There have been whispers out of Las Vegas for months now that presumptive first overall pick Bryce Harper’s, shall we say, “intensively competitive” and “self-assured” manner wasn’t playing all that well with the scouts assigned to watch his every step. This past week, however, those whispers grew just a teensy bit louder after Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus dropped the following in a piece about the lingering questions some talent evaluators still have about Harper’s lock on the top overall spot in the draft:
The Makeup: This should not be underrated. It’s impossible to find any talent evaluator who isn’t blown away by Harper’s ability on the field, but it’s equally difficult to find one who doesn’t genuinely dislike the kid. One scout called him among the worst amateur players he’s ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents. “He’s just a bad, bad guy,” said one front-office official. “He’s basically the anti-Joe Mauer.” How this plays into the negotiation or future evaluation is yet to be determined, as history has shown us that the bigger talent a player is, the more makeup issues teams will deal with. Bench players can’t afford to be problems, but plenty of teams happily put up with difficult superstars.
One of the most interesting and underrated aspects of the entire draft process is the depth in which area scouts go to uncover as much information about the prospects they are assigned to cover. If the NFL Scouting Combine really is the “world’s largest job interview,” as I’ve heard it referred to in the past, then the amateur scouting period in baseball is certainly in the running for the longest. Major League Baseball is a billion dollar industry with a finite number of job openings. Before investing large sums of money in a new employee, you’d better be darn sure you’ve done everything in your power to ensure that you are hiring a person you trust can get the job done. To that end, I have no qualms whatsoever with the abstract idea of “makeup.” Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a player’s performance on the field is priority one, but that same evaluation of a player’s on-field abilities must be weighed against certain general personality parameters (“makeup”), especially traits that are believed could potentially alter future job performance.
Deciding on what traits could potentially alter job performance is entirely up to the individual doing the evaluating, I suppose. For me, “makeup” boils down to two main sets of questions. I first want to know whether or not the player is receptive to coaching. Will he put in the work to improve his game? Is he willing to listen when asked to consider trying a different approach or technique? Can he subjugate his ego long enough to take legitimate instruction from somebody paid to help him succeed? I then want to know how the player will react when things don’t go well. A large number of top amateur players, especially the high schoolers, have never experienced any kind of sustained stretch of significant athletic failure. How does the high school star who only knows the ups of hitting .600 and being the big man on campus react when suddenly hitting under .200 while riding lonely buses from Danville to Pulaski? This concern doubles back into the initial set of questions; when a player struggles, and it truly is a matter of when and not if, can he accept the professional coaching and support designed to help him become a big leaguer?
As far as the actual quotes cited in Goldstein’s piece, well, it appears to me as though an opportunity was missed. To the front-office official who called Harper “a bad, bad guy,” I’d really want to know if, based on the perceived seriousness of such an accusation, he would have the fortitude to go to his boss and recommend another player over Harper atop the draft board. Do these talent evaluators so willing to go on record about Harper’s makeup genuinely believe his “bad, bad” personality to be such a potential problem to his development that they would not want their employer to draft him? Are these personality issues so severe that the unnamed front-office officials don’t believe Harper will ever be able to fully harness his immense physical gifts? Or do the makeup concerns represent something closer to an annoyance, one not quite large enough to prevent Harper from superstardom on the field, but always lurking on the periphery as a warning not to do anything to upset the mercurial franchise player? I’d like to ask the front-office official whether he thought Harper’s makeup concerns were closer stylistically to Barry Bonds’ (entitled jerk off the field, destroyer of opposing teams’ dreams on it) or somebody like Darryl Strawberry’s (victimized by personal demons so severe that his on-field play suffered despite unrivaled physical talent)? As much as I think I know the answer to those questions already, I’d genuinely like to know how the front-office official would respond when pressed. Of course, that will never happen.
As someone who follows the draft almost exclusively as an outsider in the industry, I’m not privy to the kind of front-office member chatter that others can claim. I’m left to make the majority of my judgments on publicly available information. I won’t ever profess to having any insider knowledge about Bryce Harper’s personality or general on-field temperament other than what anybody else out there can read or see with their own two eyes. That said, Harper’s performance both on and off the field this season serves as a pretty strong argument in his favor. If I’m going on facts alone, the simple fact is Bryce Harper is having one heck of a year playing baseball. To accomplish all that has done on the field against players sometimes three or four years older while simulatenously dealing with the biggest amateur baseball media circus since, well I guess since Stephen Strasburg last season, but before that since as long as anybody can remember, is truly a remarkable feat. His on-field performance has exceeded even the most optimistic of projections and the coaching staff at Southern Nevada has been effusive in their praise of the kid. Really, what more can anybody realistically ask for a 17 year old catching prospect already dubbed the LeBron James of baseball playing wood bat junior college ball with the eyes of the industry watching his every move?
Since the article was published, by the way, Harper has put up the following batting line while splitting time in right field and behind the plate:
7-14, 4 HR, 2B, 13 RBI, 8 R, 2 SB, 1 BB, 1 K
That’s good for a weekend line of .500/.533/1.429. If Washington could fast forward the next six weeks and take Harper first overall tomorrow, they’d do it.