HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Bryce Harper took an outside strike and shot a disapproving glance at the umpire.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the young phenom. The ump had been calling them wide all game. Showing displeasure now — with a man on base in the seventh inning when his team needed runs — was hardly going to help.
Three pitches later, Harper struck out by flailing at a pitch that was well outside with the runner going. Another lesson learned by a teenager navigating the backwaters of minor league baseball.
Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 and accelerated his way into college, setting himself up to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Nationals in last year’s draft. He signed a $9.9 million contract, the biggest for a drafted position player.
He added to his legacy shortly after joining the Single-A Hagerstown Suns, when he emerged from a slow start and went on an 18-game hitting streak, to the point that he’s now among the South Atlantic League leaders in batting (.342) and homers (14, hitting one Monday).
Harper attributed the turnaround to new contact lenses, saying he was “blind as a bat” until he got them on April 18.
Nationals fans are paying attention. Some have begun clamoring for Harper’s promotion to the majors. If not now, then very soon. Washington is in last place in the National League East and one of the worst-hitting teams in baseball, so why take the long, slow road with the kid?
The answer, for those who see Harper every day, is easy. There are dozens of things, from obvious to subtle and tangible to intangible, that go into making a major league player. Maturity. Baserunning. Working the count. The grind. Attitude. Adjusting to umpires. Meshing with teammates in the clubhouse.
Washington general manager Mike Rizzo has made it clear that Harper won’t be in the majors this year. In fact, it could be a while before there’s a promotion from Hagerstown, about a 90-minute drive from Nationals Park.
“I like the setup he has there,” Rizzo said. “He’s very comfortable in the surroundings. He’s got a great staff around him, but I don’t see him staying there for the entire season. He’ll be moved at some time. We’re just not at the point where he’s ready to move yet.”
Harper’s raw skills are unquestioned. He’s got a major league arm in the outfield (the Nationals converted him from catcher), a powerful swing and is very competitive. Everything else is a work in progress for the 18-year-old.
“One of the biggest sins you can make is putting guys into position where they’re going to fail early,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ director of player development. “We’re really committed, but lay the blocks before we try to put in some chandeliers and some granite countertops.”
Harper validated Harris’ point in a game last week. While the record will show that Harper hit his first walkoff homer with the Suns — a two-run shot in the 10th for a 9-8 win over Greenville on Thursday — the details reveal that earlier in the game he was twice erased from the bases by simple mistakes. He was picked off in the first inning, then got caught in a rundown in the fifth trying to advance on a ball in the dirt.
Harper shrugged off both miscues.
“They got me when I was leaning,” he said of the pickoff, and he attributed the rundown to a good play made by the catcher. It’s part of a recurring theme — he’s been embarrassed more than once trying to snag an extra 90 feet.
“He’s a very aggressive player, which is great,” Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach said. “It’s always easier to rein a guy in a little bit instead of getting a passive guy to play aggressive and take extra bases.”
Learning curve aside, Harper looks very much like the real deal.
“Raw power stands out the most,” Daubach said. “He does things that guys, it takes until they’re 25 or 30 years old. When he’s taking batting practice, it’s like watching a major leaguer already.”