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Bryce Harper reminds baseball he's still fantastic

He's not overrated. He's Bryce Harper, and he's back.

Thearon W. Henderson

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

Bryce Harper had a rough 2014 in a lot of ways. Before the season even began, he was labeled the most overrated player in the game by other baseball players. He missed some time with injuries and had to go on a rehab assignment in the minors, and had to listen to segments of the media swear on their baseball bibles that rookie Anthony Rendon -- who was older when he was drafted than Bryce Harper is now -- was the superior talent with a brighter future. Calls for Harper to be demoted came in early August, even though he was still putting up a solid line in spite of dealing with a thumb injury that slowed his entire first half and required surgery to repair.

He needed a reset, and the conclusion of 2014 gave him one. Harper, with his thumb finally feeling better about a month after his return, started to hit once more. From Aug. 12 through the end of the regular season, he batted .305/.358/.503 with nine homers in 167 plate appearances and 40 starts. It was maybe tough to notice his resurgence given his earlier thumb-related issues and the fact the Nationals' playoff standing was all but wrapped up courtesy of the Atlanta Braves' collapse, but Harper was back, and the pitchers he faced were certainly made aware.

While that portion of his return to form could be ignored, his playoff performance could not be. In a series where the Nationals only scored nine runs over four games, Harper hit three home runs, scored four runs and drove in another four while batting .294/.368/.882. He did this on the national stage when the eyes of the entire baseball world were watching, where he could tell the game and its fans that he was back and that they would regret doubting his abilities. If you don't think Harper was that fired up about his performance, take a look at his eyes as he ran the bases after his Game 4 home run against Hunter Strickland: he stared down a pitcher he couldn't believe would dare challenge him with the pitch that he did, a pitcher who Harper looked like he felt got what he deserved for underestimating him and his tremendous bat speed.

Bryce Harper isn't overrated, and never was. If anything, baseball doesn't appreciate this incredible talent enough. Not every young player is going to be Mike Trout out of the gate, and failure to recognize that has kept people from appreciating Harper for what he is and what he can be. Harper was the youngest player on the Nationals' Double-A team during his rehab assignment. He was the second-youngest player on the Nationals' High-A team. Including those rehab assignments, he's only played 139 games total in the minors, with most of his professional baseball education coming against the best players in the world in the majors. In spite of that, Harper is a career .272/.365/.465 hitter who already has 55 homers -- and four playoff dingers, a feat matched only by Miguel Cabrera, Mickey Mantle and Andruw Jones -- before he even turns 22. Just 19 players in history have logged as many plate appearances (1,489) as Harper has before their age-22 season according to Baseball Reference, and the ones with a loftier OPS+ than Harper (who ranks 11th even with his injuries) are mostly all-time names like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Ty Cobb and the guy Harper will always be compared to, unfairly or not, Mike Trout.

It's easy to forget all of that when he's missing time with a thumb injury and is supposed to be this major piece of the Nationals. It's easy to forget all of that when you let hype ruin your vision of what Harper currently is -- an impressive, productive ballplayer who is still impossibly young. And it's easy to forget that, barring catastrophe, the best of Harper is yet to come. The NLDS didn't accomplish much for the Nationals, but it did let people forget for a moment any issues they might have had with Harper. It let them just appreciate him for what he is, and that's precisely what we should be doing with this incredible talent.