He was arguably the top prospect in baseball coming into this season. He plays centerfield, has power, speed and pure hitting ability. Called up in late April and inserted into the starting lineup, the former first-round pick has become the lynchpin of his team's offense and could well prove to be key to that team snapping its playoff drought. Perhaps most impressively, he's doing that at an age when merely holding one's own in the major leagues is a tremendous accomplishment and most other ballplayers his age are either in the low minors or college. He is not Bryce Harper. He is Mike Trout.
Harper has always led Trout in hype. When the Angels took Trout with the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated beside the headline "Chosen One." The next year, Harper was the No. 1 pick in the entire draft. Trout signed for $1.215 million. Harper, with the help of agent Scott Boras, leveraged the Nationals for a five-year major league contract worth $9.9 million plus incentives. Both raked in A-ball as 18-year-olds, but Harper was promoted more aggressively by the Nationals, watched more closely by prospect hunters, and drew more attention due to the flamboyance of his play and concerns about his attitude.
This spring, when Nationals manager Davey Johnson was publicly lobbying for the 19-year-old Harper to make Washington's Opening Day roster, Trout caught the flu and barely played at all.
Neither Trout nor Harper opened the season in the majors, but both were called up on the same day, April 28. Since then, the 20-year-old Trout, who is just a year older than Harper, has hit .331/.385/.547 in 156 plate appearances, good for a 160 OPS+, and has been worth two full wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference's WAR (bWAR). Allow me to put those numbers in context.
Just six men in major league history -- dating to 1871 -- have accrued 150 or more plate appearances at or below the age of 20 while posting an OPS+ better than Trout's current figure. Those six men were Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle and Alex Rodriguez, all inner-circle Hall of Famers. Assuming he stays healthy, Trout, who has been leading off for the Angels, could come to the plate in excess of 600 times this season. Here is the list of players since 1871 who had 400 or more plate appearances and an OPS+ above 145 in their age 20 season or earlier:
Again, all bold-print, slam-dunk Hall of Famers. Next on the list, at 143, is Frank Robinson, another first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Obviously there's a lot of season left to play, four months of it to be exact, and Trout, even if the league doesn't "catch up with him," per se, will have his share of slumps and cold stretches. While no one should expect him to finish the year with a 160 OPS+, based on the numbers above, there's room for him to cool off and still rank among an extremely elite group of hitters.
Trout isn't even outperforming his usual standards by all that much. His current .331/.385/.547 line isn't far from is career minor league rates of .342/.425/.516. Looking a bit closer, he hit .326/.414/.544 in 412 plate appearances in Double-A as a 19-year-old last year, and he started this season by hitting .403/.467/.623 in 93 PAs at Triple-A. This is who he is, an incredibly talented baseball player, one with superstar potential that he may already be realizing.
Then there are his nine stolen bases in 12 attempts and his outstanding play in the field, which shows up in both the highlight reels (he seems to make an incredible catch every night) and the advanced statistics, which love him. Trout's most significant statistic, however, is his age. Twenty-year-olds just aren't supposed to be able to hit major league pitching. In fact, you could fit all of the players in major league history who have posted an OPS+ of 100 or better in 400 or more plate appearances in two dugouts with room to spare; there have been just 47 of them, 21 of them went on to become Hall of Famers (if you count obvious future inductees such as Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.), and most of the others had long, distinguished careers. Players who can hit major league pitching at or below the age of 20 aren't flukes. They're stars.
Trout is a star already. He's the sort of player you tune in to watch because you never know what amazing thing he's going to do next. Maybe it will be another implausible catch in the outfield. Maybe it will be a 4-four-4 game like he had against the Mariners on Monday night, the first of his career. Maybe it will be showing off what might be the fastest home-to-first time by a right-handed hitter in the major leagues. A single player can't change a team's fortunes singlehandedly, and there are other reasons for the Angels' turnaround, but it's no coincidence that they are 21-14 with Trout in the lineup and 7-14 without him. If Los Angeles is to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Trout will be a central reason why.
On May 1, Trout had a bunt single against the Twins. Angels third base coach Dino Ebel timed him running to first in 3.53 seconds, and if you watch the clip of Trout running, he looks like Clark Kent running alongside the train in Superman: The Movie. Indeed, Trout looks like a comic book hero, particularly when in uniform, with his thick neck, a pleasant but largely featureless face, broad shoulders and small hips. He's the perfect, freshly-scrubbed, buzz-cut, All-American boy in contrast to Harper, whose shaggy, choppy mohawk, scraggly beard, war-paint-inspired eye black, and fiery demeanor often threaten to cast him as a villain.
So, how is Harper doing? Well, he delivered a game-winning single in extra innings against the Mets Tuesday night to keep the Nationals in first place in the National League East and is now hitting .288/.375/.528 on the season. That hit was the first walkoff by a teenager since Gary Sheffield delivered one for the Brewers in 1988. If the Nationals make the playoffs it will be just the second postseason appearance by the franchise since it was created in Montreal in 1969, the last coming in 1981, and if Harper keeps up those rate stats for four more months, he'll challenge Ott and Tony Conigliaro for the greatest season by a 19-year-old in major league history.
Provided both can avoid the sort of career-altering injury that Conigliaro suffered at the age of 22, we'll likely be debating the relative merits of Trout and Harper for most of the next two decades. That's the kind of argument in which everybody wins.