Triple-A Syracuse manager Tony Beasley said outfielder Bryce Harper has made excellent progress on and off the field in his first year in professional baseball and is learning what every minor league player learns at this level: how to deal with success and failure.
Beasley skippered the Nationals' No. 1 prospect from July 4 until the end of the season at Double-A Harrisburg and may see Harper soon in his new job as Syracuse's manager.
The 19-year old Harper certainly did not disappoint with the numbers he put up on the field at Single-A Hagerstown and Harrisburg, batting .297 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs in 109 combined games.
In 37 games in Harrisburg, Harper hit .256 with three homers and 12 RBIs. His season ended early at Double-A because of a hamstring injury.
He got on a roll after a slow start, a pattern that repeated itself in each of his three stops last season, including the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .429 in his final 10 games.
"I think when he first got to Double-A, in his mind, as confident as he is, he still wanted to validate whether he belonged there," Beasley said. "In only a few games, there was no doubt in my mind that he belonged there. His average dipped early, but it wasn't from being overmatched. It was due to a lot of misfortune. He hit a lot of balls hard that were caught. He hit a lot of balls in our park that would have been home runs in other ballparks."
Beasley said this was not because Harper could not handle Double-A pitching early on, but had more to do with unlucky bounces and a pitcher's ballpark.
"He had some things that didn't go his way as far as balls falling," Beasley said. "But Harper did his job. He barreled the ball up. He got pitches to hit and put the barrel on it. I think that is all he can do."
Many coaches look at talents like Harper and say they need a ton of seasoning at the minor league level so they can deal with a game that is filled with things that sometimes don't go their way. Beasley said Harper is not discouraged if he is not hitting .400 every week.
"I saw him grow as far as dealing with failure," Beasley said. "A lot of times, you never understand what kind of player you have until you see them deal with a little bit of adversity - because the average wasn't .320 and things like that. But I saw him handle it one day at a time and one at-bat at a time and still not allow the game (to) consume him. A kid at his age and the scrutiny he was under, that could easily happen. I was very impressed with the way he handled it."
One of the most impressive plays I saw Harper make last year was in a Double-A game in Bowie, where he caught a ball in left field against the wall and then tried to throw the ball to first to double up a runner. Throwing from the left field warning track, Harper's throw bounced once just in front of the first baseman, who could not handle it, and the runner was able to take two bases. Beasley said harnessing that strength is what Harper is also learning in each minor league game he plays.
"Defensively, he showed tremendous growth," Beasley said. "He came there at what was a new position for him in left field, he had never played it. Harper struggled a little bit early against the left-handed bat (because) the ball has a little bit of a fade to it. He did. He made that adjustment well. His routes and reads got better.
"I was very impressed with his throwing arm and accuracy," Beasley continued. "I was happy with the way he ran the bases. I like the aggressiveness. Some say he was out of control. Beforehand, I had heard reports about that. But, if I am 18 years old and I am as talented as he is, I would rather see a little bit out of control than a lackadaisical guy (where you have to) try to pull that out of him.
"I would rather have too much effort because you can always tone the effort down. But when you have guys that don't give any effort, then that is a different animal. I was very happy with Bryce and everything he did."
Beasley said his daily postgame meetings with Harper were very important in helping the young star learn all the nuances of the game.
"That is what we did in our one-on-one (meetings) each day," Beasley recalled. "We just talked about good times to do certain things, Baseball 101. Sometimes, we talked about his at-bats and how he was being pitched, some adjustments you may have to make, the mentality and approach in certain situations. Defensively, we talked about the routes off the bat and reading the flight of the ball. He was able to apply adjustments in game which is special for a kid his age.
"During his at-bats, he was able to make adjustments per pitch. He would recognize some things. He may swing at a pitch 0-0 that when it gets to 0-2, he won't swing at that pitch. That is maturity. He makes adjustments at 0-2, shortening everything up."
Bottom line: Beasley felt Harper took a major step forward in his first professional season.
"I was just happy with his overall play," Beasley said. "He got hurt and missed the last month with the hamstring injury. He played really well (in Harrisburg). I am curious to see where he is going to start. That is a mystery for us all right now, but wherever he is at he will be all right."
Coming up: In the next part in my interview with Beasley about Harper, we will discuss how Harper might react if he does have an extended season of success in the minor leagues and does not get the call to the Nationals.