How unheralded was Brian Harper, who played 16 seasons in the Major Leagues and batted .295? How underrated was he? Well, ask yourself: Who were the five best catchers in baseball from 1989-93? According to FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, the answers are: Mickey Tettleton, Craig Biggio, Darren Daulton, Brian Harper and Chris Hoiles.

Harper played a single game in the Major Leagues with the California Angels at 19 years old, in 1979. He turned 20 on October 16, 1979, which the keen eye will notice was 12 years to the day before the birth of Bryce Harper. No, the two are not related, but baseball sure is funny.

Harper made it back for a longer stay in 1981, although the strike shortened that season. Harper never got higher than third on the Angels’ depth chart at catcher, and was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1980s. There, though, he was blocked by Tony Pena, and Harper never took the plate more than 140 times in a season as a Pirate.

From 1985-87, Harper reeled through three teams and accumulated just 115 total plate appearances. His career was on life support at age 26. He’d been released just prior to the start of both the 1986 and 1987 seasons, before landing where he did. He signed with the Minnesota Twins in January 1988, where he was still a backup for a year, to Tim Laudner.

Even so, Harper had found a home. He got 182 plate appearances in 1988, establishing himself as Laudner’s successor. Better yet, he beat out Tom Nieto, pushing Nieto out of the club’s plans for 1989. Though a year younger, Nieto had played ahead of Harper when they were both with St. Louis in 1985. That marked the start of Harper’s tailspin. That first season in Minnesota ended it.

Harper batted .325/.353/.449 in 412 plate appearances in 1989, and was not threatened in terms of the starting job for the next four years. He would hit .306 in his Twins career, striking out just 4.76 percent of the time. He won the World Series with the team in 1991. He was an accomplished hitter and an average defensive catcher, two things which, on combination, make a player exceptionally valuable.

Harper’s stay at (or near, anyway) the top of his profession was not long. The 1994-95 strike truncated what turned out to be his final two seasons in the bigs, although he made a sort of stunt appearance in Triple-A in 2000, making him a four-decade professional baseball player.

Harper has gone on to do more in the game, and I’ll treat that second phase momentarily, but let’s stop and look at what Harper did best on the field again for a moment. There’s an interesting lesson about the game to be found in here. Harper, as mentioned above, was a great contact hitter. For his career, in fact, he fanned roughly 5.6 percent of the time, a sterling number. He twice rated as the toughest player to strike out in the American League, and finished second once besides.

How did he do it? In his book The Psychology of Baseball, author Mike Stadler describes a study of players’ abilities to track the path of pitched balls. It found, and this should not surprise you, that none comes close to being able to actually see a fastball from release to the point of contact. The angular velocity necessary to track such a pitch from inside the batter’s box is about 500 degrees per second; normal human ability usually tops out around 70-75 degrees per second.

This, however, might surprise you: Brian Harper demonstrated the ability to track at 120 degrees per second, the best score ever recorded at the time the book was published. The study notes that Harper combined eye and head movements in order to accomplish that feat, but still, he was better at that aspect of hitting than anyone else on record. Maybe it turns out that being excellent at watching the ball to the plate is the fundamental skill necessary to making consistent contact against big-league pitching. Whether Harper is a freak of nature or whether his knack for contact is the result of a carefully-honed method of positioning his head to see the ball (nearly) to the point of contact, his success demonstrates the immense value the industry could derive from an NFL-style pre-draft scouting combine.

This combine need not be a poking and prodding of pitchers to determine health risk, or a more organized variation on the old line-em-up-and-run-em timed sprints. It could, and it should, be about taking detailed measurements of baseball-specific skills like pitch-tracking through angular velocity studies. Read up on the study, which is oft-cited but seemingly unavailable online. It appeared in American Scientist in 1984, under the title “Why can’t batters keep their eyes on the ball?” Clearly, this is not the kind of thing teams can have their area scouts do ahead of the draft each year. A league-sanctioned event, though, could allow all 30 teams to better evaluate their prospective amateur acquisitions. After all, even on this side of Bud Selig’s crusade against the right of 18-year-olds to make any money, these are major investments.

As I said, Harper has moved on to the coaching sphere in his post-playing days. As most retired players turned aspiring coaches do, he started out coaching his son’s school team. Once that was done (and done well, as Brett Harper was drafted into MLB and went on to play in Japan), Harper became the chapel leader for the Arizona Diamondbacks for two years. He got into the pro coaching ranks managing in his own backyard, in the Arizona League. That was the start of seven years in the Angels organization, followed by three with the Giants. Harper managed Jeff Mathis, Erick Aybar and Kendrys Morales in Triple-A, Howie Kendrick and Mathis in Rookie ball. With the Giants, he served two years as the roving catching instructor (a bit of a laugh, given what Harper was like behind the plate while he played), which meant a lot of one-on-one instruction of the Giants’ prized prospect, Buster Posey. He then managed the Giants’ California League affiliate for a season, in which the San Jose Giants won that league title, and during which Harper recommended the adjustment that sent Brandon Belt screaming up prospect lists. Belt went from being seen as an unpolished hitter to a true top prospect. Harper and other Giants coaches straightened Belt up in the batter’s box, and encouraged him to open his stance. Belt never looked back.

Now Harper is closing out his second season in the Chicago Cubs organization. His first was as manager of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, who won the Minor League Organization of the Year award, partially under his stewardship. Ryan Flaherty, Marwin Gonzalez, Blake Lalli, DJ LeMahieu and Steve Clevenger had the combines upside of perhaps one big-league prospect when Harper got his hooks into them. By the end of the year, they had hit .305, .301, .287, .358 and .295, respectively. That quintet combined for 869 plate appearances in 2012.

In 2012, Harper got a demotion (entirely the wrong word, but technically the right one) to Chicago’s Class A Daytona team. This time, he helped make a prospect of Arismendy Alcantara (whose bat was holding back a valuable glove at shortstop) and kick started the development of toolsy outfielder Matt Szczur. Both of them will graduate to Double-A in 2013, but Harper’s latest protege is Javier Baez, the Cubs’ best offensive prospect and a potential superstar. He’ll also have Timothy Saunders, a surprising overachiever from the team’s 2012 draft class, and he’s likely to get a new wash of talent mid-season. Harper isn’t necessarily the driving force behind these improvements, but the number of data points available make it tough to chalk it all up to coincidence. Bill James wrote of Harper in his 2000 tome The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:

He was slow, didn’t have real power, didn’t walk and didn’t throw well, but he could hit .300 in his sleep.

Harper seems to be nearly as good at imparting his hitting wisdom as he was at wielding it. Eighteen years past his last appearance in MLB, Brian Harper is making a strong case to return to a big-league dugout.

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