DISCLAIMER: Bryce Harper is tremendously talented, and should still be considered a decent bet for the Hall of Fame. If you read anything below that makes you think differently, then somebody — me, you, your third-grade teacher, whatever — must have screwed up. Now, to your regularly scheduled programming …
Just over a year ago, the most popular question in Sports: Baseball Division was this: If you put Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in a cage and made them play baseball against each other for a season or three, who would win? Both had been hugely regarded as rookies in 2012, and actually were promoted from the minors on the same day. Trout wasn’t on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school, like Harper. But he made up a lot of ground in the minors, establishing himself almost immediately as one of the game’s top all-around prospects. Both Trout and Harper wound up as Rookies of the Year in their respective leagues. And both were still ridiculously young; Trout was 21 on Opening Day a year ago, Harper just 20.
So the Cage Match Question, while highly academic, was appropriate.
Is it even worth starting the debate about which one will outperform the other?
"Trout’s a great kid with all the skills you need," Olbermann says. "It’s possible that what we saw last year is approximately all he has. This is enough to put him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot and win him three to 10 MVP awards.
"But Harper … if you wanted to say which one of them has the better chance of being the all-time greatest player we’ve ever seen — not to say either of them will, but if you had to bet on one of the two — I’d bet on Harper."
Over at ESPN.com, a “tale of the tape” rattled off the details, but also projected each player’s career totals according to Dan Symborski’s ZiPs system, which showed Trout with a big edge through 2016 before evening out later (maybe because of Harper’s one-year temporal advantage). In a poll, 55 percent of the respondents predicted Trout would still be the better player in five years.
And FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi weighed in, almost exactly a year ago on the anniversary of Trout’s and Harper’s arrivals in the majors:
On Thursday, in honor of this weekend’s anniversary, I polled a cross-section of major league general managers, executives, scouts and agents, with a player and broadcaster included, too. My question was simple: If you had to start a team with Trout or Harper, whom would you pick?
Trout won handily among the 48 respondents, 36-12. The margin was much larger than I expected. (I would have chosen Harper, for reasons I’ll expand upon later.) More than anything, I enjoyed hearing why the baseball people made the selections they did.
Another observer cited Harper’s “higher Q rating” — an intangible I find compelling. It’s true that Harper better fits the mold of the polarizing, championship-obsessed superstar (i.e., baseball’s LeBron James).
I love Harper’s brashness and hustle. And I’m reassured by the fact that Harper — who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 — already has demonstrated an ability to handle the pressure that comes with his rarified place in the sport. He was playing (and acting, albeit immaturely at times) like the No. 1 overall pick long before he officially assumed the distinction. Although Trout’s name was celebrated in baseball circles as far back as his breakout 2010 season in the minors, he was an unknown to many casual sports fans until about this time last year.
It’s impossible to state a definitive case for one or the other…
All of which is one way of saying there was, just one year ago, a reasonable and interesting discussion to be had.
For the moment, that discussion is over.
In 2013, Trout was once more the best player in the major leagues. Harper was outstanding, but played in only 118 games mostly because of a knee injury that cost him all of June. Later, there was a hip problem that cost him a week, and then minor knee surgery after the season.
Some accounting, then, and including some reasonable projections … Let’s look at FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement for both Harper and Trout, with projections for this season; conservative for Trout, optimistic for Harper.
Trout entered this season with 21 WAR. This season he’s on pace for (gulp) roughly 15 WAR, which is ridiculous because a) his WAR is skewed by some silly defensive numbers, and b) you know, it’s just ridiculous because no single player is worth 15 extra wins. The game just doesn’t permit it. So let’s be really conservative and give Trout only 8 WAR for this season, sort of assume he’ll regress a little, maybe miss a few weeks with an injury. That leaves him with 29 WAR after his Age 22 season (he turns 23 in August).
In Harper’s first two seasons, he’s averaged around 5 WAR per 162 games. Which is really good! Especially for a kid who couldn’t legally buy a beer in either of those seasons. Let’s assume that Harper comes back at full strength in early July, and does what he’s done before. He’s actually at 0 WAR so far this season — he hasn’t hit much, and his fielding numbers don’t help — but if we add the three second-half WAR to the 8 he’s already got, Harper’s all the way up to … yeah: 11.
29 to 11.
That’s why the discussion is over for a while. Harper just hasn’t been nearly as healthy as Trout … and when Harper has been healthy, he hasn’t played nearly as well as Trout. At this point, Trout is simply in a world of his own, in a way that very few players in major-league history have been. Just in terms of dominating his competition, we’re essentially talking about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. There are those guys, and then there are all the great players below them, fighting for MVP and magazine-cover table scraps.
Well, you know, except a lot of writers are smarter than the statistics, so Trout might not win an MVP Award until the Angels are in the playoffs or Miguel Cabrera has a down year. And yes, of course Mike Trout might get hurt, too; he’s not going to stop sliding head-first. But they say the best predictor of future injuries is past injuries. In the past, Mike Trout’s been healthy and Bryce Harper has not. That equation might change, or even reverse itself. It’s been just a couple of years, and both players still have a ton of baseball left.
We need a new discussion, though. The Strikeout Scourge, anyone?