Thursday, on the Baseball Prospectus "Effectively Wild" podcast -- hosted by B-Pro's editor-in-chief Sam Miller and Grantland's Ben Lindbergh -- the topic of Bryce Harper came up. Specifically, how he related to Mike Trout.
You don't really hear Trout and Harper linked that much anymore, which is strange, because for a couple of years there, they were the Coke and Pepsi on the prospect world. Some analysts had Harper atop their rankings; some analysts had Trout there. (Some poor souls had Matt Moore at No. 1. Whoops.) But the overwhelming consensus was that you couldn't go wrong with either player. They were both going to be superstars, and picking between them was a pointless endeavor. Maybe you liked the flash of Harper, maybe you liked the ruthless efficiency of Trout, but one wasn't supposed to clearly be better than the other.
This is the fourth year in the Majors for both players. (Harper, a year younger, is still the fourth-youngest player in baseball.) Here are their Fangraphs WAR totals each year, since they started playing full seasons.
Trout: 10.3 (first in MLB among batters)
Harper: 4.6 (24th in MLB)
Trout: 10.5 (first in MLB)
Harper: 4.0 (40th in MLB)
Trout: 8.0 (first in MLB)
Harper: 1.4 (177th in MLB)
2015 (so far)
Trout: 2.1 (second in MLB)
Harper: 0.9 (58th in MLB)
Harper has compiled 10.9 WAR in his career, which is an impressive number, particularly for someone who is just still only 22 years old. But Trout nearly put that number up in one season. Harper -- who just hit three homers on Wednesday, truly gargantuan blasts that make you think briefly the game of baseball was created specifically for him -- currently leads the league in walks and is putting up the best OPS-plus (166) of his career so far. His plate approach continues to evolve; he's a better hitter today than he was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. Harper's on the path to a Hall of Fame career.
And Trout's still wiping Harper out in every statistical measure, and that's not even accounting for defense.
(Here's some more love for Trout.)
#Angels Mike Trout is 23 years and 274 days old. He has both more HR and SB than 98.9% of players in baseball history.- Ace of MLB Stats (@AceballStats) May 8, 2015
The amount that Trout has been better than Harper since they came in the league is roughly Miguel Cabrera (20 Fangraphs WAR). It is a rout.
Now, comparing anyone to Trout since he came in the league does a disservice to that player … but then again, Harper is exactly the player who has been compared to Trout the longest. (Let's leave Moore and his lifetime 5.1 WAR out of this, other than to say that 5.1 is a little higher WAR than I would have thought for him. Good for you, Matt Moore!) You could argue that one of the reasons Trout took the baseball world by surprise was because we were so focused on Harper. No one was writing GQ pieces about Trout before he came to the Majors. There was a time when Trout-Harper was a legitimate debate. That time is long gone.
What does this mean if you're Harper? It means you're putting up league-leading numbers at the age of 22 … and your fellow players vote you the most overrated player in baseball two consecutive years. Imagine if Trout had decided, after his 135 lousy plate appearances in 2011 -- it is still shocking that Trout hit .220 over 135 plate appearances, 19-year-old cup-of-coffee rookie or not -- that he had seen enough of baseball, that he now wanted to be a plumber, and he walked away. If that had happened -- and that would have been horrible -- we might spend every day spouting off Harper Facts to each other, astounded by his phenom genius. But there is no need for Harper Facts when you have Trout Facts.
When he was a kid, Mike Trout was vaccinated with the Space Needle.- Mike Trout Facts (@MikeTroutFacts) April 6, 2015
Trout was once the guy you measured Harper against; now he's the millstone around his neck.
Which leads me to Miller's question on the podcast: Will there be a year in the future, any year in the future, where Harper has a better WAR than Trout? These men will likely play for 20-plus seasons, make countless All-Star teams -- Trout will make his fourth this July; Harper likely his third -- and it's quite possible both will end up in the Hall of Fame. But will there ever be one individual season, out of all them, that Harper is better than Trout?
Obviously, Trout could get injured and miss a whole season; Harper's low WAR total last season was partly because of injury. But other than that? Not only will Harper have to continue to evolve at a supersonic pace, Trout will have to regress dramatically, in every aspect of his game. (To get them equal in WAR for a year so far, you'd have to double Harper's best season and put it against Trout's worst season, and then it would still be close.) You look at Harper and Trout now, and it seems astounding we ever found them interchangeable. The competition between them was once thought to be a blessing for both, two great players potentially pushing each other higher. Now I think it will end up being Harper's curse.
We've all written and opined so many words about Harper in his short career so far, and compared him to so many people. But you know what? I think he's Salieri. A man, had he been born any other time, might have been considered the real genius of his era. But then came Mozart.