals will matter. All that will matter is that a professional athlete representing Washington, D.C., will be recognized as the best in his league. That’s no everyday occurrence in these parts, and so it deserves all the attention it will receive.

The Nationals as an organization certainly will pause to recognize Harper, affirming what those who watched him all year knew from the outset: He was special in 2015.

“That was the one thing I can say I was cognizant of the whole season,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “You could see, throughout the season, what this guy meant to this ballclub. And don’t forget, this guy carried us throughout the whole season. The hitters around him were dropping like flies, and this guy was the cornerstone of an offense. Every team we played circled his name and said: ‘This guy’s not going to beat us.’ And with that said, he beat a lot of teams. It was a remarkable season.”

Remarkable not only in the context of 2015 but within the context of baseball history.

A degree in advanced analytics aren’t required to fully appreciate Harper’s performance this year. You need only evaluate the numbers he posted in three longstanding, tried-and-true stats: Batting average (.330), on-base percentage (.460), home runs (42).

In more than a century of major league baseball, only eight others reached all three totals in a single season: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds. Harper became the ninth member of that ultra-exclusive club, which merely features five Hall of Famers, two of the most productive hitters of the last decade and the all-time home run champion.

Harper managed to accomplish this both because he managed to stay healthy for the first time in three seasons and because he managed to display remarkable patience at the plate from Game 1 through Game 162.

The young right fielder pointed to health throughout as the major contributing factor, understanding he couldn’t have performed to this level while dealing with a knee injury in 2013 and a thumb injury in 2014.

“Staying healthy puts good numbers up,” he said. “I went out there and grinded out every single day for my team and my fans. That’s what I wanted to do. The Nationals gave me an opportunity to play this game and give it my all every single day. I’m very lucky to be part of a great team and do everything I could and do what I could every single day. I played 150 games. That was my goal all year long.”

Good health allowed Harper to be the most patient hitter in baseball all season, perhaps the true hallmark of his historic performance.

Nobody in the sport got fewer pitches to hit. According to Baseball Info Solutions, only 38.5 percent of all pitches thrown to Harper were in the strike zone, the lowest rate in the sport. Not surprisingly, he drew a team-record 124 walks.

But he also managed to wallop what few pitches he did get over the plate, matching Colorado’s Nolan Arenado for the NL lead with 42 homers and producing a .469 slugging percentage that hadn’t been accomplished by any major leaguer in six years.

“It’s incredible to see him go out there and play the game he plays,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said after one particularly impressive performance in early September. “It’s almost like he’s got the cheat codes to a baseball game.”

Now the scariest part: Harper did all this at 22, and he did it without much consistent help around him in the Nationals lineup.

To a man, Nationals players, coaches and executives believe Harper can and will be even better in the future.

“He’s still growing. He’s still learning the game,” right-hander Max Scherzer said during the All-Star break. “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. 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.”

“He had a terrific season,” Rizzo added. “I don’t see it being the last terrific season he has. And this may not even be the best season he ever has.”

  1. rabbit433 - Nov 19, 2015 at 7:21 AM

    “I don’t see it being the last terrific season he has. And this may not even be the best season he ever has.”

    I hope not! He’s only 22. He’ll have more terrific season. I just hope they are in Washington!

    • ArVAFan - Nov 19, 2015 at 8:31 AM

      Paging the Lerners . . . or rather, paging the Lerners’ bank account. I know Boras likes his clients to test free agency, but I suspect that even he has a price he’d bite on for a long-term extension.

      And if there’s a consistently good hitter behind him in the line-up, he’ll get more pitches to hit. Or, being Bryce, he’ll just learn to hit pitches out of the strike zone.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Nov 19, 2015 at 9:20 AM

        On the first point: Yes, please.

        On the second point: Please, no! Trying to learn to hit pitches outside the zone is a fool’s errand. Take all the walks they’ll give you.

      • raleighnat - Nov 19, 2015 at 9:29 AM

        I really believe this is the offseason to get a long-term contract signed. Any delay greatly lowers the odds. The Nats have an advantage to keep him long term because they are the only team that can pay him above arbitration numbers for the next three years. I suspect 2 years from free agency (while not impossible) would be too late. I believe the Lerners could make this happen.

      • Doc - Nov 19, 2015 at 9:33 AM

        Agreed Eugene. A lot of Harps’ success this last season was due to staying within the K zone. The more that he can do that, the more successful he will become.

        Pitchers will walk him less, and give him more quality pitches when he has consistent hitters around him.

      • Doc - Nov 19, 2015 at 9:33 AM

        Agreed Eugene. A lot of Harps’ success this last season was due to staying within the K zone. The more that he can do that, the more successful he will become.

        Pitchers will walk him less, and give him more quality pitches when he has consistent hitters around him.

      • natsred4dndc - Nov 19, 2015 at 2:11 PM

        “…being Bryce, he’ll just learn to hit pitches out of the strike zone.” Agreed, with qualifications.
        Others have expressed a blanket “no” to this, but Harp appears to be one of those rare hitters who can do whatever he puts his mind to.
        2-0 or 3-0 in a pitch-around, with something off speed and outside the zone predictably coming? Harp has the ability to keyhole that next pitch and if he gets it, drive it out of the park. Same thing Bonds learned to do when no one would pitch to him.
        Not at all suggesting he imitate nose to toes hitters like Vlade, just an observation that waste pitches can still be hit–hard–if you expect them.

  2. Section 222 - Nov 19, 2015 at 10:54 AM

    Mark, Bryce’s SLG was .649, not a pedestrian .469. Luckily, you have an edit button. 🙂

  3. Section 222 - Nov 19, 2015 at 10:57 AM

    Scherzer’s quote is interesting. “As pitchers start to figure him out, he’s going to have to do things differently.” He’s played in the bigs for 4 years, and his fourth was by far his best. How the heck are they going to figure him out now? Unless figuring him out means walking him 200 times next season instead of 124.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Nov 19, 2015 at 12:01 PM

      If you can put some decent bats behind him, then yes, please, walk him 200 times!

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