Love him or hate him, there's one undeniable truth: Bryce Harper is a damn good player.
It was established as a universal truth after his 2015 NL MVP season when he hit .330 with 40 home runs and 99 RBI. His hardware at 25 years old includes that MVP award, the NL Rookie of the Year he won at 19, and a Silver Slugger.
The only knock against Harper's first six years of his career is a lack of consistency. Some of that has to do with injury and, actually, Harper has only played in over 150 games once, in 2015. When he broke into the major leagues, he established the tone as a guy who would run through a wall for the ball. Sure, that didn't exactly work out for him, but it was a work ethic that had to have been respected.
Fast forward to 2018, and Harper has his fair share of critics plastering him with an "overrated" label. And yet, in the first 20 plate appearances of the 2018 season, Harper has gotten off to an incredible start. The term "blistering" doesn't do his .415 batting average, three home runs, and .550 OBP over the first four games any justice.
And this is what baseball needs.
He's as good as they get
Harper has been a star since his rapid ascension to the pros in 2012. From the beginning he's been promoted as the foil to Mike Trout, two phenoms labeled the poster boys for their respective leagues. This comparison, naturally, has evolved into a rivalry of sorts that undoubtedly holds greater stock to the fans than the players themselves.
Consider this: Trout may have more home runs (202 to Harper's 153), RBI (573 to 428), and a higher batting average (.306 to .285) but that seems to be more of a testament to Trout's durability. Trout's eight-year career has yielded more games played (930) than Harper's seven-year total (772). That means Trout has played in 72% of total playable games over that eight-year span, while Harper has only taken the field 68% percent of his seven-year total.
It's neither here nor there to speculate what Harper could accomplish in that 158 game difference. Instead, the focus should be on the 2015 season, where Trout finished second in AL MVP voting and Harper won the NL MVP trophy. Here was Harper at his best, Trout's counterpart in the National League. Both finished with over 40 home runs (Harper eclipsed Trout's 41 with 42) and 90 RBI (Trout with an even 90, Harper at 99).
But for the sake of MLB's popularity and, frankly, its marketing, the baseball world needs Harper to play consistently at the level that solidified his stardom in 2015. The bevy of young and talented players on the cusp of stardom can be traced back to Harper, who at 25 seems like the elder statesman. But the next wave of superstars began with both Trout and Harper's debut, and while the names of Francisco Lindor, Cody Bellinger, and Aaron Judge (among many others) have rightfully risen to the forefront, MLB needs its original phenom performing at the highest level again.
And although his labeling as the "villain" by baseball fandom seems unfair, there's something satisfying seeing Harper silence the "overrated" chants with a moonshot.
He's been making baseball fun again
Don't be mistaken. Baseball was never not fun.
But Harper brought to the game a flash of excitement, highlighted by his various hairstyles and often prominent beard. His unique influence on the game, almost as unique as his generational left-handed swing, has influenced baseball fandom as a must-see talent.
He has spearheaded the drive to allow ballplayers to express themselves on the field. The long-standing code of conduct has come into conflict with the entertainment industry that is Major League Baseball. There has been a cultural shift to the flash and dazzle. Admirable as Derek Jeter's business-like approach to the game was, it has been replaced with bat flips, hair flips, and outfield dancing.
Harper has found himself at the forefront of the movement to inject a new energy in baseball. Does it come across as showboating, almost as arrogant? Some people will think so, and that's their right to think so. Harper knows, but he won't change who he is because of the opinions that have been heaped on him ever since he was a 16-year-old on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
With Harper on the verge of free agency, we could see some historic numbers put up both in his stat line and on his check. If he were to emulate that MVP season of 2015, would it be all that surprising if he signed a $400m contract?
Time will tell regarding the latter, but Harper seems to be locked in just four games into the season. This is the Harper the baseball world needs, and supporters will salivate at the possibilities throughout the course of the season. Will he hit 40 home runs again? Could he hit 50 while on his way to a second MVP honor?
And the haters can fuel the animosity even more if he succeeds. Regardless of the situation, whether you want him to succeed or fail, he becomes an instant must-watch attraction.
It's an entertainment, and there's none more entertaining than Bryce Harper.