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.