Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were the talk of Major League Baseball in 2012. Now, with the spotlight shining directly on both players in 2013, the question is, do they have what it takes to go from Rookies of the Year to Most Valuable Player in their respective league?
In the case of Trout, he was the best player in the American League last year and should have won the honor over the narrative-driven MVP that was given to Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
But that debate is over and done with. It is time to look at what will happen in 2013, instead of trying to live in the past.
Harper and Trout are going to be linked together forever, simply because they made it to the big leagues on the same day last year (April 28).
They were regarded as generational talents, with Harper being the most hyped prospect in draft history when the Washington Nationals took him with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, and Trout having his coming out party at the 2010 Futures Game when he turned an easy single into a hustle double with the look and maturity of a five-tool superstar.
Harper and Trout both had historic rookie seasons that have fed into their hype this season that they are the strongest MVP candidates in their league.
Harper became the second teenager in MLB history to hit 20 or more home runs (Harper hit 22, Tony Conigliaro of the 1964 Red Sox holds the record with 24). He set the record for most extra-base hits by a teenager with 57, breaking the mark of 48 set by Mel Ott and Phil Cavaretta.
Just as impressive as those full-season stats are the adjustments that Harper made as the season wore on and teams started to figure him out. He saw the third-fewest fastballs, by percentage (45.9), in all of baseball last year (per Fangraphs). Only Josh Hamilton and Alfonso Soriano, two free swingers who have trouble with off-speed stuff, saw fewer fastballs.
So not only was Harper forced to adjust to off-speed stuff, which was always his biggest weakness in the minors, but he had to deal with the natural grind of being a rookie at the highest level of the sport and playing more than he ever had before.
It looked like Harper had hit the rookie wall that seems to come after the All-Star break for most young players. Here are his stats from July and August:
Clearly the league had caught up to Harper, and it was on the young phenom to figure out what was wrong then fixing it.
September came along, when people like to think that the games matter more even though they still count the same as a game in April or May, and Harper blew up once again. Here are his stats from the final month-plus (with October included since the season ended on Oct. 3):
It was because of his finish that Harper was able to finish ahead of Arizona's Wade Miley and Cincinnati's Todd Frazier in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Oh, by the way, Harper played excellent defense in the outfield for the Nationals. Everyone knows about his arm strength, but he also has terrific range and instincts. He played 715.2 innings in center field and had a UZR of 10.4 with 13 runs saved (per Fangraphs). Only Michael Bourn, Trout and Denard Span had more defensive runs saved than Harper among players with at least 700 innings in center field.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Trout was busy doing things that we have never seen from a rookie, let alone a 20-year-old rookie.
The idea that Trout had to wait nearly a month to get called up so the Angels could give a roster spot to Vernon Wells was hilarious at the time and looks even more ludicrous today.
Playing in 139 games, Trout led the majors in traditional stats like runs scored (129) and stolen bases (49). He finished fourth in batting average (.326), fifth in on-base percentage (.399) and slugging percentage (.564).
Defensively, Trout was just as spectacular. Among players with at least 850 innings played, he was fifth in runs saved (23) and 12th in UZR (12.0). We already mentioned when discussing Harper that Bourn led the majors with 24 runs saved, with Trout coming in right behind him.
Moving into more advanced statistics, Trout's season becomes even more impressive. The Angels' star led the world with a 10 Wins Above Replacement (per Fangraphs). It was the first time since Barry Bonds in 2004 that a player broke the double-digit WAR barrier.
Think about what that means, for a second. Not Albert Pujols, who won three NL MVP awards from 2005-2009 and is regarded as the best player of this generation, or Alex Rodriguez, who had an incredible 2007 season when he hit 54 home runs and stole 24 bases, were quite as valuable in a single season as Trout was in 2012.
Fans and analysts always try to quantify how good or bad a player is, which is why these metrics are so helpful. A stat like Wins Above Replacement isn't the be-all and end-all, but it uses a single number to put things in context.
This was the argument against Trout for the MVP last year. Old-school fans and voters--or as I like to call them, outdated--tried to say that Miguel Cabrera was more valuable because he led the AL in three random offensive categories, two of which do a poor job telling you anything about value added on the field.
Trout also led the AL with a 171 OPS+, which normalizes OPS by taking park factors into effect and 100 is league average. (For the record, Cabrera was third at 165.)
It was obvious to anyone watching objectively that Trout was already the best player in the American League last year.
So all these stats and tidbits of information bring us to 2013 and the possible MVP credentials for Harper and Trout.
Just looking over preseason picks from 15 B/R MLB writers, myself included, there was no overwhelming consensus for the MVP in either league. Harper and Trout did garner the most votes, with Harper actually having one more vote for NL MVP (six) than Trout did for AL MVP (five).
We were not alone in thinking these two would have special seasons, as Harper and Trout seem to have the most support for the honors from every local and national writer who made a preseason prediction.
On talent alone, Harper and Trout deserve to be the favorites for the MVP awards this season. We can't really talk about their track record, because they only have the one year to judge by.
Even some of those most respected preseason prognosticators have no idea what to do with Harper or Trout this season, since there really is no precedent for what they did as rookies at such a young age.
For example, using Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system, Harper is projected to hit just .257/.323/.437. Trout fares a little better, with a projected slash line of .288/.354/.467, which is very good but not MVP-level good.
The reason for the rather conservative estimates from PECOTA is because one part of the equation is comparable players--both in terms of skills and age. How do you quantify and project ahead two of the most historic debut seasons in baseball history?
Another factor to consider when trying to figure out if Trout or Harper, or both, will capitalize on their success as rookies to become MVP winners in 2013 is the gift, or burden, of expectations.
Harper actually helped make it easier for people to predict him to take the next step and become an MVP candidate this season thanks in large part to the way he finished 2012. If he continued on that downward spiral he was on in July and August, there would likely have been a lot of talk that he needed to go fix some things in his game at Triple-A.
But by hitting .330/.400/.643 with seven home runs in the last month of the season, and catapulting himself to a Rookie of the Year award, Harper opened a lot of eyes. He proved that his rare talent could play at the highest level of baseball months before, but that when forced to make an adjustment, he did it and the results were incredible.
Trout, on the other hand, has the unenviable task of trying to duplicate what was already a historic season. Harper made history, too, but everyone expects him to get better than the .270/.340/.477 and 22 home runs he hit last year.
On the flip side, Trout hit .326/.399/.564 with 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases. While we all knew he had the speed to steal bases, be a great base runner and play outstanding defense, the power he put up was a surprise.
That's not to say Trout didn't have power coming up through the minors, or project to hit for it in the big leagues, but to see that many home runs was a surprise.
Let's say, hypothetically, that Trout isn't quite as good statistically this season as he was as a rookie. Almost everyone agrees that is a strong possibility, though you see a rare talent like him and wonder just how high he can climb.
If you had to pick one to win an MVP award in 2013, who would it be?
The voters who didn't support Trout last year will have their argument ready to go, by saying that if he didn't win it last year, why are we going to support him this year when he wasn't nearly as good?
For the record, that is not my thinking. I am just trying to put myself in the minds of these voters.
To use a pop-culture parallel, it would be the equivalent of bashing The Dark Knight Rises because it wasn't The Dark Knight. There were problems with the second sequel in the latest Batman trilogy that you can pick apart, but to say that you didn't like it because it wasn't on the same level as one of the best movies of the last decade is ridiculous and unfair.
Also, since a lot of these voters seem to equate value with being in the playoffs, Trout could be at a disadvantage because the Angels are less likely to make the postseason in the American League than the Nationals are in the National League.
Remember, even though the Angels won more games than the Tigers last year, a common argument for Cabrera being MVP was because his team made the postseason. Those people didn't bother to mention that, while they did make the playoffs, the American League Central wasn't nearly as good as the American League West.
With all of this said, even though I would put Trout at the top of the list for American League MVP this season, it is going to be very, very difficult for him to get the honor even if he is great.
Harper has obviously gotten off to a hot start this season, with two home runs on Opening Day and a .394/.394/.788 slash line in eight games. That pace won't continue, obviously, but it is just a continuation of the improvements he made down the stretch last year.
Plus, the Nationals appear to be the best team in baseball on paper. If that holds true all season, and Harper puts up huge power numbers, voters will have the narrative they need to vote for him. Not that they will need one, since he just keeps getting better and better with each game.
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