CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Divide and Conquer, AL... (03/10)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article The BP Broadside: Ben ... (03/07)
Next Column >>
Premium Article The BP Broadside: Mitc... (03/14)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Purpose Pitches: Day O... (03/10)

March 10, 2011

The BP Broadside

Premature Harpergasm

by Steven Goldman

the archives are now free.

All Baseball Prospectus Premium and Fantasy articles more than a year old are now free as a thank you to the entire Internet for making our work possible.

Not a subscriber? Get exclusive content like this delivered hot to your inbox every weekday. Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get instant access to the best baseball content on the web.

Subscribe for $4.95 per month
Recurring subscription - cancel anytime.


a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Purchase a $39.95 gift subscription
a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Already a subscriber? Click here and use the blue login bar to log in.

As meaningless as 13 spring training at-bats are, Harper’s hitting (.308/.357/.462, two doubles) has fueled calls for him to break camp with the Nats. This speaks highly of Harper’s incredible physical tools and amateur record, because outside of a brief turn in the Arizona Fall League and 13 at-bats in exhibition games this spring, Harper’s professional track record is nonexistent.

Given that frustrated Washington fans are eager to see their club finally shake off its legacy as a ward of the game and the universal desire to get to see the next big thing, it’s easy to understand all of the panting after Harper, and the rationale used to justify the lust is deceptively simple: Hey, if he’s ready, he’s ready, so what harm can there be in advancing the timetable? The answer is equally basic: the major-league game has rarely been kind to teenaged hitters, whatever their talents or apparent state of readiness.

However good Harper looks now, if he plays in the majors this season there is every chance he will not do well. There is a great deal of precedent for pessimism in the brief history of teenaged prospects who seemed to be ready but, once confronted with big-league pitching, were unable to cope. Most of them got their chance long ago, when the reserve clause meant that bringing up a player far from the center of his career didn’t mean losing him at 24. Just 14 players have accumulated 100 or more plate appearances in the majors at age 18 or younger. There are three Hall of Famers in the mix, but none of them showed off their Cooperstown-level tricks during these early campaigns:
 

NAME

YEAR

AGE

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

WARP

Phil Cavarretta

1935

18

636

.275

.322

.404

.258

0.1

Johnny Lush

1904

18

408

.276

.336

.369

.275

-1.8

Robin Yount

1974

18

364

.250

.276

.346

.222

0.7

Ed Kranepool

1963

18

294

.209

.256

.289

.207

-2.2

Sibby Sisti

1939

18

232

.228

.269

.284

.200

-1.0

Jack Burnett

1907

17

232

.238

.296

.316

.245

-0.9

Lew Malone

1915

18

227

.204

.283

.279

.228

-2.2

Frank O'Rourke

1912

17

216

.122

.177

.148

.045

-3.2

Tommy Brown

1945

17

204

.245

.267

.332

.208

0.2

Wayne Causey

1955

18

196

.194

.269

.234

.163

-2.3

Mel Ott

1927

18

180

.282

.335

.380

.250

-0.1

Ty Cobb

1905

18

164

.240

.288

.300

.237

-0.9

Tommy Brown

1944

16

160

.164

.208

.192

.113

-1.9

Whitey Lockman

1945

18

148

.341

.410

.481

.309

1.0

Eddie Ainsmith

1910

18

111

.192

.236

.240

.165

-0.3


During that 1905 trial, Cobb struggled both on and off the field, incapable of relating to the more experienced, hardened adults who populated the club. The temptation is to dismiss the Peach’s struggles; that was over 100 years ago, he was a unique psychological case, and there can be little doubt that Harper is a more refined physical specimen than Cobb was at the same age. Moving closer to the present day, we have Robin Yount, who was six months from his 19th birthday when he made his big-league debut with the Brewers in 1974 after just 64 minor-league games. Yount was terrible that year and would not have a season of any real quality with the bat until 1978, when he was 22. He didn’t have his first All-Star and/or MVP-quality season until he was 24 years old.

Alex Rodriguez provides a similar lesson. Drafted out of high school just shy of his 18th birthday in 1993, he hit well in the minors in the spring of 1994 and was called up in early July. Rodriguez struggled in the big leagues with the Mariners, hitting just .240/.241/.204 in 17 games and was sent back down. He again struggled in a longer audition in 1995, hitting .232/.264/.408 in 48 games. It was only at 20 that Rodriguez arrived as A-Rod, winning the batting title with a .358 average and smacking 36 home runs. The Mariners bought out his arbitration years that winter, so just 211games into his major-league career, Rodriguez had already broken through to a seven-figure salary.

This last is the key consequence to rushing Harper, never mind the most traditional concern, that if he is moved up prematurely, the player could struggle and lose his confidence, a consequence that has afflicted other promising prospects in the past. In truth, this does not seem a big issue; Harper is precocious, reportedly knows it, and his confidence may be impregnable to failure. The bigger risk, and it’s perhaps less a risk than a near-certainty, is that the Harper of 2011 will not be as good as, say, the Harper of 2015, and that the mature, 40-homer-a-year Harper will be a player the Nationals cannot afford. In their haste to see him sooner, Harper enthusiasts could lose out on seeing him later, at least in the nation’s capitol wearing the doubleknits of the hometown nine.

Harper is terrifically young. He will not turn 19 until October 16, an age at which many young ballplayers are still college freshmen. The reason he is already in the Nats organization is that he earned his GED so that he could skip his last two years of high school and start playing ball at a junior college. While that extra experience gives him a leg up on other high school-age players taken in the draft, it doesn’t mean that he’s a finished project in any sense, and remains years from his physical prime. There is no guarantee that he will adapt easily to the mental and physical rigors of the major-league game, not to mention the advanced pitching patterns of the Roy Halladays and Cliff Lees of the world, hurlers he would see all too often as a player in the NL East. His aggressive swing mechanics may make him particularly vulnerable to thinking pitchers who will entice him to lunge at offspeed pitches.

The economics of the game make letting Harper learn to adapt on the job a decision with huge ramifications as to how long he will stay with the club. When the Tigers gave a teenaged Ty Cobb a 41-game audition in 1905, it didn’t set in motion a process by which Cobb could sign a $30 million-per-year contract with the Yankees by 1911, three batting titles into his career. Similarly, had Yount come to the majors 20 years later, the Brewers would have been paying him millions after 1976, when he hit .252/.292/.301 or been forced to non-tender him, thereby likely forgoing the nearly 2,800 hits still to come.

Today, teams don’t have players under indefinite control, and they can’t pay them below-market salaries for more than two or three seasons. Most players are eligible for arbitration after three seasons, and a small additional group achieve “super two” status and get their big payday after two seasons and change. After their sixth season, a player can test the free-agent market. It is incumbent upon the Nationals to put the best Harper on the field that they can during the brief period they have him under their control.

Harper will no doubt be a gate attraction, something the drab Nats with their drab stadium that looks out over some drab parking decks could desperately use, particularly when drawing card Plan A, Stephen Strasburg, is on the shelf for the season. However, given Yount and Rodriguez, not to mention Cobb and Mel Ott, Brooks Robinson, and even Phil Cavarretta, the only 18-year-old to log a 500 at-bat season in the majors to date (despite beginning his major-league career at 17, he didn’t hit his stride until he was 23), the tyro slugger is more likely to be a curiosity this season than a legitimate star.

Even bringing Harper up at 19 will be a stretch, although the big leagues have been kinder to players a year closer to their 20s. At 19, fans got to see Mickey Mantle, Tony Conigliaro, and Junior Griffey, and although they too were far from their best, they were still very good. Again, though, it deserves noting that the Commerce Comet and Tony C were not going to inflate their salaries through arbitration. Should the Nats give in to premature Harper-gasm, they may sell a few extra seats now, but they will pay for the privilege, and pay, and pay some more, and the main thing they will be accomplishing is fattening up a potential franchise player for another team.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Ty Cobb,  Alex Cobb

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Richie

Wasn't Cobb huge for his time? Just thinking he at age 18 may have been more rather than less a "refined physical specimen" vis-a-vis Harper.

Mar 10, 2011 09:25 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

If I were making the decision (and presuming Harper is healthy and effective as we all think):
2011: A ball, advancing to AA, cup of coffee at the end of the season
2012: AA, advancing to AAA, cup of coffee at end of season
2013: compete for spot on MLB roster

Mar 10, 2011 09:33 AM
rating: 3
 
frampton
(870)

Does the fact that Harper signed a major-league contract (and is already on the 40-man roster) mean his six-year clock has already started ticking? Or is that only once he's on the active 25-man roster during the season?

Mar 10, 2011 09:49 AM
rating: 1
 
prs130

I've been wondering the same thing... if the answer is "no, the clock doesn't start ticking until he's on the 25", then what exactly is a major league contract, and why does somebody in Harper's position want it?

Mar 10, 2011 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Scot

time on the 40 but not on the 25 doesn't count as ML service time, so doesn't start the clock ticking. What it does do is start chewing up options, thoughs - every year that they send Harper to the minors they'll have to use one of his option years, which means that if he's not in the majors for good in 3 (or 4, I'm not 100% sure) years he'll have to clear waivers if they want to send him down.

Mar 10, 2011 11:42 AM
rating: 2
 
irussma

Yeah, pretty much. They can keep him in the minors for up to three seasons. In season 4, he has to be in the big leagues for good or clear waivers (which someone of his talent most assuredly wouldn't). But his arbitration clock doesn't start ticking until he's actually on the active roster.

Mar 10, 2011 18:38 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

What if the Nationals wait until Harper is, say, 24 - just to get his biggest prime years on the cheap, while he hits .450/.600/.900 in the minors? The only thing motivating the Nationals not to do this is 1) the shame of it and 2) the risk Harper gets injured and they would miss out on three to six years of superstardom. Sure, they would miss out on a big draw, but they get that back at the other end of his pre- free agent tenure. Hence, they could conceivably calculate this would be to their advantage. The system is broken if the ideal is to see the best players in the Major Leagues. However, this would be a great boon to Minor League baseball.

Suggestions? Discuss.

Mar 10, 2011 10:15 AM
rating: 1
 
prs130

one more factor... the discount rate! revenue now > an equal amount of revenue later. The cost of declining two star-level years on the ML roster (beginning now) is not worth the benefit of two star-level years (beginning at the end of club control). The only question is whether Harper is at star-level beginning in 2011.

Mar 10, 2011 10:59 AM
rating: 1
 
Brian Kopec

Thats why top prospects demand, and get, major league contracts.

He'll be out of options long before he turns 24.

Mar 10, 2011 12:26 PM
rating: 1
 
frampton
(870)

As scothughes notes, Harper wouldn't have enough options for that to be a viable strategy, he'd have to clear waivers in order to be sent to the minors once he's out of options. (Even if a player isn't on the 40-man, after four years (IIRC) he's subject to the Rule 5 draft unless he does get put on the 40-man at that point.)

Mar 10, 2011 12:29 PM
rating: 0
 
irussma

In Harper's case, it would be 5 years until eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, since he was drafted so young. But in Harper's case, he has a big league contract, so the point is moot anyway.

Mar 10, 2011 18:39 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

My wife doesn't like watching baseball. She knows nothing about baseball. She can barely name a player on our hometown team (actually, she may not be able to do that).

But she knows how Bryce Harper is.

That alone tells me that this kid is WAY too media-over-saturated, and I'm sick of him already.

Good article though.

Mar 10, 2011 12:29 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

*who, not "how".

Parents, teach your kids to proofread. Mine didn't, and look how I turned out. :(

Mar 10, 2011 12:31 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

OK, Harper's Major League contract means he can only be returned to the minors for another two years. The worse that could happen is that he could completely blow away the minors this year and still get sent down for enough of next year to avoid being a super two candidate - just what the Rays did with Longoria - and Price, too, iirc.

Is Mike Trout on a 40 man roster? He has been in the minors for only two years. He has another couple of years before the Angels have to add him to their 40 man roster if they want to protect him from the Rule V draft, right? Then they have three more years to add him to the 25 man roster. He could rack up a ridiculous minor league record while the Angels shamelessly wait to get his supposed best years. (We can assume, perhaps unfairly, he will be even better in his age 26-28 years than his age 20-22 years. He is just entering his age 19 season now.)

Mar 11, 2011 06:39 AM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

You can't assume that. Many of the best players, those that are more athletic (up the middle players), peak earlier. His offensive skill set may refine as he ages, but his athleticism will erode, even if only marginally. There is no value to be gained from holding down elite talents. Not that Trout will reach this level, but look at Ken Griffey Jr. His two best offensive seasons (per OPS+) were his age 23-24 seasons. His age 21 season was his 4th best.
How about Alex Rodriguez? While not his best offensive seasons, in his first five full seasons (ages 20-24) his OPS+ ranged from 120-162. Why would a team ever waste seasons that project as elite from players who are deemed ready to perform in the Majors?

Mar 11, 2011 06:53 AM
rating: 2
 
comish4lif

You start the article stating that Harper's Spring Stats have "fueled calls for him to break camp with the Nats" - as a DC resident and Nats season ticket holder, I haven't seen anyone in the local media making that statement.

I don't mean to sound snarky, but can you share with us who has been saying that he should break camp with the Nats?

Also, calling it "drab" - does this article need you to take a shot at the stadium? While the parking garages are drab, they are no less drab than what the developers were proposing to put there. Nationals Park is a fine stadium, callng it drab is unnecessary.

Mar 11, 2011 07:43 AM
rating: 3
 
Lindemann
(852)

I second the call for Goldman to cite actual people calling for Harper to break camp with the Nats. No one of my acquaintance has said anything like that.

The BP habit of tucking insults into every nook and cranny of available sentences is wearing on me as well.

Mar 11, 2011 09:39 AM
rating: 1
 
brucegilsen
(999)

The Lerner family, who owns the team, blocked the view of the Capitol by constructing a building. That was not nice.

But I agree - nobody I know thinks it's drab.

Mar 13, 2011 12:39 PM
rating: 0
 
everettcase

The Lerner family also happens to be the wealthiest of MLB owners, so it might be a bit premature to assume that Harper is gone when he hits free agency.

Mar 14, 2011 10:54 AM
rating: 0
 
tomterp

It doesn't matter if the ballpark is actually drab or not. It's the Nationals, and throwing in a gratuitous insult or two is de rigueur. Plenty of other parks are no better, but Goldman's references are more about earning a few snickers with a cheap shot, or three in this case, than they are about informing and educating readers.

Mar 18, 2011 19:51 PM
rating: 0
 
drawbb

Personally I find editorial comments like Goldman's opinion of Nationals Park very useful. For example, while I've never met any fans who have been to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the overwhelming number of times it's been mentioned by the media as an outstanding venue actually has me considering it as a potential road trip at some point.

If other writers feel Nationals Park is fine, then Goldman's voice will fade away as a minority viewpoint. However, I'd at least like to hear the negative comments, too. I dearly wish there'd been a lot more of them about what a dump both Dodger Stadium and old Yankee Stadium are and were rather than hearing everyone ejaculate all over themselves about those "great" ballparks.

Apr 05, 2011 11:44 AM
rating: 0
 
Lindemann
(852)

And now, of course, the Nats have sent Harper down to A ball...as everyone knew they were going to all along.

It was interesting to read the data on teenage players, I must admit.

Mar 14, 2011 06:12 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Reply to: R.A. Wagman: I'm not saying teams should assume players will be better in their 26-28 years than their 21-23 years (and I'm not saying they shouldn't). My point is they "could" assume it as, in fact, on the aggregate they are. No doubt one could come up with more examples of players who were than were not. Perhaps, I am wrong, but it is common knowledge - and not a stretch to assume some team might act upon that by keeping someone who would likely be a star in the Majors stuck in the minors to own his probable better years. That could be a real problem that gets fought in the courts, if it is not addressed in the next Players Agreement.

Mar 13, 2011 14:00 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

There are also broader implications to treating your players truly as chattel. Your team would gain a reputation with the MLBPA, you would not get any good free agents ever. Your fans would riot if top tier talent was wasting in the minors. Also, the 26-28 peak is more true for hitters than for pitchers. There are reasons why this simply isn't done.

Mar 14, 2011 04:21 AM
rating: 0
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article Divide and Conquer, AL... (03/10)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article The BP Broadside: Ben ... (03/07)
Next Column >>
Premium Article The BP Broadside: Mitc... (03/14)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Purpose Pitches: Day O... (03/10)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
The BP Wayback Machine: Can Spring Training ...
Fantasy Article The Adjuster: Relief Pitchers
Fantasy Article Fantasy Three-Year Projections: Relief Pitch...
Fantasy Article The -Only League Landscape: American League ...
Premium Article Rumor Roundup: Don't Call It A Committee!
The Lineup Card: Nine Ways to Improve Your F...
Fantasy Article Player Profile: David Robertson

MORE FROM MARCH 10, 2011
Premium Article Divide and Conquer, AL West: Feast or Famine...
Premium Article Painting the Black: Plate Appearances and Ga...
Premium Article Team Injury Projection: Florida Marlins
Premium Article Span and Sain and Pray for Rain: The Man Beh...
Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: Value Picks in the Bullpen
Overthinking It: A Review of Jonah Keri's Th...
The BP Wayback Machine: The Doctor is...Gone

MORE BY STEVEN GOLDMAN
2011-03-21 - Baseball Prospectus Book News: The End of th...
2011-03-14 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Mitchell Page's Unfinished...
2011-03-14 - Baseball Prospectus Book News: Two BP Events...
2011-03-10 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Premature Harpergasm
2011-03-09 - Baseball Prospectus Book News: BP 2011 Tour:...
2011-03-07 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Ben Francisco, Open Your G...
2011-03-07 - Baseball Prospectus Book News: Ben, Jay, Kev...
More...

MORE THE BP BROADSIDE
2011-03-31 - The BP Broadside: Questions, Predictions, Wo...
2011-03-21 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Babe Ruth's Fat Dead Cat(s...
2011-03-14 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Mitchell Page's Unfinished...
2011-03-10 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Premature Harpergasm
2011-03-07 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: Ben Francisco, Open Your G...
2011-03-04 - Premium Article The BP Broadside: The Most Disappointing Pro...
2011-03-01 - The BP Broadside: The Most Disappointing Pro...
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2011-03-17 - Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Senior Circuit Shuffli...