As Bryce Harper made his way through his first major league season, a day rarely went by without another milestone for the Washington Nationals’ outfielder. Another small bit of history made. Another step toward a conversation among the game’s greats.
It was fitting, then, that he capped a historic season with the ultimate first-year prize. Harper was named the 2012 Baseball Writers Association of America National League Rookie of the Year on Monday night, joining American League winner Mike Trout as this year’s honorees.
Harper, who was 19 during the season, is the first Nationals player to win to win Rookie of the Year and the franchise’s first since Andre Dawson won it for the Montreal Expos in 1977. In his remarkable season, Harper hit .270 with 22 home runs, 59 RBI and 98 runs, while finishing with a 4.9 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs.com. He became the youngest position player to win the award.
“He had a terrific season,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said last week. “The ability level, that was as advertised. But he really exceeded my expectations in the way he conducted himself in the clubhouse. The professionalism, the way he interacted with his teammates, and really, as a young kid, showed the maturity and the leadership to play every day.”
With his heartbeat escalating and an MLB Network camera on him for the announcement, Harper beat out Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and Arizona left-hander Wade Miley for the honor. Harper earned 112 total points, including 16 first-place votes to Miley’s 12. He beat out Miley by seven points, the fourth-closest vote in the award’s history.
“This is a great award, and I’m so excited and proud of it,” Harper said. “But my biggest thing is I want to win a World Series. I want to put that ring on my finger and give that to the city of D.C. They deserve that. I think our organization deserves that. And I think that’s what my biggest goal is.”
The Nationals sent Harper to Triple-A Syracuse to open the 2012 season, but his stay there didn’t last long. He was called to the majors April 28 out of necessity. With Ryan Zimmerman out with an ailing shoulder, Michael Morse recovering from a lat injury and the offense struggling to score, the Nationals turned to Harper for a spark.
It took him very little time to provide it.
Harper’s debut, under Hollywood’s bright lights at Dodger Stadium, was a raucous night. His first plate appearance was greeted with resounding boos, a testament to the immense hype and attention that had been paid to his every move since before he was tabbed with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft. His first hit was a rocket double. His first stolen base was of home plate.
And all of it was done with the fire and passion that came to be synonymous for the way he plays the game.
“[Playing in the major leagues] was my dream,” Harper said. “I wanted to make that dream come true as quickly as possible. I wanted to be ready for that next step the day that they called me.
“All I wanted to do was try to be the guy that I was throughout my whole life and really try to enjoy myself playing baseball. … From my heart, I think this game is unbelievable. I love it with everything I’ve got, and I’m going to play every single day like it’s my last.”
The months that followed featured a steady ascension up history’s leader boards as Harper put together one of the greatest teenage seasons of all time, which he finished by hitting .330 in September. He was arguably the team’s best hitter during a pressure-packed stretch run. As far as history goes, pick a category and Harper is near the top of it.
His 22 home runs were the second most among teenagers in baseball history, with Tony Conigliaro’s 24 the only one to ever hit more. His 98 runs scored second only to Senators third baseman Buddy Lewis in 1936. His 18 stolen bases second only to Ty Cobb. He hit 26 doubles, third behind Robin Yount and Phil Cavarretta, and his nine triples good for fifth all time.
Harper hit just .233 in July and August, but in the season’s final 44 games, he hit .327 with 12 home runs and 26 extra-base hits. He turned 20 on Oct. 16, four days after the Nationals were eliminated from the National League Division Series. Harper was just 3-for-23 in the playoffs, but he tripled and homered in their Game 5 loss.
“This year was a lot of fun,” Harper said. “I had a great group of guys around me. They made it the way I wanted it. To be able to go in there and try to be a game changer for them … really get the fans of D.C. excited, that was my main goal. To try to win a World Series. That didn’t happen this year, but hopefully next year.”
Said veteran Mark DeRosa in the moments after the Nationals’ season ended: “What Bryce did was amazing. For a 19-year-old to do what he did was absolutely amazing.”