Harper never stopped running like that during his rookie season, and to hear him tell it, he held up well under all those rpms. Physically, he says, life in the major leagues was kinder to his body than the minors, thanks to trading fast food for steak houses; cramped, dusty weight rooms for plush training facilities; and bus rides for charter flights. "I felt great," he says. "Mentally? It was exhausting. My process starts from the moment I wake up in the morning and goes to the time I go to bed: 12 o'clock until midnight. It's, What can I do to be better? What is this guy going to throw me? What did he throw me last time? My mind is always going. At the end of the season I was like, Whew. I can laugh again."
Harper's dedication to preparation runs so deep that he breaks down opposing outfielders the way most hitters break down pitchers. He knows which ones take a bad at bat with them to the field and thus might get a slightly slower break to field a base hit, allowing Harper to know that one of his mad dashes to turn a single into a double isn't the risk it appears to be. He studies himself on video—but never his outs and rarely his home runs. Outs are negative reinforcement. Homers are synchronic; you simply react to a pitch in the right spot. What Harper wants to see on film are his singles and doubles. Those are the results of true hitting artistry. A single the other way or a double inside the rightfield line prompts detailed study of his feet and hands.
Better still, he prefers to watch video of Chase Utley of the Phillies and Joey Votto of the Reds, the current master craftsmen among lefthanded hitters. Each of them is a simple machine. They put their front foot down early and bring the barrel to the ball in the shortest possible path. Their front shoulders, like infantrymen on the front line, are admirable in their courage, never bailing in the slightest against a lefty whose pitches start at their bodies then run toward the plate. Harper wants to know: How do pitchers attack them, especially with two strikes? How can they be so efficient with their movement? "I need to be more like that," Harper says. "Be as patient as you can and get as set as you can."
Such searches for incremental adjustments fill Harper's head. So why, he wants to know, should his sophomore season be any different or any more challenging? "Why would anybody even put that in his head?" he asks. "It's dumb. I really do think it's stupid."
Can I say something?"
The man sitting across from Harper in the restaurant booth is as calm as Harper is animated. It's Scott Boras, Harper's agent. Boras proceeds to tell the story of people warning Harper about playing varsity as a high school freshman in Las Vegas. "That's stupid," Harper said then of such concerns. He dominated.
Boras then tells the story of those who advised Harper not to take the GED, which contained subject matter the kid never had in class. "That's stupid," Harper told him. "Of course I can take it." He passed the test. ("Didn't study, either. Got like a 98 [percentile]," he says.)
Boras continues. He tells the story of warning Harper about playing junior college ball at 16 against 22-year-olds, mature men throwing 94 mph that he might not find as easy to hit as high school pitchers. "That's stupid," Harper said. And then he dominated again.
"So," Boras says, "this is like the fourth time I've heard [that phrase]. One thing I think his unusual, precocious experiences have brought him is that he's [succeeded] without the benefit of experience three or four times in his life."
Maybe, more than pitchers and scouts searching for weaknesses with the fervor of geneticists, more than all the scrutiny young stars attract in the Internet age, what brings life to the idea of a sophomore jinx is the added weight of expectations. Maybe having succeeded the first time is the real curse. Suddenly you're Hosmer last April, out on your front foot, leaking and lunging under the pressure to do it all again, if not more.