VIERA, Fla. — It’s a valid question.
“How many people [at] 23 years old have been where Bryce [Harper] has been?” Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker asked.
The answer is few, and that most played in the black-and-white television era of baseball.
Harper was in living color Monday when he made his first public comments from the Nationals’ spring training home. Wearing shower shoes and a backward red Nationals hat, the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history stayed true to many of his stock answers: He wants to play hard, play right, stay healthy.
Though just 23, Harper has been dealing with national media attention since he was 16. So, he’s too savvy to swallow the bait when asked about the chance of $400 million contracts or playing for the New York Yankees. He’s under contract with Washington for three more years. His next deal will play out eventually. He knows it, and isn’t going to choke on his own words in the interim.
“I’m a National, and that’s what I want to be right now,” Harper said. “I love the nation’s capital. I love D.C. Getting chills thinking about it right now.”
Curiosity about his immediate future has reason to exist. Only Ted Williams’ unfathomable 22-year-old season in 1941 was superior to Harper’s at the same age. Williams finished with an 1.2875 OPS, which is seventh all-time. Harper ended 2015 with a 1.1090 OPS. That was 79th in baseball history.
To again rival Williams, Harper will need to improve. Williams followed his 1941 season with another league-wide thumping. His 1.1468 OPS in 1942 was the 47th best offensive season in baseball history by that measure.
Harper’s growth last season stemmed from two changes. First, he took batting practice almost exclusively in an indoor batting cage. There, he worked a variety of drills his father, Ron, had practiced with him in his youth, and he hit off of a left-handed pitcher each day. Second, he found walks tolerable. Harper walked 124 times. He walked 154 times in the previous three seasons combined.
Baker has seen this type of selectivity before, but it came from an older player who has long since been blanketed in doubt. Barry Bonds remains encased by steroid allegations, so much so that he has not been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it’s not close. Bonds was 31 percent short of the marker for admission in the last vote, his fourth.
What’s indisputable about Bonds was his ability to walk, which can be both a mental and physical challenge. Bonds had exceptional plate discipline, placing him arguably among the best at identifying pitches in baseball history. He was also able to maintain the process of detaching his large elbow guard, then trotting his hulking frame to first base, without being irritated by the repetition. Bonds had 2,558 walks and 1,539 strikeouts. He once walked 232 times in a season.
“They’re going try to frustrate you,” said Baker, who managed Bonds. “I saw Barry Bonds, man, he was the best at not getting frustrated.”
It’s something Harper has noticed. At NatsFest during the winter, Harper was asked about Bonds joining the Miami Marlins as a hitting instructor. He called Bonds “the best hitter I’ve ever seen in my life” before pointing out the mental discipline it takes to walk that often, plus hit the one good pitch that may be delivered.
On Monday, Harper swiped aside numeric concerns. He repeated that he is thankful and humbled by the MVP award, but also repeated that last year was a “disappointment” in its totality because of the Nationals’ swing from World Series favorites to combustible punchline.
“I just want to win,” Harper said. “I don’t care about accolades or numbers or anything like that. I just want to win ballgames and do everything we can to get to the next level. I know if I can stay healthy, and do everything I can to help this team win, we’ll be fine.”
His offseason routine was the same. Beginning Jan. 1, he launched his workouts following a month of rest. Harper said the work was the same as the previous offseason and that his swing and body feel great. He also again mentioned his hope to steal more bases this season.
One thing Harper is not doing, at the moment, is appointing himself a clubhouse leader. His numbers may make that seem a natural process, but he was deferential Monday, when he said he doesn’t think of himself as a leader. In the same sentences came mentions of veteran teammates Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.
“Those are the guys that are going to go about it every single day and do the things that they think are right for this team,” Harper said. “I’m not a very vocal guy. … Not really take a guy to the side in front of the cameras, ‘Oh, hey, you’ve got to do this.’ Be more of inside the clubhouse trying to do everything I can to help guys out if they need it. I’m still at that stage where, I’m still looking at [Werth], I’m still looking at Zim to do everything they can to make the best version of this team. Play as hard as I can out there. Hopefully, lead by example. That’s the best thing I can do.”
Baker said he will not limit or pressure Harper.
“The best thing I can do is let him be himself,” Baker said. “That should be enough.”
It certainly was last season.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at email@example.com.
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