WASHINGTON — Blame Bill James.
A few days ago, the longtime baseball analyst and sabermetrician posted a Twitter poll that asked how many current players should be regarded as “superstars.” Then, on Thursday, James thanked his followers for their responses and expressed his opinion that Bryce Harper “is nowhere near that standard” of being one of the game’s best players.
Thank you all for participating in my poll about how many superstars there are now in baseball. Consensus answer was about Seven. Amazed at how many people think of Bryce Harper as a superstar. To me, he is nowhere NEAR that standard.
— Bill James Online (@billjamesonline) May 3, 2018
Now, it’s unclear whether James poked the bear. But Harper came out like a man possessed Friday night against the unwitting Phillies. He homered in his first two at-bats, both against besieged starter Nick Pivetta, and staked the Washington Nationals to a touchdown-sized lead en route to a rain-interrupted 7-3 victory before an announced crowd of 35,497 in the nation’s capital.
“Harper is just Harper,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “He’s just a different kind of beast.”
Consider it a reality check for the young Phillies and Pivetta, in particular.
The Nationals might have needed to win to scale the .500 mark for the first time since April 10, but they still have Harper and dynamic shortstop Trea Turner and co-aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. They still won the division in four of the past six seasons and remain the favorite to win it again, slow start or not.
Pivetta is one of the reasons the Phillies are so bullish about their future. Acquired three years ago from the Nationals for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is effectively retired, Pivetta posted a 2.57 ERA through five starts this season. He threw a bullpen session Tuesday in Miami that had Kapler gushing with praise and wanting to bump fists with anyone within his reach.
But Pivetta’s future, like those of so many other young Phillies players, is still a matter of projection. And his performance against the Nationals — 11 batters faced, 46 pitches thrown, three outs recorded, six runs allowed — represented the shortest and worst start of his brief career.
Kapler maintained that Pivetta’s stuff was “pretty crisp,” citing a fastball that touched 97 mph. But Pivetta was more critical, indicating he lost some focus after getting squeezed early by home-plate umpire Rob Drake.
“There were some pitches that could have gone my way, but they didn’t,” Pivetta said. “It kind of got out of hand a little bit. I need to be able to bear down there and pitch a little better. But they got me tonight. It’s one of those games.”
Harper took Pivetta’s fourth pitch of the game — a third consecutive 96 mph fastball — deep to left field. The Nationals added two more runs in the first inning on back-to-back walks to Trea Turner and Matt Adams and RBI singles by Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters.
Pivetta tried to sneak a first-pitch change-up by Harper in the second inning. It was a smart idea, Kapler said, given Pivetta’s pattern of fastballs in the first inning. But Harper crushed a two-run homer 473 feet to straightaway center field anyway.
“I really don’t know how that happened,” Kapler said. “The previous at-bat it was 95-96, and then boom, here comes a change-up out of nowhere at 83-85, and whack, like right to the middle of the field. Really impressive stroke by Bryce. Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the other dude.”
Said Pivetta: “He’s a good hitter. He’s on fire right now. I had some success against him [last year], but he got me tonight.”
In four games since being moved into the leadoff spot, Harper 6-for-17 with four homers and a 1.059 slugging percentage. He has 12 homers and a 1.073 OPS in 106 at-bats overall.
Sorry, Bill. That’s superstar stuff.
And as the Phillies lost for the fifth time in six games, Harper and the Nationals offered a reminder of their might.