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July 12, 2012

On the Beat

The Great Trout vs. Harper Debate

by John Perrotto

Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. The two rookie outfielders are already linked like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle even though neither has logged a full season in the major leagues.

"We're like Bird and Magic," the Nationals’ Harper said earlier this week during a joint news conference that Major League Baseball staged during the All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City to showcase the sport's two latest phenoms. MLB can certainly dream that Harper and Trout become like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and be players who’ll market the game well into the 2020s.

The 19-year-old Harper is expected to be the face of the Nationals' franchise for years to come, and there is a good chance the 20-year-old Trout will supplant Albert Pujols as the Angels' face in the not-too-distant future. Both are playing large roles for teams in contention, too: The Nationals hold a four-game lead in the National League East over the Braves, and the Angels top the American League wild-card standings. The Angels have gone 42-24 since Trout arrived from Triple-A Salt Lake on April 28 after a 6-14 start.

While both seem destined for greatness, Harper is the better known of the duo. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated three years ago while still in high school in Las Vegas and called the baseball version of NBA megastar LeBron James. Harper was also the first overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft after he left high school after his junior season, earned his general equivalency degree, and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada because junior college players can be drafted after their freshman year.

Trout, meanwhile, hasn't received as much publicity. While he was an Angels first-round pick in 2009 following his senior season at Millvale High School in southern New Jersey, Trout lasted until the 25th selection. He also didn't have immediate success in his first crack at the major leagues last season, hitting .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances with a .264 True Average. Furthermore, he plays most of his games on the West Coast, where games end after many fans in the East have gone to bed.

April 28 also marked the day the Nationals called Harper up from Triple-A Syracuse, so they have a similar sample size to analyze this season. It doesn't take long to realize Trout is clearly ahead of Harper statistically. Trout has a .341/.397/.562 triple-slash line with 12 home runs and 26 stolen bases in 29 attempts in 290 plate appearances. Harper is hitting .282/.354/.472 with eight homers and 10 steals in 13 attempts in 277 trips to the plate. Trout also has decided edges in TAv (.361-.287), VORP (37.3-16.0), and WARP (4.3-2.1), while Harper holds a slight advantage in Fielding Runs Above Average (3.4-2.9).

Sometimes, statistics don't always match the evaluations of scouts. However, they do in this case. Five scouts were polled about the duo, and four said they would rather have Trout.

Here is the summation of one scout, who could have spoken for the pro-Trout group: "They both have Hall of Fame talent, which I hate to say about players so young, but it's true. The people who like Harper better will say the difference is that he has more raw power. That's true, but I also think Trout is going to develop into a 30-home-run hitter. Harper might hit a few more homers every year, but Trout is going to hit for a better average, he's going to steal more bases, and he's going to play better defense. The other thing that worries me about Harper is that he plays too hard. That sounds like a strange thing to say, but he is going to make a lot of trips to the disabled list if he doesn’t play more under control. Trout is a guy who is always hustling, too, but he plays the game a little smarter and doesn't put himself at as risk by trying to make plays he has no chance of making."

Harper is a big fan of Trout. They played together with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League last year and became fast friends. It didn't take Harper long to realize Trout was special.

"Everybody knew he was going to be a superstar," Harper said. "He's going to play this game for a long time. It's going to be a lot of fun for the fans to watching."

What has the Angels excited is how much Trout has improved from last season, when he often looked overmatched. Trout says he has a much better mental approach this year.

"I wasn't myself," he said. "I was up at the plate trying to crush every pitch. I was 19 years old and trying to prove to everybody that I belonged in the big leagues. I'm not a guy who is going to make a living hitting 500-foot home runs, and I got out of my game. I never relaxed or settled in. I look back now, and I was in over my head. Now, I feel very relaxed and very confident that I can not only play at this level, but be successful."

Trout has been so successful this season that many analysts are talking him about him being a strong AL Most Valuable Player candidate. His 4.3 WARP is tops in the AL and third in the major leagues behind Mets third baseman David Wright (4.6) and Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (4.4). Angels right-hander Jered Weaver is admittedly biased but thinks Trout deserves strong MVP consideration.

"He's given us that spark at the top of the lineup that we haven't had since (Chone) Figgins left (after the 2009 season)," Weaver said. "He's getting on base, he's stealing bases, he's scoring runs, he's making unbelievable catches, and he's just 20 years old. We were off to a terrible start until he got called up, and we've played as well as anyone in baseball since then. There has been no one more valuable to our team this season or any other team in the American League, in my opinion."

There is also a refreshingly human side to Trout. Harper seems so much older because of the polished way in which handles the media attention and the fact he is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. Trout looks more like the baseball rat who lives next door, standing 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, and seeming even younger than his 20 years with his closely cropped hair. While Harper has the demeanor of someone who has already seen it all, Trout was genuinely impressed about being at the All-Star Game.

"It was all surreal," Trout said of his All-Star experience. "It was just a few years ago that I was in high school and watching all these guys playing in All-Star Game, and now I was in one. It's hard to believe. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life.

---

A few minutes with Commissioner Bud Selig

On when MLB will expand replay to balls hit down the foul line and balls that might have been trapped instead of caught: "I'm impatient—more than impatient—but I'm not going to allow it to happen until we have the technology in every ballpark to do it right. I know some people feel we are moving too slowly on this, but I want to get it right. As you well know, I've never been a big fan of instant replay to begin with, so I'm not going to go into it until we can perfect the technology. We have to be careful, and we have to be sensitive with how we proceed because of the current baseball game of pace. I can tell you very candidly that the appetite for more instant replay in the sport is very low everywhere. There are some people who think we've gone too far already."

On the Rays' attendance problems: "They've run a great operation. They're a very competitive organization. They have very competitive teams. To see that they're No. 29, I think it is, in attendance (among the 30 MLB teams), it's inexcusable. Nobody can defend that. It's disappointing. And I know that people down there, some people, will be offended—not the fans, not the people who go every day. And I know they have great intensity, the people there. I watch a lot of games every day—sometimes all 15 of them—and I pay great attention not only to what's happening on the field, but to the attendance. So to use my father's old line, nothing is ever good or bad except by comparison. I'll rest my case. It's disappointing. And I'm concerned."

On the Athletics' proposed move from Oakland to San Jose continuing to be stalled because the Giants will not relinquish their territorial rights to the city: "It is the hands of the committee I appointed (to study the issue in April 2009) and my hands. People ask what’s taking so long. It is a very complex issue on both sides. It also has further issues, and the committee has been extremely thorough. They have spent an enormous amount of time with a lot of people, and when they’re ready to come back to me, which I hope will be in a reasonably short period of time, then we will move forward on it. If you really sit and really think about all the issues, you’ll understand why it’s so complex. We've been asking a lot of questions to both parties, and we’ll continue to ask questions until we get all the answers, and frankly, both clubs right now need to answer a lot of questions for us on many subjects.”

On Sacramento saying it wants to bring an MLB team to California's capital city: "All I really know is what I read in the newspapers. I know they have a mayor (Kevin Johnson) who was an NBA All-Star when he played in Phoenix. We really don't have any plans for expanding right now, and we're trying everything we can to find solutions for our franchises that are having problems (the Rays and Athletics)."

---

Scouts' views

Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester: "He's not the same guy he used to be. His stuff isn't as good and his velocity is down. The biggest thing for me, though, is he doesn't seem to be pitching with any intensity. His body language isn't good. He looks lethargic, like someone who is unhappy."

Padres closer Huston Street: "He's not a dominant closer, but I'd think he'd make a heckuva bullpen piece for a contender as a set-up man or seventh-inning guy, and I've got to believe the Padres are getting a million calls on him. He won't overwhelm you with his fastball, but he'll bury you with that slider with two strikes"

Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki: "I know he's struggled this season, and he's at the end of the road in Oakland with Derek Norris getting more time behind the plate. Still, I'd trade for him if I needed a catcher. He has the track record of being a decent hitter, and he's a smart guy who knows how to handle a pitching staff. "

Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton: "Him and his brother (Rays center fielder B.J. Upton) are so hard to figure. They have the tools to be superstars, but they fall well short of that, and calling them stars is even a stretch. In Justin's case, I think it's time for a change. He is playing lackadaisically, and when the owner starts questioning you like Ken Kendrick did, then it's probably time to go."

Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino: "He's having a bad year, but I still think there is something there. He still has the bat speed and the wheels. That whole Phillies team is in a malaise, and a change of scenery would probably help a lot of their guys."

---

Five observations from the All-Star Game in Kansas City

  • I first liked the idea of awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game when it started in 2003. I've changed my mind, though. If fans are not only allowed to stuff the ballot box, but are encouraged to do so as Giants' fans were, then it should just go back to being an exhibition game.
  • Putting written language in the latest collective bargaining agreement that forces players to attend the All-Star Game if picked unless they have a legitimate injury or family situation, or else be subjected to a substantial fine, did wonders for player attendance this season. If the players are committed to showing up, then there is no need to make the All-Star Game "count" by tying in World Series home-field advantage
  • Whether you think Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun avoided being suspended for using PEDs on a technicality or his case was legitimate, he needs to be given credit for not ducking the media during his two days in Kansas City.
  • After seeing Prince Fielder gets booed heavily in Phoenix last season and Robinson Cano get treated even worse this year at Kauffman Stadium because they did not select hometown heroes Justin Upton and Billy Butler for the Home Run Derby, it's time for MLB to drop the idea of having players serve as captains. In fact, the Derby is an event where fan voting makes perfect sense.
  • If you ever visit the city of Kansas City—as Rockies manager Jim Tracy once most memorably called it—go to Gates Bar.B.Q. Amazing stuff.

---

While the coverage of R.A. Dickey is reaching the oversaturation point, this week's Must Read is a moving account by the New York Daily News' Wayne Coffey about the Mets knuckleballer's relationship with a fan who eventually succumbed to Crohn's disease and leukemia.

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

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