Hitting a home run at the highest level of professional baseball is very difficult. There are so many things that need to go right in order for the batter to put the fat part of a round bat on a round ball moving very quickly with the required force and loft to send the ball flying with sufficient force and trajectory for it to travel in upwards of 350 or even 400 feet.
For a teenaged baseball phenom to accomplish this minor miracle of potential energy transfer is noteworthy for its rarity: last night 19-year old Bryce Harper hit the first Major League home run of his nascent career, becoming
the first teenager youngest ballplayer to go deep since Adrian Beltre in 1998. Harper took Padres pitcher righty Tim Stauffer deep to center field and it was a thing of beauty.
In the interests of admitting all manner of personal bias, I am a sucker for non-fastball home runs. I have it in my mind that most Major League players, especially those with ’80′ power like Harper, can turn around just about any fastball. Ageing players can cheat and “sell out” on the fastball and when they get an errant cookie thrown in the general direction of their sweet spot, they hit it out. Sure, they are made to look bad on just about anything offspeed but baseball history is lousy with bad ball hitters who could do little else.
It takes another level of skill to stay back and jump all over a breaking ball. Even a poorly thrown breaking ball — a hanger, so to speak — requires the batter identify offspeed and stay with it. to excel at the Major League level it takes more than just bad ball hitting ability – against big league pitchers those mistakes all but dry up and the difference between those who can hit the straight ones and those who can hit the funny ones becomes very, very clear.
Looking at Harper’s fateful plate appearance, it is clear the Padres entered the game very wary of Bryce Harper’s power. After Stauffer retired Harper in the first inning with two offspeed pitches, the first pitch of his second at bat of the night was a big curve that bounced for a ball. Stauffer stayed soft away on the next pitch, missing well off the plate with a poorly thrown change up. Harper is now ahead 2-0 and likely thinking green light/dead read as the Padres don’t want to put a second runner on base, nor do they want to risk a passed ball with a base runner standing just 90 feet away on third base.
The patient young slugger took the 2-0 fastball that Stauffer served up, a strike down in the zone. The Padres attempt to catch Roger Bernadina, the runner on third base, napping results in an error and a run scored. Now the Padres are down 3-1 to the Nats with two outs and a 2-1 count on Harper.
Harper could give it up all up for the fastball but refuses. During much of this at bat, the Nationals broadcast team spoke of his reduced leg kick and ability to stay back, not needing to create extra torque to drive the ball when his insane bat speed and strength do most of that work for him. The next pitch from Stauffer is an attempt at a backdoor curve/slider. Stauffer misses but Bryce Harper certainly doesn’t.
I doubt Time Stauffer considers that slider the best of his career but I also doubt it counts as the worst. It was pretty flat but not thrown in the worst possible location. Padres catcher Nick Hundley called for the slider down and away, as seen below:
The pitch stayed down but leaked over the middle of the plate a little too much where Harper was waiting. Yes, waiting. Rather than attempting to hook the ball into the right field seats, he stayed back and used his prodigious and/or light tower power to blast the ball to dead center field, travelling an estimated 429 feet.
After a very brisk, business-like trot around the bases, Harper celebrated with his teammates like it was any old dinger. The sparse crowd in DC stayed on their field, bringing the future of the franchise out for a curtain call that he clearly enjoyed.
The first of many home runs for Bryce Harper, one must conclude. There is just so much pop in that bat and so much speed in those hands, it is easy to see how the kid hitting 500 foot bombs at age 15 raced to the Major Leaguers and looks like he belongs. Congrats, Bryce. Here’s to many more.
Update: thanks to Matthew Leach for pointing out Justin Upton hit a teenaged home run though he was actually older than Harper by a matter of days.