Nats' Harper, Strasburg Making History
On Friday night, immediately after grounding out to Joey Votto in the seventh inning of the Washington Nationals' victory over the Cincinnati Reds, Bryce Harper threw down his bat in anger. In an almost comical scenario, the bat bounced off the dugout wall and struck Harper on his forehead, just above his left eye, requiring 10 stitches.
Maybe it was a good thing.
For Monday night, Harper, the most talked-about No. 1 draft pick since ... well, since teammate Stephen Strasburg was chosen a year earlier in 2009, finally hit his first home run. It was a mammoth blast to dead center field that surely lifted a huge burden off the 19-year-old's shoulders.
Pressure on highly touted rookies is nothing new. It's been the way of things since the beginning. In 1951, the New York Giants issued a press release in advance of the major league debut of one Willie Mays, stating, "No minor league player in a generation has created so great a stir as has Mays." Mays started his brilliant career 0-for-12 before getting a home run for his first hit.
Harper's blast wasn't as tension-relieving as when Mays got his first hit. Nonetheless, for a man for whom many are predicting 500 home runs, it was a reassuring sight.
It's been an eventful, roller-coaster baptism of fire for Harper. He started his big league career in prodigious fashion, was then hit on purpose by a pitch from Cole Hamels, has already stolen home, went into a tailspin and was 1-for-22 going into Monday night's game ... before finally hitting his first home run.
The Nationals are arguably the most exciting team in baseball, and it's largely thanks to Harper and Strasburg. Strasburg has already established himself as the finest pitcher in the National League, perhaps in all of baseball, if he stays healthy. The fact that he has put up such impressive early numbers this year after missing nearly the entire 2011 campaign after Tommy John surgery is nothing short of miraculous. His gaudy stat line thus far this season: 3-0, 1.64 ERA, 51 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 44 innings, with a 0.91 WHIP.
If, and it's obviously a big if at this very early stage, Harper comes close to delivering on the hype that has accompanied him since a young age, it will be unprecedented to have two first picks from consecutive years on the same team turn out to be of such high caliber.
Actually, the only other team that has had the first pick in the draft in consecutive years was Tampa Bay, taking David Price in 2007 and Tim Beckham in 2008. Price has been superb for the Rays, while Beckham hasn't seen major league action.
The first baseball draft was held in 1965. Before that, clubs competed with each other in an effort to land the top prospects. This invariably led to an embarrassment of riches for the wealthier teams. But with the introduction of the draft, there existed for a brief time a transition period in which the bottom-rung teams had first shot at the most talented rookies - at least before the onset of free agency in the mid-1970s returned the power to the hands of the wealthiest teams. The two mini-dynasties of this period were small- to mid-market teams, the Oakland A's and Cincinnati Reds.
Of the 47 players chosen first in the draft, 18 have become All-Stars. Remarkably, not one has been a Hall of Famer, though three are surely first-ballot enshrines - Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez - in the near future.
This is in stark contrast with the NFL. Over the same time frame, 29 first picks have gone to the Pro Bowl, and eight have been elected to the Hall of Fame. Naturally there's a far greater chance for an NFL draft pick to succeed because there's no waiting around in the minor leagues, as there is in baseball. But does the success rate of NFL first picks mean the scouting is better or easier in football?
Impossible to say. Scouting is an inexact science, not unlike weather forecasting. While weather prognostication is far more accurate than decades ago, it's not perfect. And just like meteorologists, who use the latest radar and other quantitative tools, sports scouts will use all empirical devices possible to measure the future greatness of an athlete. Yet there are always surprises. For every Strasburg or Griffey, there's a Luke Hochevar, whom the Royals chose first in 2006, and d Bryan Bullington, the Pirates' top choice in 2002.
Nationals fans should consider themselves lucky to witness the gestation and birth of two burgeoning careers in such a short span, one already certified superstar and another who looks to have all the makings of one.