Bryce Harper May Not Be Superman

by Eno Sarris //

Scouting is a tough business. There is
no scout superpower that allows members of the profession to leap over
tall buildings and see into the future. Otherwise there would be some extremely well-paid scouts and some bulletproof teams out there.

members of the human race are left trying to learn aspects of
successful baseball players, and then look for those aspects in young
prospects. The problem is, you can look great using a metal bat or beating
up on pitchers who can’t locate their fastball and don’t have a
secondary pitch worth worrying about – and yet still fail at the major league level.

Enter Bryce Harper, the #1 pick of the 2010 draft, and current Arizona Fall League wunderkind.
Look at him at the plate thanks to this great video by Joel Henard at Baseball Daily Digest Radio, and you may, like one scout here in Arizona mused, think he has a high-effort swing. There certainly are a
lot of things that have to go right in his swing, even if the best
result is a powerful one. There are scouting mantras
that say swings that can be described as ‘easy’ and ‘loose’ are
the goal. After watching a few more Harper hacks, you might decide that
though it’s high-effort and complicated, his swing does look like it could generate results. You’ll also see how difficult
scouting can be.

Take a look at the list of first-overall picks in the amateur draft and you’ll find some hits and also plenty of misses. For every superhero like Justin Upton and Chipper Jones, there is a superdud like Ben McDonald and Matt Bush. Limit the list to power hitters, however, and it’s a little harder to find busts. If you give Pat Burrell
some credit, and ignore catchers and shortstops who may have been
taken for potential defensive prowess, you might have to go all the
way to Shawn Abner in 1984 to really find a first-pick, power-hitting bust with a capital B. Viewed in that light, Harper’s draft position alone works in his favor.   

Harper’s case, we even have some mitigating statistics to help us out.
Though he didn’t play in college, he did pick a junior college that
played with wooden bats
– and at the tender age of 17, he put up an
astounding .442/.524/.986 line that could get any pessimistic scout
over-ruled. Now he’s playing against some of the best prospects in
baseball at the Arizona Fall League, and once again his .348/.423/.565
(albeit in a small sample of games) seems to answer most questions.
Except there’s one little
thing… he’s struck out eight times in his first 23 at bats (34.7%). The sample size is not close
to being reliable – strikeout rates usually take more than 150 plate appearances to become predictive. Still, one wonders when the first criticisms of Harper wearing
enough eye black to drown Aquaman will start (image thanks to Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images).

Paired with his age, and the odd high-effort
swing, there is a little doubt here. Even if he does work out, it should
take some time (Adrian Beltre‘s 19-year old, 214-plate
appearance, .215/.278/.369 debut was the youngest significant major league start
since 1975; Ken Griffey, Jr. managed a .264/.329/.420 line at a few months older). His future still looks bright, but don’t expect much, if any impact for at least a couple years.

For more on Bryce Harper and other young prospects, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.



    Ben McDonald is a “superdud”? That seems like a pretty harsh description, considering that he spent 8 seasons in the big leagues with a career ERA+ of 115.

  2. enosarris

    I may have been harsh to McDonald, I guess. But what would you say if Harper played 7 1/2 seasons with an .800 OPS in a corner OF? That’s an OPS+ of 115, equivalent to about Kosuke Fukudome, and probably with worse defense… wouldn’t people call that a bust? I think vis-a-vis McDonald’s draft position and expectations, the label is more understandable.

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