The debate began one year ago Sunday, only we didn’t know it at the time.
The Angels were off to a confounding, inconsistent start when Mike Trout ascended from Triple-A Salt Lake for his season debut on the afternoon of April 28, 2012. That night, Bryce Harper made his major league debut at Dodger Stadium amid hype worthy of the Hollywood setting.
They’ve entertained us thoroughly ever since, providing plenty of fodder for barstool arguments about whom we’d rather have on our favorite team.
Trout is faster than Harper. Harper, now 20, is younger than Trout, 21. Trout is better at chasing down balls in the outfield. Harper has the stronger arm. Trout was statistically superior in 2012. Harper amassed an OPS of 1.043 OPS from Sept. 1 onward while leading the Nationals to the postseason. And Harper ranks third in the National League with a .364 batting average, entering this weekend’s series against Cincinnati (Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET, MLB on FOX).
Each made his All-Star Game debut last July. Each was named his league’s Rookie of the Year in November … on the same day. Each played center field in 2012 before moving to left field this year.
And each is capable of winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP in successive seasons, something that hasn’t happened since way back in … 2008.
“Always learn,” was the advice of the man who did it, Dustin Pedroia, when I asked about Trout and Harper this spring. “That was the key for me. Just because I had a good year my first year didn’t mean I had it figured out. It’s still that way. You’ve got to learn to make adjustments.
“(Harper and Trout) are fun to watch. They’re exciting players. The writers, the fans — everyone appreciates that. Those guys are going to be around for 15, 16 years. And it’s not just writers and fans. There are guys around the league watching them. I can see why they get the attention.”
Harper has outperformed Trout so far this season across many categories: home runs, OPS, WAR and sabermetric measures like weighted on-base average. But if you think numbers alone will resolve the debate, you’re missing the point. If Pedroia’s right — and Harper and Trout are going to star for 15 or 16 years — we’ve heard only the opening arguments.
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.
Some questioned whether it was possible to come up with a “right” answer, one executive telling me, “That’s like choosing between two $1 million bills.” One scout used a unique method to make his choice. “Just flipped a coin,” he said. “Came up Trout.”
Trout’s backers consistently pointed out his assets as a superior base-stealer and Gold Glove-caliber middle-of-the-diamond defender. Trout led the majors with 49 stolen bases last year; Harper had 18. Trout is a natural center fielder playing left for the Angels because teammate Peter Bourjos is just a little more sensational in center. Harper has profiled as a corner outfielder for several years now and played center last year out of necessity.
“Trout has a special speed and power combination,” one veteran scout said. “Whenever you have a chance to build up the middle, if all else is equal, stay up the middle.”
But I found myself agreeing with one particular assessment from a scout in the Harper camp.
Age, body, intensity, loves to perform. You can’t teach the way he plays. Swing has historic leverage and extension coupled with enough bat speed to use the extension for power. He’s starting to control the strike zone better and is impressive and scary with the swing. Harper’s body is much more projectable, as well. Trout is around 230 pounds now, Harper still long and lean.
I do love that Trout hit the low ball better than almost anyone last year. But age, ability, swing, intensity, physical projection, signs of improvement in certain areas (patience), left-handed (because most starting pitchers are right-handed), thrives in high-pressure situations … (Harper) plays like Pete Rose. That’s not to say Trout doesn’t do a lot of the above, but I have to go with Harper if I’m splitting hairs.
I’ll co-sign that.
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. Harper and Trout are too young for there to be any such sweeping judgments. More than anything, we must hope that this debate continues for decades to come. It wasn’t that long ago we thought Grady Sizemore would fit into a similar debate for the ages. Injuries changed that.
So, let’s celebrate Sunday’s anniversary properly: argue passionately for your guy, in whatever setting or medium you choose, and make plans to do the same at this time next year.