Mike Trout and Bryce Harper managed to do the impossible in 2012. Against all odds, both of them lived up to the hype.
Trout had one of the greatest rookie seasons not just in baseball history, but in sports history. All he did was hit .326 with a .963 OPS while leading the majors in stolen bases and runs scored, and he also provided the Los Angeles Angels with excellent defense in center field. He led all of baseball in WAR by a mile, regardless of which site you choose to consult.
Harper wasn't quite as good as Trout, but he had what amounted to a historic season for a 19-year-old player. The Washington Nationals' star hit .270 with an .817 OPS and 22 homers while playing highly underrated defense in center field. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Harper posted the highest WAR ever by a 19-year-old.
It was a given that Trout was going to win the American League Rookie of the Year award, and it became official on Monday. It was less certain that Harper would win the National League Rookie of the Year award, but he ended up edging Arizona Diamondbacks lefty Wade Miley to take home the honor.
OK, so Trout and Harper had tremendous rookie seasons and were rewarded for their efforts with nice, shiny trophies. Now what?
Not that I want to rain on anyone's parade, but now we have to consider the possibility that a sophomore slump may be in order for Trout and/or Harper. It could be that the only way for either of them to go is down.
Between the two of them, who is more likely to suffer from a dreaded sophomore slump?
Warning Signs for Mike Trout
From the moment he arrived in the big leagues in late April straight through to the final day of the season, it often felt like Mike Trout could do no wrong. He got on base, he hit for power, he made things happen with his legs, he played excellent defense, he cured cancer, he solved world hunger and so on and so on.
But Trout wasn't perfect. People often piled on Bryce Harper for being too strikeout-prone, but Trout was actually the more prolific strikeout artist of the two. Per FanGraphs, Trout punched out 21.8 percent of the time he came to the plate, whereas Harper punched out 20.1 percent of the time he came to the plate.
What's even more concerning is that Trout got more strikeout-prone as he finally began to struggle down the stretch in August and September. He had a 19.5 K rate in his first 81 games in the big leagues and a 24.9 K rate in his final 58 games.
Obviously, more strikeouts means fewer balls put in play, which naturally translates to fewer hits. This was very much the case in the final two months of Trout's season, as his batting average dipped from .353 at the end of July to .287 over his final 58 games.
Trout's increased strikeout rate definitely played a role there, but so did a decrease in his BABIP. Trout's BABIP from April through July was an absurd .402. From August on, it was a much more reasonable .353.
It's very hard to maintain a high BABIP for long, and Trout's 2012 season proves as much. It's even harder to maintain a high BABIP from one season to the next, and that's a troubling thought, seeing as how Trout ended 2012 with a BABIP of .383 that ranked third in the majors behind Dexter Fowler and Torii Hunter.
To illustrate, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp led baseball in 2011 with .380 BABIPs. This season, Gonzalez's BABIP regressed to .334 and Kemp's BABIP regressed to .354.
Any BABIP near .400 will always be likely to come down the following season. In Trout's case, it's likely that the .353 BABIP he posted in the final two months of the regular season is a sign of things to come, as that's roughly where he was in the minors in 2010 and 2011.
Granted, a BABIP in the .350 range is still very good. But if you combine a BABIP like that with a K rate over 20 percent, what you're going to get is a batting average closer to .300 than .330.
Trout's offensive production isn't the only thing likely to take a hit in 2012. His defensive value could take a hit as well.
With Torii Hunter out of the picture, the Angels are going to have to adjust their outfield in 2013. The word from Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com is that Trout is likely to move over to left field, with Peter Bourjos taking over in center and Mark Trumbo taking over in right.
Generally speaking, left fielders don't make as much of an impact as center fielders, and it will probably be even harder for Trout to make an impact in the outfield because of how much ground Bourjos can cover.
It's certainly worth noting that Trout barely rated as an average defensive left fielder when he had to play there, as he managed a mere 1.0 UZR and actually finished with a minus-one Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs.
The short version of this long story is this: For all his talent, the only way for Trout to go in 2013 is indeed down. He's still going to be a well-above-average player, but expecting him to have the kind of historic season that he had in 2012 all over again just isn't fair.
Warning Signs for Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper's 2012 season was the opposite of Mike Trout's 2012 season. Whereas Trout got his dominance out of the way early, Harper saved his until the end of the season.
Harper's final numbers look so strong in large part because he was on fire in the last six weeks or so of the season. In his final 42 games, he hit .323/.378/.646 with a 1.023 OPS and 11 home runs. Over a full season, production like that would have resulted in a 43-homer year.
However, it's certainly fair to ask if the Harper we saw in the final six weeks of the regular season is the real Harper. Up until his hot stretch, he really wasn't doing all that well.
In his first 97 games, Harper was a .248/.325/.405 hitter with a 20.1 percent K rate and a .291 BABIP. He was particularly bad in his first 34 games after the All-Star break, as he hit .181/.269/.276 with a 21.9 percent K rate and a .213 BABIP.
So as good as Harper's final numbers were, he was really an average-to-poor hitter for the majority of his first season. The hot stretch he finished the season with took place over a small sample size, and thus doesn't necessarily tell us that he has everything figured out.
Harper's minor-league numbers suggest that he still has some adjusting to do. His walk rate went from being safely over 10 percent throughout 2011 and the 21 games he played in the minors in 2012 to being 9.4 percent in his first full season in the majors. His K rate, meanwhile, went from being safely below 20 percent to being over 20 percent.
Oddly enough, what didn't change was Harper's BABIP. He had a .294 BABIP in 2011, and he had a .288 BABIP in the minors in 2012. His BABIP only jumped up to .310 in the majors, and the small jump could just be explained by the fact that major-league pitchers throw more strikes and thus more pitches to hit.
The indication here is that Harper may never be cut out to be a high-BABIP guy, which could actually be the case, seeing as how he's going to be a slugger first and everything else second. Pure sluggers don't tend to post super-high BABIPs.
So if you're expecting Harper to pick up in 2013 where he left off in August and September, it's unlikely that he will. His final triple-slash line of .270/.340/.477 is a better indication of how he's going to fare next season, though you can probably expect to see slight upticks in his OBP and slugging percentage.
But the real drop-off where Harper is concerned is likely to come on defense. He was a lot better than people realized in center field in 2012, finishing the season with a 9.7 UZR and a plus-13 DRS, according to FanGraphs. As good as he was, though, the Nats have been rumored to be on the lookout for a new center fielder in free agency. If they find one, Harper will be stashed in right field.
Right field suits Harper's skill set better than center field, but he didn't perform all that well in right field in 2012. He managed a minus-0.2 UZR and minus-one DRS.
Harper's potential is through the roof, and I certainly feel comfortable he hasn't come close to peaking yet, but there's plenty of room for him to be a disappointment in 2013.
Why Trout Will Be OK
In all honesty, we're asking a tricky question here in regard to Trout. The question is whether he's due for a sophomore slump in 2013, but, well...will 2013 really be his sophomore season?
Trout played 40 games in the majors with the Angels in 2011, getting his first taste of big-league action in early July. When he got the call to the majors in 2012, it's not like he was walking into a brave, new world.
If 2012 was actually Trout's sophomore season, suffice it to say it was a good one. He didn't go into a slump until the final two months of the regular season, and his slump wasn't much of a slump. He may have suffered through an elevated K rate and a deflated BABIP, but he still hit .287. That's better than average.
To boot, Trout managed a .383 OBP and a .500 slugging percentage in the last two months of the season, which are also better than average.
If Trout were to hit .287/.383/.500 for 162 games in 2013, he'd surely be deemed a disappointment by the fans. But that's an .883 OPS, and that's better than Carlos Gonzalez, Chase Headley and Albert Pujols managed to do in 2012.
And despite the fact a move to left field on a full-time basis surely will put a cap on Trout's defensive value, the fact of the matter is that he's too good of an outfielder to rate as a merely average left fielder again. By the end of the season, he'll probably be right there with Alex Gordon and Desmond Jennings in the chase for the AL Gold Glove in left field.
I highly doubt that Trout will be able to finish with a WAR over 10 again, as his offensive and defensive value is going to go down and he's likely to see his baserunning numbers take a hit due to teams paying him a ton of extra attention.
But if a good comparison for Trout is Rickey Henderson, a notion proposed by Dave Cameron of FanGraphs and many others, then I'd expect Trout to post a WAR somewhere in the 7.0-to-8.0 range rather easily.
To put that in perspective, only seven players finished with WARs in the 7.0-to-8.0 range this year, according to FanGraphs. Thus, Trout could take a few steps back in 2013 and still be an elite player.
Why Harper Will Be OK
The problem with the season Trout had in 2012 is that it's hard to imagine him having any more untapped potential after watching him do all that.
Harper is in a different boat entirely. His rookie season was very strong, but he still managed to leave himself with plenty of room for growth.
If Harper maintains his final BB and K rates from 2012 while also maintaining his relatively strong .310 BABIP, he's going to have a strong season in 2013. And as fluky as his hot finish may have seemed, it may not have actually been that fluky.
In his final 42 games, Harper managed to hit .323 with a 1.023 OPS despite posting a 20.1 percent K rate and a .357 BABIP. If his K rate in that stretch was lower and his BABIP was higher, I'd be the first to call fluke. In reality, Harper actually wasn't getting all that lucky, as his K rate was pretty consistent with what it was before and his BABIP was nowhere near as high as Trout's .400-plus BABIP when he was lighting the world on fire.
I'm not looking for Harper to hit .320 over a full 162-game season in 2013, but he clearly figured something out at the end of the season. And since his slugging percentage was so high, I daresay he figured out how to drive the ball with more consistency than he was earlier in the season.
This is a very good sign, as it means that Harper should be in line for a much higher slugging percentage than the .477 slugging percentage he posted in 2012. As Cameron pointed out (see above link), that's very good for a 19-year-old hitter, but it's mediocre for a hitter with as much power as Harper has in his bat. He's capable of slugging a lot closer to .600 throughout an entire season.
If Harper does raise his slugging percentage, his bat will be even more valuable in 2013 than it was in 2012. Whereas Trout's offensive value is all but certain to take a dive, Harper's should rise.
There's also the chance that Harper will actually become more valuable playing in right field than he was in center field. He certainly has the range to make more plays than your average right fielder, and his strong arm will allow him to save the Nats plenty of runs by cutting down baserunners.
To this end, a good comparison for Harper in right field would be Josh Reddick. He tied for second among right fielders with 14 outfield assists in 2012, and only Jason Heyward and Michael Bourn posted higher UZRs than he did, according to FanGraphs.
If Harper gives the Nats more power and elite defense in right field in 2013, he stands to become a far more valuable player than he was in 2012. He could end up right there with Trout in the 7.0-to-8.0 WAR range.
And that would just be too fitting, wouldn't it?
The Grand Conclusion
There's only one conclusion to draw here, and it's that Trout is significantly more likely than Harper to suffer a sophomore slump in 2013.
But it's all relative. Trout was good to the point of being too good in 2012. A decline is in order, and his showing over the final two months of the season looks more and more like a preview of 2013 the more I study it.
Harper, on the other hand, should get better. In the grand scheme of things, it's actually scary how good he was in 2012 despite being only 19 years old. He certainly has the look of a player who all the scouts said is going to be an all-time great, in which case the only way for him to go is up.
I won't be the least bit surprised if Trout and Harper finish alongside each other in terms of value in 2013. But in Trout's case, this will mean that he will indeed have taken a few steps back from where he was in 2012.
This return to planet Earth will qualify as a sophomore slump in the eyes of many. It will be nonsense, but, well, baseball fans can be mean like that.
Of course, there's always the possibility that Trout and/or Harper will totally crash and burn, perhaps badly enough to warrant a trip back to the minor leagues. It wouldn't be the first time that two highly touted rookies didn't end up panning out.
But I'm not willing to bet on either of them bombing in 2013. Both Trout and Harper arrived in the majors with a ton of promise in 2012, and they proceeded to make good on it. And while there are some causes for concern in both their cases, there's not enough there to predict total doom for either of them.
Make no mistake about it, we're talking about an unprecedented pair of rookies. The kids will be alright in 2013.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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