Predicting who will be “the next big thing” will never go out of style in the sports world. Fans and analysts alike want to believe in their ability to unearth the next generational talent amidst millions of teenagers around the world. Talent evaluation is a tough racket, but we get it right every so often, and it appears Under Armour and the world made a phenomenal choice in Bryce Harper.
While the majority of Harper’s career has yet to play out, it’s safe to say that he has lived up to the expectations heaped upon him as a teenager.
Watch sports long enough and you’ll see the record books melt into new generations. If he was just another great player chipping away at figures in a stat book, Harper wouldn’t stand out much in today’s 24/7 sports world. Harper resonates because he has always been unapologetically himself.
Young players are generally expected to lay low and fit in to established culture on a team and league-wide level, particularly in baseball, the king of unwritten rules. Harper tends to buck that trend. He entered the big leagues with ludicrous amounts of eye black covering his cheeks, an act that was deemed immature by baseball’s old guard.
He is the closest thing baseball has to a LeBron-like figure, right down to the insane scrutiny he’s put through. Rather than focusing on Harper becoming the youngest position player to make an All-Star roster in 2012, pundits hammered him for wearing a pair of all-gold Under Armour cleats (which were ridiculously fresh, BTW). When he should be running away with his first MVP award, critics can’t get over the failure of his supporting cast.
But if there’s anything Harper has shown through his actions over the years, it’s that he will not back down. After his gold cleats made waves his rookie year, he followed that up with orange-and-blue chrome in the midsummer classic the following season. He’s no stranger to grabbing off-the-field attention with his kicks, either–check out these suede slippers he wore to a 2015 red carpet event.
Harper has always been this way, too, unapologetically good…and knowing it before he had any right to be. The 6-2 Las Vegas native graced the covers of major publications, and made waves after earning his GED during his sophomore year of high school. This allowed him to take his talents to junior college ahead of his peers, getting a jump on hitting with a wooden bat full-time. All he did was put up a slash line of .443/.526/.987 as one of the youngest players in the country.
That sort of dominance followed him through the rest of his journey to the big leagues.
In fact, some of his only speed bumps are tied to things that are well beyond his control. Harper was hitting a paltry .231 in his first minor league season before a visit to the Nationals’ eye doctor, Keith Smithson. The doctor allegedly told Harper, “I don’t know how you ever hit before. You have some of the worst eyes I’ve ever seen.” In the 20 games immediately following that trip to the specialist, Harper hit .480 with seven homers and 23 RBI.
Harper is now applying that level of dominance to the highest level of competition in the world. If not for his Nationals team missing the playoffs, he’d be a shoo-in for the National League MVP award. As it stands, he should still be considered the favorite for the NL’s top regular season honor.
No matter how you talk about his 2015 rampage through opposing pitching, what he’s doing is historic.
As of this writing, his 1.133 OPS would be the highest recorded since Barry Bonds’ cartoonish 1.422 in 2004, and the only player that registered a higher mark at age 22 is another legend–Ted Williams, who accomplished the feat back in 1941. Forty home runs at the same age puts him in an exclusive club with Mel Ott, Eddie Matthews, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Bench, and Alex Rodriguez. That’s four current Hall of Famers, and the man trying to chase down the home run record.
It’s not the body of work that makes Harper stand out, but the blinding brilliance, the white-hot streaks where it seems like he’s seeing the ball in slow motion. During a two-week stretch in May, Harper put up a .575/.660/1.450 slash line that ranked among the best runs at the plate ever, outclassing names like Bonds, Cal Ripken Jr., Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays.
In a way, these flashes mirror the way he plays the game: hard, fast, and with total disregard for boundaries. Under Armour’s “I Will” tagline fits him like a glove (no pun intended); he’s always pushing the red line on the tachometer, leading to both electric displays of talent and spectacular failure.
It might be those fleeting instances of failure that draw fans to Harper’s star, which makes him such a perfect spokesman for Under Armour. There isn’t a moment that you watch him and feel he left some juice in the tank. Maybe he misreads a fly ball or gets caught being greedy on the basepaths, but there are no errors of laziness. He embodies what we hope every phenom will put into their craft, playing with a fire even his enemies have to admire.
Children of the ’90s grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., a sweet-swinging kid with style that set him apart. Their demeanors are dramatically different, but Harper has every chance to become Griffey for a new generation; he is the otherworldly talent with charisma to match. As both Harper and Under Armour continue to rise, good luck stopping them over the next two decades.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck