March 10, 2011
The BP Broadside
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:
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 .
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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