Of the top 47 players in baseball so far this year … Harper is the youngest. (Only Carlos Correa at No. 48 is younger than Harper.) In almost any other context than the one in which we currently live, our jaws would drop by what Harper is doing, not just as a player, but as a player so young. It’s one thing for there to be phenoms. It is quite another for there to be a phenom like Harper, perhaps the best player in baseball so far and still not turning 25 years old until October. And it’s the rarest thing of all to be a phenom like Harper and have 2,897 plate appearances and 130 home runs under your belt. Josh Donaldson didn’t even get his first starting job until he was three years older than Harper is right now. Harper may have 300 homers by then.
But let’s play that out. Here are Harper’s paces for the rest of this season, even allotting for the series he missed over the weekend.
And seriously, check out that slash line: .376/.504/.723. That’s an OPS of 1.227, the highest since, you guessed it, Barry Bonds in 2004.
It’s always dangerous to play the on-pace-for game. (Ryan Zimmerman is currently batting .435, for crying out loud.) But if anything, Harper’s pace in the past week has slowed to its current level. And just calling this a hot streak ignores that Harper has essentially done this for a whole season before. In his MVP season of 2015, Harper put up a .330/.460/.649 slash line. Harper will actually have to regress significantly to fall to that epic, magnificent season. To match 2015, Harper’s slash line the rest of the way would be .319/.451/.630. You think he’s got that in him? I think he’s got better.
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, Harper puts up 45 homers a year, this year and the next seven years. That seems about right: He may go nuts and go over that number a couple of years, he may miss some games or have a down year or so. He may sign with the Yankees and their short right-field porch in that time — though it’s possible the Braves’ new stadium may be even better for left-handed power hitters — and go nuts for 70 sometime. But let’s go with 45.
That gives him 36 more this year, plus 45 a year for the six years after that. That’s 306 homers, added to the 130 he has already hit. That puts him at 446 at the end of the 2023 season. How old will he be after that 446th homer, as he tries to win the Yankees another championship? He will be 31 years old. He will be the same age as Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis, Corey Klubrer, Ian Desmond, Yoenis Cespedes, Johnny Cueto, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Josh Donaldson … he’ll be the same age as all those guys are right now.
Baseball fans want something, constantly, that we have not seen before. But Bryce Harper is so good, and so young, that we don’t realize just how long he’s been this young. So many of the shiny new things still aren’t as young and amazing as Harper.
Which brings us, of course, to the final reason as to why what Harper is doing is so disorienting. Harper is a once-in-a-generational player who happens to be on the same career cycle as another once-in-a-generational player in Mike Trout. Trout is one year older than Harper, but they both played their first full seasons in 2012, after years of being ranked 1-2 in prospect lists (though sometimes behind Matt Moore!) and heralded as baseball’s next great superstars. Trout is so otherworldly — and off to yet another otherworldly start this year — that it doesn’t seem right, or fair, or even possible, that Harper could be just as good, or even … better? Someday? We got Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds, right next to another, in the exact same year, charting the exact same course. We almost can’t appreciate either of them enough.