Can Bryce Harper Ever Get Out from Behind Mike Trout's Shadow?

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Can Bryce Harper Ever Get Out from Behind Mike Trout's Shadow?
Joe Camporeale/USA Today

Had the first two years of Bryce Harper's career happened in, say, 2010 and 2011, we undoubtedly would have celebrated the young Washington Nationals slugger as the great young player in MLB

But noooooooo. Harper just had to come along right when Mike Trout did in 2012. And ever since then, the Los Angeles Angels superstar has come to be like one of the mother ships from Independence Day: a big, powerful force with a shadow that covers all.

In that shadow are all the other great young players in MLB, including Harper. Both FanGraphs WAR and Baseball-Reference.com WAR have Trout down as more than twice as valuable as Harper over the last two seasons.

And as much as we all love to argue about the validity of WAR, well, it is kinda hard to argue with its perspective on the Trout-Harper power struggle ('tis a silly thing...) that fans and media have created (...and it's all of our fault).

Now, OK, sure. If it's a question of national media attention, there's where Harper is not as much in Trout's shadow. He generates just as much buzz, if not more. But let's not mistake that to mean Harper is celebrated like Trout is. Trout's buzz largely concerns how great he is. Harper's still mainly focuses on how great he might be.

The question we're after is whether Harper might be able to change that. Is there anything he can do to become just as celebrated, if not more so, than his de-facto twin brother?

You know what kind of question that is, bro. Of course there is.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Now, if Harper's going to become a more celebrated player than Trout, he's probably not going to do it by becoming a better all-around player. At least he's not as measured by WAR, as there are some things working against Harper on that front.

The first is that Harper can't match Trout's speed on the basepaths. I could throw some numbers at you to solidify this point, but...meh. You've seen Trout run the bases. You know how he rolls (or runs).

The other is that Trout's a center fielder and Harper's a left fielder, which is a disadvantage no matter how well Harper plays in the field. 

Courtesy of FanGraphs' positional adjustments, we know that the corner outfield spots are far from being on center field's level in terms of importance. A player can be excellent in left field but still only as valuable as a player who provides merely average defense in center field.

But then, who says that Harper has to be as good as Trout in order to be more celebrated? He could always take the Miguel Cabrera route—let's call it "The Miggy Effect"—and that's a matter of doing two things that are easily within Harper's reach:

Hit like crazy and win like crazy.

To the first point, the signs are already there that Harper is getting better as a hitter. Here are a few "numberific" numbers from FanGraphs:

Bryce Harper's Progress
Year O-Swing% Contact% BB% K% FB% HR/FB ISO wOBA wRC+
2012 34.9 76.3 9.4 20.1 32.9 16.2 .206 .352 121
2013 34.1 77.2 12.3 18.9 33.4 18.0 .212 .371 137

FanGraphs

From 2012 to 2013, Harper got better at (from left to right) keeping his swings confined to the zone, making contact, drawing walks, avoiding strikeouts, getting the ball in the air, getting fly balls to get over the fence, hitting for power and, generally, hitting.

The best way to become a lethal hitter is through patience and power. That Harper improved on both fronts in 2013 is encouraging. And indeed, it's doubly encouraging that he was able to do it while playing last season at less than 100 percent healthy.

What's a healthy Harper's offensive potential? Maybe something along the lines of what he did down the stretch in 2012 and what he was doing in 2013 before his health woes began to pile up. Here's a telling table recycled from a 2014 preview that I recently did for Harper:

Bryce Harper's Offensive Potential?
Split PA HR AVG OBP SLUG OPS
Last 49 G of 2012* 202 13 .303 .355 .627 .982
First 25 G of 2013 103 9 .356 .437 .744 1.181

*Postseason included

Harper closed 2012 on an absolute tear and kept right on going at the outset of 2013 before the injuries came. And while it's doubtful that he would have held that slash line and continued on that power pace, the power he was showing off is in line with what was expected of him back in his prospect days.

"People have not seen that kind of power," Jim Callis of Baseball America told MASNSports.com, per Byron Kerr, in 2012.

"You have a 20 to 80 power scale and his power is probably an 85. I don't know how Harper isn't considered the best power-hitting prospect in draft history and maybe, baseball history. When you look at what he has done at his age, I don't know that anybody has ever done those kind of things."

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Harper hasn't broken out with a 30- or 40-homer season yet. But given the potential he came into the league with and the way in which he's occasionally flashed that potential, it's just a matter of time.

So there's that. And given the improvements Harper showed from 2012 to 2013 and how hard he was to get out when he was healthy and locked in both years, it's not crazy to picture him as a guy who could also maintain an average in the .300s and an on-base percentage in the .400s.

If Harper does that, he'll take his place as one of the game's elite hitters. Potentially he'll be ahead of Trout, and that alone could be good enough to trigger "The Miggy Effect."

Trout would still be the better all-around player, but fans and media could care more about Harper being the better hitter. Just like with they do with Cabrera now (he said, trying not to sound pompous while keenly aware that he sounds pompous).

However, there's also more to The Miggy Effect than that. People don't favor Cabrera over Trout just because he's a great hitter. It helps that he's a tremendous hitter on a winning team. As great as Trout is, it just looks good that Cabrera's bat is the key ingredient in the Detroit Tigers' winning ways.

Harper's the right kind of player in the right place at the right time to be the National League answer to Cabrera. He certainly has the bat, and he has the talent around him on the Nationals roster.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

It's not for lack of talent that the Nats didn't build on their 98-win 2012 last year, and it won't be for lack of talent if they disappoint again this year.

With Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span, Adam LaRoche and Anthony Rendon around Harper in the lineup, the Nats have a dangerous offense. With Doug Fister joining Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, they have arguably the best starting rotation in MLB.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA-based projections currently have the Nats down for 88 wins in 2014. It may not sound like much, but the only team in the National League projected to win more games is the Los Angeles Dodgers. Given enough lucky bounces, it's a safe bet the Nationals could be a 95-win team in 2014.

And the window isn't in danger of closing if the Nats don't get it done this year. They're not without old parts, but they're constructed largely around a young core. To boot, their long-term financial future is far from messy. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, they have no more than $50 million in salaries committed in any year after 2015.

That makes them look mighty good compared to Trout's Angels. Their prospects of contending in 2014 hinge largely on seemingly over-the-hill veterans in Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, and the club's future is clouded by their rich long-term contracts and a dearth of talent in the minors. Even with Trout, the Angels making the playoffs on a regular basis won't be easy.

Not as easy as it should be for Harper's Nationals, anyway—especially if he blooms as a hitter. The more he hits, the more he'll be celebrated. And the more his hits help the Nats win, the more us observers will forget that he was ever in Trout's shadow.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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