The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #7: Bryce Harper truly arrives

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Bryce Harper broke into the national consciousness when he was only 16-years-old, hitting the cover of Sports Illustrated, advertised as the hottest phenom the game had seen in ages. That’s a hell of a lot of hype to live up to and, for years, people criticized Harper for not living up it. They criticized his every immature act as a junior college player and then a minor leaguer, forgetting that he was basically still a kid. He topped the list of “most overrated players” last year (as voted on by other major leaguers).

Which, quite frankly, was insane. Human beings, let alone baseball-playing human beings, do not emerge, fully-formed and fully-mature at age 16. Maturity and deportment aside, it takes years and years for even the most talented players to become top major leaguers. Statistical analysis will tell you that most players improve until they’re around 27 or so, then have a couple of years of peak performance, then decline. On that traditional scale it would not have been shocking if Harper didn’t totally realize his potential for several more years. He didn’t turn 22 until after the end of the 2014 season for crying out loud and, even then, showed flashes of amazing play, even as he fought injury during his first three seasons in the bigs. If Harper didn’t turn into an all-world superstar until, say, 2018, he’d still be well within the normal career path of even many Hall of Fame talents.

Harper wasn’t waiting until 2018, however. Indeed, Harper thoroughly dominated baseball in 2015, in ways few if any 22-year-olds ever have.

While the Nationals underachieved in 2015 — more on that in #6 on our countdown — Harper broke out with a historically great season, batting .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 99 RBI. He led the majors in bWAR (9.9), on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649), and OPS (1.109) while tying Colorado’s Nolan Arenado for first in the National League with 42 home runs. He led the National League in runs (118) while only Cincinnati’s Joey Votto bested his total of 124 walks. In an era where pitching dominates, these were video game numbers. His 195 OPS+ — which adjusts for his era — ranked as the 71st all-time for a single season. It was the best mark in the majors since Barry Bonds in 2004.

Historically speaking, Harper’s 1.109 OPS was the second-best all-time at age-22 or younger, behind only Ted Williams, who had a 1.287 OPS in 1941. In September, he became just the seventh player to reach 40 home runs at age-22 or younger. In November Harper became the youngest player to win the NL MVP since Johnny Bench in 1970.

I wonder what those players who voted Harper “most overrated” are saying now.