A bigger, stronger Bryce Harper showed up for spring training. He looked fit to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter for the Washington Nationals, and the numbers show he’s playing the part.
But as impressive as Harper has been with a bat, his daredevil approach to the game is getting more attention. He is baseball’s Evel Knievel, a guy who does everything at high speed and sometimes crashes in spectacular fashion.
Knievel suffered at least 433 broken bones, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Harper needed 11 stitches to his chin after crashing into the right-field wall Monday in Los Angeles, so by comparison, his injuries are minor.
Harper has experience knocking down barriers, leaving Las Vegas High School after his sophomore year and spending one year at the College of Southern Nevada, completing his ambitious plan to be the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. One thing he can’t do is knock down an outfield wall, and he would be wise to stop trying.
If he stays healthy and keeps hitting, Harper is on pace to top the proposition totals — 28 home runs and 84½ RBIs — set for him this season by oddsmakers at William Hill sports books.
“He’s the best prospect I’ve seen. It’s as simple as that,” said Dave Cokin, a Las Vegas handicapper and ESPN Radio host. “His bat speed is ridiculous. He’s going to be a 40-homer guy moving forward.”
Harper is on that pace, with 11 homers through the Nationals’ first 41 games, essentially 25 percent of the season. He is batting .298 with 22 RBIs after Thursday’s game at San Diego.
It goes back to spring training. Harper arrived, with a more muscular physique and slightly better haircut, saying he was 18 pounds heavier than his rookie season.
“He’s definitely bigger this year,” said Adam Kilgore, the Nationals’ beat writer for The Washington Post. “To me, he looked taller, too, but he said he didn’t grow at all.”
Harper is 6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds, and at age 20, he’s obviously growing as a hitter. Asked if Harper will rip 40 homers this season or in the near future, Kilgore said, “No doubt.”
Cokin’s preseason prediction that Harper had a good shot to be Most Valuable Player in the National League is not looking like such a wild pitch. But he still might be the second-best young hitter in the majors, behind Mike Trout, the 21-year-old outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels.
Trout and Harper will be linked for years. Trout was phenomenal as a rookie, batting .326 with 30 homers and 83 RBIs in 139 games. Harper, who also played 139 games, hit .270 with 22 homers and 59 RBIs.
Who projects as the better player?
“Trout is terrific, but I would still have to go with Harper,” Cokin said.
Setting aside a hometown bias, I’ll give Trout the edge by a whisker, partly because he’s smoother in the outfield and also due to his ability to run the bases. Trout is 60-for-67 on stolen base attempts, and Harper is 19-for-27.
Like most of the Angels, Trout had to overcome a slow start at the plate in April, but after a recent upswing, he is batting .287 with eight homers and 29 RBIs.
At the LVH sports book, Trout opened at 12-1 odds to lead the majors in homers this season, and his prop total for homers was 30½. Harper opened at 40-1 to lead the majors in homers, and his prop total was 26½.
At William Hill’s books, Harper’s RBI prop opened at 76½ and closed eight runs higher. The four props on Harper — including total hits (166½) and steals (25½) — drew more action than any other player on the board. But that needs to be put in perspective.
Jimmy Vaccaro, director of public relations for William Hill, said the Harper props paled in comparison to what was wagered on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl props. Kaepernick’s performance in one game dictated a handful of $50,000 decisions.
“We wrote some tickets on Harper, but nothing compelling,” Vaccaro said. “The biggest decisions are on him only because he’s a marquee name and this is his hometown. Harper’s about 5 percent of what was (bet) on Kaepernick. But Babe Ruth wouldn’t draw that much attention. The difference between baseball and football is night and day.”
If Harper played football, he would be a bigger Troy Polamalu, a hard-hitting daredevil who seeks high-speed thrills.
But we’ll stick to comparing Harper to Trout, the top two young hitters in the majors.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.