Will Yoder: Only a teen, Harper hitting in some elite company

Given the debut strategy taken with Stephen Strasburg in 2010, not many people thought going into this year that 19-year-old Bryce Harper would end playing at least 100 games in 2012. Now, barring injury, it seems almost a lock that the club’s starting outfielder will surpass that mark, making him just the 18th player in Major League Baseball history to play 100 or more games as a teenager.

Among those 18 players, Harper is currently on pace to have one of the best seasons ever. Below I’ve listed the top 10 seasons posted by a teenager in major league history according to OPS+. Harper currently boasts a 116 OPS+ so far this season.

1. Mel Ott, 1928: 124 GP, 18 HR, 77 RBIs, .322/.397/.524, 139 OPS+
2. Tony Conigliaro, 1964: 111 GP, 24 HR, 52 RBIs, .290/.354/.530, 137 OPS+
3. Johnny Lush, 1904: 106 GP, 2 HR, 42 RBIs, .276/.336/.369 , 118 OPS+
4. Ken Griffey Jr., 1989: 108 GP, 16 HR, 61 RBIs, .264/.329/.420, 108 OPS +
5. Edgar Renteria, 1996: 106 GP, 5 HR, 31 RBIs, .309/.358/.399, 103 OPS+
6. Ed Kranepool, 1964: 119 GP, 10 HR, 45 RBIs, .257/310/.393, 100 OPS+
7. Freddie Lindstrom, 1925; 104 GP, 4 HR, 33 RBIs, .287/.332/.404, 96 OPS+
8. Phil Cavarretta, 1935; 146 GP, 8 HR, 82 RBIs, .275/.322/.404, 93 OPS+
9. Robin Yount, 1975; 147 GP, 8 HR, 52 RBIs, .267/.307/.367, 90 OPS+
10. Buddy Lewis, 1936; 143 GP, 6 HR, 67 RBIs, .291/.347/.399, 88 OPS+

As you can see, if the season ended today, Harper would finish just above Griffey Jr., cracking the top five for the best seasons all-time as a teenager. Tony Conigliaro and Mel Ott may be hard for him to catch, but I wouldn’t discount Harper’s chances.

Through 22 games, Harper is hitting .256/.340/.451 with two home runs and seven RBIs. He currently ranks him 13th among major league rookies in WAR, but a large part of that is dragged down by his poor -1.5 UZR (he’s missed a few simple fly balls). Given the fact that he’s only played 22 games, it’s certainly possible that he will be able to ramp up his production and make a serious push for National League Rookie of the Year.

There are clear areas he needs to improve upon, however. We’ve seen Harper misplay more than several balls in the outfield early on. It’s clear he has the physical tools to be a top-shelf outfielder; he just needs to learn to read fly balls better. He also seems to be failing to generate a lot of backspin on the balls he hits the hardest. This is why it seems like balls that are clobbered off his bat are hitting against the wall and not going over the fence. It’s not that he’s not strong enough - anyone who watches him hit in batting practice knows he has the most power on the team - it’s about turning a major league pitch into a 400-foot line drive.

Regardless of how this summer shakes out in the win/loss column for the Nationals, it will be worth watching simply to chronicle the historic development of the team’s young star. Opponents may hate him, other cities may boo him, but eventually, everyone will be forced to respect him.

Will Yoder blogs about the Nationals for The Nats Blog, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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