Harper is a rarity in that he made his entrance to the national stage over a decade ago when he was still a high school ballplayer. Stranger still, his highly compressed young career includes a controversial early stint playing college baseball before being drafted by MLB.
Ultimately, this unique career move is how this experienced free agent actually contributes to lowering the average age of his new team. Harper’s junior college run isn’t discussed as often as his splashy high school debut, but it’s crucial in telling the full story of how one of baseball’s best came to the biggest stage in the sport at such a young age.
How Bryce Harper pulled national attention to high school baseball
2009 was Bryce Harper’s coming out year. While insiders and scouts knew his name even before that, Harper became a national sensation following a Sports Illustrated cover appearance painting him as the next LeBron James. He responded to that vote of confidence from the press with a splashy high school home run derby appearance, punctuated by a massive 502-foot blast at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay.
Part of the reason why high school stars rarely gain national attention in baseball is because of how long it takes to develop even the most natural talents into MLB-caliber players. At this point in Bryce’s story, things should have quieted down, leaving him the space to level up his instincts and strategic thinking as he finished high school.
Harper and his family had other plans.
Bryce Harper: high school dropout, college sensation
After Harper finished his sophomore year of high school at 16, there was no expectation that he’d be anywhere but back at Las Vegas High School. However, he and his family identified a quirk in the MLB draft rules and set to exploiting it in a way no player has before or since.
In a move deemed at once genius and troubling in the press at the time, Harper dropped out of high school and began studying for his GED certification. Once he passed that arduous exam, at 17 he enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada.
Despite the notably high level of play at his alma mater, Harper’s talent stood well apart from anything any of these talented ballplayers had ever achieved over his 66 games there:
- Slash line: .443/.526/.987
- 31 home runs, an all-time school record
- 20 stolen bases
- Reached 21 bases in a single game, an all-time school record
Keep in mind: he managed these feats while up to five years younger than many of his teammates and competition.
Was skipping half of high school worth it for Bryce Harper?
In terms of personal development, it’s hard to truly pin down whether missing out on the back half of high school was the right choice for Bryce Harper. Other players have since made similar moves, some unfortunately without achieving the success Harper found as a professional player. Senior year is increasingly optional for top prospects. But none have given up two full years of high school experience.
Professionally, it was without a doubt the right move for Harper’s career. Instead of lording over high school kids unable to come close to his level, he moved up a level higher. While he still outmatched those college players, at least they provided that extra level of experience and competitiveness to give Harper a crucial year of development.
Crucially, his GED/junior college strategy indeed made him eligible to be drafted in as the first overall pick by the Washington Nationals in 2010 at just 19 years old. In the years since his talent has seen ebbs and flows that may have affected his value had this occurred while working his way up the minor league system at a few extra years of age.
With his payday cashed in early, and the true ceiling of his skill at the plate likely untapped, Harper’s college move is the unsung defining feature of his career arc as a young elite MLB star.