I do this not to belittle Eric Karabell, whose tenure on the Baseball Today podcast was a delight and whose writing I quite enjoy, but because it has to be done. On the Baseball Tonight podcast (rebranded when it was reformatted and Buster Olney took it over) one day a couple of weeks ago, Karabell called Bryce Harper’s season “very disappointing.” He was wrong, and would probably have told you so if pressed, but it’s the particular way in which he was wrong that I want to address.
I tweeted the following after listening to that audio:
You absolutely HAVE to be careful when talking about a guy’s season based on a snapshot look at his stats on a given day. Local minimums and
maximums are too frequent in-season. Karabell saying Bryce Harper is having a disappointing year makes me laugh.
Through the end of July, Bryce Harper was batting .276/.372/.528.
I mentioned the last bit because, not even a fortnight later, the stats Karabell was surely looking at when he talked about Harper read much less prettily: .262/.359/.507.
I don’t want to make too much of what’s happened since, because that would represent the same mistake Karabell made in the first place. Still, it’s happened, or happening. Harper has 15 hits (including five doubles and a homer) and six walks over his last nine games. He’s now hitting .277/.377/.512.
My first thesis, then, is that it’s important not to look at statistics as hard information. Rather, they’re approximations, momentary estimates of ever-changing skill and performance levels. Even at season’s end, there’s no guarantee that the numbers a guy posted are representative of his actual ability. Seasons are arbitrary endpoints, for the purposes of evaluation.
My second thesis, though, and the one I can’t stress firmly enough, is that not even Harper’s numbers at their nadir, a fortnight ago, represented a legitimate disappointment. That’s because Bryce Harper is 20. He’s 20! He won’t even turn 21 until October, a month in which he doesn’t figure to play any baseball this year.
Mike Trout broke the mold, the scale, every framework we have for evaluating players in the context of their age and development curves. Trout was the best 20-year-old ever, and one of the 25 or so best players ever in terms of single-season performance. Living up to Mike Trout would have required absolutely everything to go right for Harper. Instead, it’s turning into the hardest season in which to be a left-handed hitter since the pitchers gave up a yard of elevation in their battle with batters, and Harper missed a big chunk of the season.
So he’s not going to catch Trout this year. He might not even catch him next year. Harper will catch him, though. I would bet on him sooner than any other player in baseball. He was a productive big-leaguer at 19, something not even Trout can say. He’s an MVP candidate, less the durability, at 20. Harper is on a career path that leads to the Hall of Fame more often than it doesn’t, and he has a few things in his favor when I weigh him against Trout.
First of all, there’s being a left-handed hitter. It’s a liability just at the moment, but an advantage most of the time, and I think the cycle that has lefties stuck in the mud when facing southpaw pitching will end soon enough. Secondly, there’s the power, which ages much better than the speed and defensive skills on which Trout depends much more heavily. Thirdly, though, there’s what we knew before each man reached the big leagues. Trout exploded right away, and has been a top prospect from the jump since showing what he could do, but remember, this guy made it past 24 teams in the draft in 2009. Harper, by contrast, went first, and no one had any question about whether or not he would go first. He was the outlier, the transcendent talent that Trout has only turned out to be, right from the start.
Fifteen months in age is not to be dismissed, either. That’s significant. Trout is not only a year older than Harper in baseball age, but closer to the cut line that would make him a year older than that. I want the guy whose strike-zone control is less fragile (thanks to having the platoon advantage much more often); whose profile promises a better late prime; and who has a younger body to throw around, if that’s what he must do.
Harper’s brand of aggression on the field sidelined him from late May through all of June, and that’s another reason no one is talking about him. That’s a shame. Yes, health is a skill, and an important one, but the fact that guys who play 110-plus games in a season at an extremely high level (Harper isn’t alonme here; Giancarlo Stanton fits, too) often get so little attention reflects an insufficient appreciation for the value of great talent. Durability has value, but not nearly as much value as top-end talent.
Only a dozen players have been worth five wins above a replacement player at 20 years old or younger. Harper has a decent chance of doing it twice. It’s strange and funny that people would see him as disappointing, for more than one reason.Next post: The Rotation, September 1 – The Phillies, or: The Lost Seasons, Pt. I
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