Something happened on Tuesday night against the Orioles that really made me think about Bryce Harper, his season thus far, and where his future will take him.
First, let me give some background on the situation.
2018 was expected to be the Summer of Bryce Harper. With a clean bill of health entering his contract year, a year that has been front of mind for national baseball media seemingly since his Major League debut, this was going to be the biggest summer of his life. Things rarely turn out how we expect them to: as of June 20th, Bryce Harper is hitting .213 with a 23% strikeout rate but has had the expected power – 19 homers to lead the NL and 44 RBI – as well as a good bit of bad luck – .209 BABIP. While this has not been the production he or the Nats have hoped for, the general consensus is that even a full season like this would do little to hurt his value as a free agent, a free agency that so many in the national media think will lead him away from the nation’s capital. See Bleacher Report’s article two days ago about Juan Soto titled “Meet Juan Soto: The 19-Year-Old MLB Phenom Who Could Replace Bryce Harper.” Even one of the game’s most electric young players is being referred to as Harper’s inevitable replacement.
So back to Tuesday’s game: The Nats dug themselves a 5-1 hole against the league’s worst team but had fought back to make it 5-4 with two outs in the fifth and Harper up with runners on the corners. Bryce, after what has seemed like six weeks of pure futility, blooped a 2-2 pitch into no-man’s land down the left field line, tying the game and leaving Harper standing on second with a double. Harper’s reaction was genuine and human: he tilts his head, looks up to the sky, and laughs, in what clearly meant “it’s about time something good happened.” While I was happy for Bryce and was happy to see him smiling for the first time in ages, the reaction from the crowd was the important piece. The Nationals fans stand for an ovation, making clear that they understood the weight behind that simple hit to shallow left. They stood as though to say, “we understand, we’re with you, and we’re just as happy for you that that fell in as we are that our team scored a run.”
At risk of sounding like the world’s largest homer, which other fans do that? Bryce Harper, subject of the hottest hot takes from both sides of the baseball aisle, has hit sub-.200 since his blistering start in April. In many cities, certainly not all but many, he would have been getting booed at home for weeks now. The fans don’t really owe him anything: he hasn’t won a title yet and he has yet to actively commit to the city beyond what was required after being drafted by the Nats unlike guys like Strasburg or Scherzer. Consider too how Nats fans have treated their former players that left via free agency for one reason or another. Wilson Ramos received a hero’s welcome when his Rays were in DC this spring and Ian Desmond receives similar every time he has been back with the Rockies. Bryce saw that at the same time as he saw his close friend and mentor Jayson Werth get booed viciously by a fan base for which he had an enormous part in winning a World Series.
Bryce is not going to make his decision in the fall based solely on the nicest or most supportive fans. Likely it will come down to money, of which there will be plenty. I have long ignored the “loyalty” argument made by some Nats fans, but Tuesday night was impactful. Fans have stood with Bryce in the midst of one of his worst stretches as a big leaguer and showed their appreciation that to a casual observer might have seemed as though he had just hit some great hitting milestone. If there was ever a time and place for Nats fans to deliver their sales pitch to the man who has meant so much to growing the Nationals into a perennial power, that was it.