Coming into the season, the Angels' Mike Trout and the Nationals' Bryce Harper were the two best prospects in baseball. Now they are the 2012 Rookies of the Year. They are the youngest pair to ever win the award in the same year, the best by combined wins above replacement, and before their careers are over, just might prove to be the best Rookie of the Year duo of all time.
Trout, who hit .326/.399/.564 and led all of baseball in runs scored (129), stolen bases (49, at a 91 percent success rate), and Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (10.7 bWAR), and was one point behind Buster Posey for the major league lead in OPS+ (171) won the American League award unanimously. He surpassed Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker, who won it in 1978, to become the youngest AL winner since the award was introduced in 1947. Trout, who turned 21 on August 7, is the 18th unanimous winner in either league, and the first unanimous winner in the AL since Evan Longoria in 2007. Braves closer Craig Kimbrel won the NL award unanimously last year.
Harper, who turned 20 on October 16, hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs and 18 stolen bases, just barely edged out Diamondbacks lefty Wade Miley for the National League award. No matter his margin of victory, Harper was a deserving winner. He is just the second player ever to win the award for a season in which he was a teenager and the second-youngest player and the youngest position player ever to be voted Rookie of the Year. Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden, who was also managed by current Nationals skipper Davey Johnson at the time, was a month younger than Harper when he won the award in 1984.
By bWAR, Harper just completed the greatest teenaged season by a position player in major league history. In fact, his five wins above replacement easily out-distance Hall of Famer Mel Ott's 3.7 from 1928. Only two teenaged pitchers since the end of the 19th century, Gooden in '84 and the Reds' Gary Nolan in 1967, had more valuable seasons per bWAR.
Similarly, Trout's incredible 10.7 wins above replacement this season has only been surpassed by Gooden's 11.9 in 1985 among 20-year-olds since the end of the 19th century. The list of hitters behind Trout on that 20-year-old leader board is indicative of the potential of both these players. Here's that list:
Of the 11 men behind Trout who have completed the bulk of their careers, seven are in the Hall of Fame, two more are headed there. The other two are Pinson, who had 2,757 career hits, and deadball left fielder Magee, who had a career OPS+ of 137 over a 16-year career.
Thanks to Trout's ludicrous bWAR total, the 20th highest total mark by a hitter of any age in major league history, Trout and Harper are already the Rookie of the Year pairing with the highest combined wins above replacement (15.7, beating out the 15.1 by 1964's Dick Allen, 8.5 bWAR, and Tony Oliva, 6.6), and if they fulfill their potential, they could finish their careers as the greatest pair of Rookie of the Years in the game's history.
Thus far there have been three Rookie of the Year pairings that ended up in the Hall of Fame: Frank Robinson and Louis Aparicio in 1956, Tom Seaver and Rod Carew in 1967 and Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray in 1977. Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 winners, will join them, but no other pairing is assured that honor. The closest since are perhaps Ryan Braun and Dustin Pedroia in 2007 or Justin Verlander and Hanley Ramirez in 2006, though Ramirez no longer looks like a future Hall of Famer.
It is, of course, insanely early for this kind of speculation with regard to Trout and Harper, either one of whom could meet an unfortunate fate like that of Red Sox rightfielder Tony Conigliaro, one of the greatest young players ever, whose career was destroyed when he was hit in the eye by a pitch in 1967 at the age of 22. Certainly the suggestion that they could surpass Seaver and Carew or Pujols and Suzuki as a duo seems ludicrous, but that is how unique their combination of talent, youth, and major league success is. Again, they are already the greatest 19-year-old hitter and 20-year-old hitter in major league history. Their potential is almost unlimited.
It's unfair to make this kind of comparison, but the similarities are just too strong not to look at them in light of another pair of 19- and 20-year-old centerfielders with similar skill sets who broke in together in 1951: Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Thus far, Harper and Trout are actually ahead of the pace of those two legends. Mays won the Rookie of the Year award at the age of 20 in '51, but not with anywhere near the kind of season Trout just had (Mays' bWAR was 3.6), and the 19-year-old Mantle spent more than a month of that season in the minors after being demoted in mid July.
Harper, who has monstrous power for a player his age, is a five-tool stud. Trout lacks a strong arm, but is arguably the fastest player in the game, and though he was inexplicably passed over for the Gold Glove, won the Fielding Bible's award as the best defensive centerfielder in all of baseball (both leagues) for the 2012 season. Meanwhile, neither of these two will turn 40 until August of 2031. Watching these two in the intervening years will be one of the true joys of being a baseball fan.