Bryce Harper and the Elements of Style by Eric Freeman

Situational — and surprisingly topical!– Essay today by Eric Freeman, who usually writes about the NBA for Ball Don’t Lie. Follow him on Twitter at @freemaneric.

Yesterday’s big baseball news concerned Bryce Harper, all-everything prospect for the Washington Nationals currently playing for Hagerstown in the Sally League. In case you haven’t seen, Harper is hitting the ever-loving fuck out of the ball, posting .342/.435/.623 averages with 14 homers, 32 walks, and 12 steals in 232 plate appearances. On Monday, Harper caused a stir after one of those homers when he watched it for about 20 seconds and mimed a kiss at the pitcher as he rounded third base.

For the most part, the play has brought Harper criticism for being an immature asshole (see here and here). That opinion is accurate in the most basic sense: only dickheads tend to show up pitchers, and Harper has a stupid mustache and nascent mullet, as well. He’s baseball’s version of an ’80s ski movie villain, just with more natural talent than any other prospect in the minors. (In other words, he will render Colby Rasmus insignificant as soon as he puts on a big league uniform.)

Yet while Harper is clearly a jerk, he’s also perhaps the most important player to come along for MLB marketing purposes since Derek Jeter (or, if you want to depress everyone, Harper’s organizational teammate Stephen Strasburg). I say that not only because he’s ridiculously talented, but because he’s very clearly a personality. Jeff Passan gets at some of Harper’s value in this excellent column for Yahoo!, which focuses on Harper’s role as a villain for a sport that hasn’t really had a compelling one since Barry Bonds retired. It’s a good point, especially now that Alex Rodriguez has reached a point of moderate acceptance and most of the Red Sox’s best players are either short or fat (i.e. stereotypically lovable).

However, I’d go farther still and say that Harper is even more important than Passan lets on precisely because he’s a budding star who must be discussed in terms of what it’s like to watch him play rather than just how much he produces. One side effect of the sabermetric revolution has been that most baseball stars are talked about almost exclusively in terms of their production (and rightfully so, because, well, they’re awesome at the sport). That trend has been compounded by the fact that a lot of today’s best hitters are stylistic vaccuums (see: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, and Ryan Braun, to name three) incapable of being described in terms other than “steady” and “really good.” The upshot of these factors is that discussion of the sport tends to shy away from treating baseball like a spectator sport and instead turns it into a confluence of events. That’s not to say that people don’t like watching baseball anymore; it’s just that we discuss what happened without spending much energy on describing how it happened.

Harper demands stylistic discussion of his every move in a way that even Bonds didn’t at his most controversial. (Bonds is an arrogant jerk, but he really pissed people off when he started threatening a beloved historical record. His personality didn’t change much over the course of his career.) As Grant Brisbee said earlier today for Baseball Nation, Harper is divisive like Bonds, but the things that divide people are not tied to whether his accomplishments are tainted. He’s either an asshole, a big dumb goofus, or a wrestling superstar whose first at-bat against Brian Wilson will take place at King of the Ring. No matter the opinion, Harper is discussed in the context of how we watch him play the game.

Harper has the chance to force MLB and its fans to face baseball as both an aesthetic experience and an athletic competition. Style matters to longtime fans and potential ones alike; we give exciting players like Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen short shrift when we discuss them as producers first and as performers at a distant second. If Harper becomes a national lightning rod, he could force people to explain what they like to watch on the field instead of what they want on the stat line.

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7 Responses to Bryce Harper and the Elements of Style by Eric Freeman

  1. mabel says:

    Love this.
    However, I think there’s an even broader context into which this discussion should be incorporated. With players like these (and perhaps especially A-Rod) what’s at stake is not only performance on the field or style, but also persona off the field. (I raise issues of stardom/gossip in sports alot so this may sound familiar to some.) All of these things interact with one another to produce the star and there’s a complex interaction between how we emphasize these elements which points to trends in how we view the game and how we view the sport. Thus it is not only sabermetrics that offers the context for Harper and the contemporary baseball star, but also the burgeoning field of celebrity sports gossip. These opposite ends of the spectrum perhaps meet in the discussion of style as it reflects personality.
    In any case, really great piece!

  2. Dana King says:

    I sure you’re wrong about this. I can barely watch basketball anymore because the style has overcome the production; football is getting there. Baseball and hockey have their weak moments, but the peer pressure is still to respect the game, and that performance is needed before we’ll even discuss style, which will always come second.

  3. dougiejays says:

    I don’t know. The first asshole that popped to mind wasn’t Rasmus but Papelbon – or, as he’s known in these parts, Papeldouche. I guess if Harper could be as good as Bonds we could have a colourful villain on that kind of scale again, but the game has always had its share of the eminently hateable. ARod’s only become accepted in that he’s declined and faded into the “Damn Yankee” wallpaper. He’s still there. AJ Pierzysnki and Chipper Jones are still kicking around, they just haven’t been in the Series in a while. Milton Bradley…well, he WAS around until about a month ago. Baseball creates its own assholes.

  4. Tom Brenholts says:

    I dunno. Is this about Harper, or is it about the reporting of just the stats, the lack of reporting of style? The style is still there. Stuff happens around the edges, that no one pays attention to because it isn’t part of “the sabermetric revolution”, or because the teams involved aren’t Yankees or Red Sox. Last night the Pirates and the Diamondbacks played into the 12th, with the Bucs winning 3-2 after Arizona tied it in the 9th and scored in the top of the 10th. In the bottom of the 10th Andrew McCutchen doubled and hometown Neil Walker singled up the middle; in the bottom of the 12th McCutchen hit a walkoff home run, and we had a great game that was full of style. The Yankees and the Red Sox, and the assholes, keep the game in the national headlines and in the field of vision of the casual fans. But out there in the middle, there’s still a baseball game being played, full of style.

  5. Terpfan76 says:

    Bryce Harper is also just 18 years old. Don’t you think he might be coming off as being an ass because he’s immature? To label him a villain at this point in his career is at best, premature.

  6. HHover says:

    Enjoyed the piece very much, Eric–great insight and context.

    Terpfan76 – Of course he could grow out of it. On the other hand, there are lot of 18 year olds who don’t act like this, and the guys who act like this at 30 probably weren’t angels at 18. I don’t think the point is that Harper yet qualifies as a villain, but that that’s one career track where such behavior leads.

  7. David says:

    Just came across this Eric…I think that if he was 21-22 years old and was an asshole…you’d be so on the money and still might very well be…it’s probably 70%-30% that he will still be an asshole, …leopards don’t change their spots.
    There’s 2 ways that work for this amazing, talented baseball player…intense therapy or a surprising, rude awakening when he is called up, which I think will happen by the latest, mid July, if he’s moved up to Triple A, now and fails!!!