Nationals wowed by Harper's learning curve
Phenom has impressed peers, management on and off field
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- From third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to manager Jim Riggleman, the Nationals are impressed by what they have seen from outfielder Bryce Harper.
Harper, the first overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, has stats that demonstrate how impressive he has been. In eight games this spring, all as a replacement in right field or at designated hitter, Harper is 4-for-13 (.308) with three RBIs.
"He has done well on the field. He is very talented," Zimmerman said. "He is miles ahead of any 18-year-old kid as far as handling everything, baseball-wise. I don't think it's going to take him too long to get up to the big leagues."
Harper's best game came Monday against the Astros, in which he went 2-for-2 with two RBIs. Harper's most impressive hit came during his second at-bat in the eighth inning, during which the Nationals had already scored six runs. With Harper at the plate, one fan in the stands yelled, "Overrated." On the next pitch from reliever Jorge De Leon, Harper doubled down the right-field line, scoring Matt Stairs and Alex Cora.
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What impressed Riggleman about the hit is that Harper is just 18 and he already knows how to hit the high fastball. Riggleman said great hitters such as Tony Gwynn and Mark Grace were great high-ball hitters in their 20s.
"He is a young kid with the wood bat, and he can get to the high fastball as quick as he is," Riggleman said."He can see it so good. It's a little higher than high, it's a borderline strike, it's tough to lay off because everyone pops it up. Bryce has hit four high fastballs right on the button that were borderline strikes. For anyone to get on top of those high fastballs is impressive. If you can hit the high fastball, you can hit the low ball."
It's more than his hitting skills that have impressed his teammates. They say he is athletic and a smart player.
"He is a lot bigger and more athletic than people think," Zimmerman said. "I didn't know he was as big as he is. He is only going to get bigger. He is young and still growing. He lives baseball and he is very intelligent. He knows the game. He is far ahead mentally."
Said outfielder Jayson Werth: "I'm overall impressed. He is way ahead of anybody I've seen -- not just his size, but his togetherness, coordination and the ability to hit with so much power.
"The one thing you have to remember is that he is 18 years old. He has never played professionally. He has a lot of talent, he has a really high ceiling, but everybody has to play in the Minor Leagues. The Minor Leagues builds professionalism, gives everybody a chance to play every day. When he gets that chance and do that, the next time we see him, he will be a better player."
Off the field, Harper has handled himself well. According to Riggleman, Harper is often with his family and wondering what his older brother, Bryan -- a pitcher at the University of South Carolina -- is doing. Riggleman also says that Harper is a great teammate.
"His mother and father have been down here a fair amount," Riggleman said. "Bryce is very family oriented. He is keeping up with his brother.
"Bryce takes the ribbings well from teammates. I could not be happier with the way [he has handled himself] and what he has done while he has been here."
Harper is expected to start his professional career with Class A Hagerstown. What does Harper need to learn before he makes his Major League debut? Learn more about himself as a hitter, according to hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
"He has the skill set and the tools to play in the Major Leagues," Eckstein said. "Now it's the consistency. How do I get the consistency out of my game every day -- facing the different pitchers? What do I need to do when I see that lefty turning the ball over or that right-hander that is cutting the ball in on you? That is the biggest process."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.