How Mike Trout's Rapid Rise Has Ruined Bryce Harper's Own Historic Success

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How Mike Trout's Rapid Rise Has Ruined Bryce Harper's Own Historic Success
H. Darr Beiser/USA Today Images

It's a safe assumption that a world without Mike Trout would be pretty lame, as "lame" is the last word anybody should use to describe the Los Angeles Angels' 22-year-old superstar.

I'll say one thing about the idea of a world without Trout, though. In such a world, there would probably be the right amount of appreciation for Bryce Harper.

The "right amount" being waaaaaayyyyyyyy more than there is in the world with Trout.

It's not that Harper is overlooked. The 21-year-old Washington Nationals slugger—who will be sharing the diamond with Trout for the first time these next few dayshas twice been an All-Star. His jersey was the 15th-highest-selling jersey last year. According to Gamedayr.com, Harper was also the third-most Googled ballplayer. By these measures, he's a star.

Nah, the lack of appreciation for Harper has more to do with a different "O" word: overrated.

Harper's overrated in at least one official capacity. Whereas Trout ran away with the "best player in baseball" honor in a recent ESPN The Magazine poll (via ESPN.com) of 143 major leaguers, Harper "won" the distinction of being baseball's most overrated player, narrowly edging Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.

"I like Bryce Harper. I think he's going to be really good," said an unnamed American League All-Star. "But the attention for him -- and for Puig, to a certain extent -- is overkill. It's just been hype so far."

I frankly don't know what percentage of baseball fans agree that Harper is overrated, but I'd guess it's most of them. If you're not up to taking my word for it, feel free to search for "Harper overrated" on Twitter or to read any comments section of any article (this one included) about him. 

It's not all Trout's fault. Expectations for Harper were pushed sky-high when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old. They were set even higher when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010 and higher still when he was Baseball America's No. 1 prospect in 2011 and 2012.

The only way Harper was going to live up to expectations is if he was historically great right from the start of his MLB career...and if no other young player was historically even greater at the same time.

That latter part is where we can point to Trout and say, "This is all your damn fault!" 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

It was easy to automatically put Harper and Trout in the same sentence during their days as prospects, as all the rankings had them right next to each other at the top. But it was probably them being called up on the same day in 2012 (April 28) that sealed their fate to be joined at the hip for eternity.

Trout, for one, was at peace with that idea by the time he and Harper arrived in Kansas City for the All-Star Game.

"It's gonna be Mike Trout this, Bryce that," Trout told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.

It was Mike Trout this, Harper that, all the way to the Rookie of the Year selections, in which Trout won for the American League and Harper won for the National League.

However, by then, it wasn't a question of who was better. Per the numbers, it was Trout in a landslide:

Trout vs. Harper in 2012
Player PA HR SB AVG OBP SLUG OPS rWAR
Trout 639 30 49 .326 .399 .564 .963 10.8
Harper 597 22 18 .270 .340 .477 .817 5.1

Baseball-Reference.com

Note: "rWAR" is Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement.

It wasn't just Harper who looked like a mere mortal next to Trout. His .963 OPS was second only to eventual MVP Miguel Cabrera among American League hitters, and his 10.8 WAR made him the most valuable position player in MLB by more than two wins over Robinson Cano. 

It also topped Alex Rodriguez's 9.4 WAR in 1996 as the highest ever for a 20-year-old. We can also look to the OPS+ metric—a park- and league-adjusted version of OPS that's handy with comparing players from different eras—and find that Trout's 168 OPS+ in 2012 is the best all time among 20-year-olds.

Against brilliance of this magnitude, Harper's own brilliance in 2012 just couldn't compete.

That's the thing, though: It shouldn't have had to.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Comparing Harper to Trout in 2012 was a bit of an apples-to-oranges affair. Whereas Trout was 20 and had already gotten a taste of the majors in 2011, Harper was only 19 with no prior MLB experience.

The fairest thing we could have done then is also the fairest thing we can do now: compare Harper to other 19-year-olds.

It's when you do that, you realize just how special Harper's 2012 season really was:

Harper's Age-19 Season vs. Other Age-19 Seasons
Split PA HR SB AVG OBP SLUG OPS OPS+ rWAR
Harper 597 22 18 .270 .340 .477 .817 118 5.1
19-YO Rank 4 2 2 12 7 3 3 5 1

Baseball-Reference.com

Note: For the rate stats (AVG, OBP, SLUG, OPS, OPS+), the minimum was set at 300 plate appearances.

Put simply, 19-year-olds just don't do things at the MLB level. Among those who have, Harper is at least one of the top 10, but is more likely top five. Or maybe No. 1.

And it's not like the competition is a bunch of lightweights. Around Harper on the OPS+ leaderboard and WAR leaderboard are names like Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr. and Robin Yount. 

By all rights, Harper's 19-year-old heroics should have been celebrated as him not only living up to expectations but also surpassing them.

That happened in some circles. 

I know I couldn't send any praise Harper's way without getting backlash from readers who didn't understand why I was so excited over some punk with a .270 batting average. There was similar backlash elsewhere. People either didn't know about Harper's relative excellence, or they didn't care to know.

You wonder how things might have been different if Trout wasn't there for people to measure Harper against, be it consciously or subconsciously. Maybe there would have been just as much skepticism over Harper's 2012 season, but it seems a better bet that it would have been properly celebrated without the Trout measuring stick.

Likewise, you also wonder how things would be different now with the context of 2013 added to the mix.

Trout, of course, was outstanding again in his age-21 season. A defensive regression contributed to his rWAR dropping from 10.8 to 8.9, but he was still a dominant offensive force with a .323/.432/.557 slash line, a .988 OPS, a 179 OPS+, 27 homers and 33 stolen bases.

Evan Vucci
Harper slashed .344/.430/.720 with nine home runs last April.

Harper started off his age-20 season by knocking the cover off the ball in April only to be slowed by injuries sustained in separate collisions with outfield walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Ultimately, he slashed .274/.368/.486 with 20 homers, 11 stolen bases, a 134 OPS+ and a 3.5 rWAR.

Like in 2012, Harper's 2013 numbers paled in comparison to Trout's. Then there was the additional salt-in-the-wound narrative of Harper's age-20 season being nowhere as good as Trout's age-20 season.

However, Harper's 2013 season was still a perfectly respectable age-20 campaign. Notably, the 134 OPS+ he posted ranks 13th among 20-year-olds (minimum 450 PAs).

And in Harper's case, a merely respectable age-20 season was still good enough to keep him among the ranks of the greatest young players ever through the age of 20:

Bryce Harper's Place in History Through Age 20
Split PA HR SB AVG OBP SLUG OPS OPS+ rWAR
Harper 1094 42 29 .272 .353 .481 .834 126 8.6
Through Age-20 Rank 11 3 11 21 9 7 7 9 6

Baseball-Reference.com

Like we did with his age-19 season alone, here we see that Harper is one of the 10 best players ever through the age of 20 in the eyes of some pretty important statistics.

And if we choose WAR as our focus, we find Harper's 8.6 rWAR through the age of 20 amidst some pretty impressive names:

  1. Mike Trout: 11.4
  2. Mel Ott: 11.4
  3. Ty Cobb: 9.5
  4. Al Kaline: 8.9
  5. Alex Rodriguez: 8.8
  6. Bryce Harper: 8.6
  7. Ken Griffey Jr.: 8.4

That's three current Hall of Famers, one certain future Hall of Famer, a guy with over 650 career home runs, the best all-around player in baseball today and Harper.

No, there's no ignoring that Harper is well behind the aforementioned best all-around player in baseball today. I'm also not going to waste anybody's time by offering an argument that Harper is somehow better than said player. No such argument exists.

But I can't help but imagine if said player vanished from the records. That way, Harper would be the only here-and-now player climbing up the ranks of the greatest young players in baseball history. Rather than scoff at his climb, perhaps more people would see fit to acknowledge it and, indeed, enjoy it.

We'll never know. That is, not unless there's some scenario involving a malevolent cyborg that travels back in time for a "John Connors-Trout." 

With that unlikely to happen, Harper's probably going to have to somehow earn equal footing with Trout in the baseball spotlight for the overrated label to go away. It's either that or escape to a world without Trout.

And the latter might be the easier way to go.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

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

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