Harper's transcendent talent trumps all
Nationals outfielder has unparalleled ceiling, higher than that of Trout
The beauty of the debate I'm about to broach is that it even exists at all.In Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, baseball has been blessed with two absurdly tantalizing talents who aren't old enough to legally buy a beer but are accomplished enough to earn the respect of their big league peers. And 2012 is, for them and for us, just the beginning. Trout might very well run away with not only the American League Rookie of the Year but also the Most Valuable Player award. And Harper's had an instant impact on one of the best teams in baseball. Harper and Trout, Trout and Harper. Because of their similar ages (Harper turns 20 in October, and Trout turns 21 on Tuesday) and because their 2012 callups (Trout's second big league foray and Harper's first) came on the same day, we tend to link them in our minds, even though they play in opposite leagues on opposite coasts. And because we are sports fans, and sports fans love to debate, we naturally descend into a discourse over which of these kids we'd rather have on our club. So let's debate away. While my MLB.com colleague Matthew Leach is touting Trout, I'm backing Bryce. Granted, Harper is certainly not having the better season -- in fact, as I write this, he's mired in an extended skid in which his season numbers have taken a tumble, all while Trout continues to make the amazing look routine -- and he's still raw in many ways. But over the course of, say, a 20-year career, I'd be plenty happy with Harper, and I think he has a very real chance to have the more productive career of the two. What we're discussing here, ultimately, are two very different players. Trout has more speed, Harper more power. Trout has the flashier glove, Harper the more Herculean arm. Trout has the more buttoned-down demeanor, Harper the collected cockiness. They can both hit the heck out of the ball in an era of increased pitcher prominence, and they're both all-hustle. But Harper's raw power (his home runs this season have averaged 415 feet) is so rare, so ridiculous, that I think it will push him into the upper echelon. The general expectation is that he'll be a bankable 40-homer commodity in the very near future, perhaps even as soon as next year. But Harper needs time. The Nationals' needs thrust him into the Major League limelight and, it turns out, the prominence of a pennant chase in a season in which he might have benefited from a little more development. Remember, Harper was drafted just two years ago, and prior to his promotion, had played just 58 games above the Class A level. The Nats intended to get him 250 to 300 at-bats in Triple-A this year, but Michael Morse got hurt in Spring Training, Ryan Zimmerman got hurt in-season, and after Harper came up, Jayson Werth hit the DL, too. Harper was actually putting up pedestrian numbers in Syracuse, but the Nats needed help and felt he'd be inspired by the environment. Turns out they were right. Harper was instant offense. Look at it this way: In his first 40 Major League games last season, Trout hit .220 with a .281 on-base percentage, .390 slugging percentage, five homers, four stolen bases and 16 RBIs. In Harper's first 40 games? A .307 average, .390 OBP, .553 slugging, seven homers, four steals and 19 RBIs. Historic output from a 19-year-old. The difference, for now, is everything that's happened since. The league has adjusted to Harper, and he's shown too much aggression at the plate. According to FanGraphs, he's swinging at 34.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, well above league average.
As Harper himself put it the other day, "I'm all over the place right now. I'm just trying to find some mellowness at the plate and in the box."A 19-year-old going through a slump in the big leagues? Not what you'd call surprising. And remember, this is a 19-year-old who has been in our national consciousness for several years. This is baseball's answer to the hype machines that made Tiger Woods and LeBron James household names at inordinately young ages. So when Harper struggles, he struggles on a stage within a stage. He's handled that remarkably well, if you ask me. Trout has earned increased attention through his big league exploits, not anything that came before them. He ascended quickly after the 2009 Draft, but his was still a more conventional path, and that extra year of maturity can go a long way. Trout played 91 games in Double-A, 20 in Triple-A. And yes, he has a more ample supporting cast in the Angels' offense than Harper does in Washington's. Understand, this is no knock on Trout, because, if the season ended today, he'd almost undoubtedly be the MVP, and deservedly so. But Trout is simply more seasoned than Harper right now, and it shows in the stat lines. As Harper learns how to turn that raw power into applicable power and as he continues to find his comfort zone at this level, I don't think it will be long before he is getting the MVP-type acclaim that Trout is getting in 2012. Harper and Trout, Trout and Harper. It's a fun debate because, at its core, it's a silly debate. These guys have a couple decades to sort it out, and, anyway, we don't really have to choose. They've both arrived, and they've both amazed. And in that, we all win.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.