If you’re not a Giants, Nationals, or Phillies fan, you might not know who Kevin Frandsen is. He’s a utility infielder for the Washington Nationals right now, and he said something that’s getting a little publicity:
(Anthony Rendon) is as impressive as any young player; in all honesty, he’s the best young guy we have, by far. … I don’t think there’s anyone in the same sentence as him, as far as young guys, and he might be one of the best ones in the league.”
At this point, Eric Bickel and Jason Bishop interjected to ask if Frandsen was including Bryce Harper in his evaluation.
“Absolutely,” said Frandsen
This is news because Bryce Harper is in that precarious spot between “franchise cornerstone” and “what have you done for me lately?” The fans haven’t turned on him, not even close. But there’s a lot more Harper-related grumbling than there used to be. Historians might remember Frandsen’s comment as a precursor to the war between the Bryce Harper factions. Unless there is no war because Harper’s just awesome. Which he should be.
It’s worth exploring these comments briefly with a little point/counterpoint.
Point: Kevin Frandsen is absolutely insane
Well, maybe not insane. But not aware of just how young Bryce Harper is, and how much that matters. Bryce Harper would be the youngest hitter in the International League. He would be the fourth-youngest hitter in the Eastern League (within two months of second place). He would be one of the 15-youngest hitters in the Carolina League. He’s a prospect burdened with the expectations of a veteran. If he were in the Carolina League, he would be the best prospect in baseball, and he would be hitting approximately 1.000, give or take.
Those aren’t just factlets to nibble on. A list of hitters with more than 40 homers before turning 22:
We have Hall of Famers and All-Stars, Hall of Famers and All-Stars. Only a couple disappointments, and those were mostly due to injuries. Age matters.
Bryce Harper career OPS+: 125. Anthony Rendon career OPS+: 110. Numbers say Harper, but there's a legitimate conversation to be had.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) May 8, 2014
Not really. When Rendon was Harper's age, he was at Rice University, using metal bats against amateurs. Harper is hitting against Clayton Kershaw and Craig Kimbrel. If Harper struggles for two years, he'll still be younger than Rendon is now. There is only one player over the last decade whose future I'd take over Harper's, and he happens to be the Rickey Henderson to Harper's Tim Raines right now, which is kind of a shame.
Counterpoint: Kevin Frandsen might be right
Kevin Frandsen has read many books/Photo credit: Mike Ehrmann
There are more Mel Otts than Bob Horners on that list up there. But there are still Bob Horners. Every professional sport is filled with if-onlys where the human body was an absolute jerk. Harper is young, yes, but he also has a slightly terrifying history of getting hurt.
More than that, though, bringing up Harper's age is a way to explain why he should be great. But it has nothing to do with Anthony Rendon's talent, really. You want to know a list that's longer than the one up there? A list of Hall of Fame hitters who weren't stars before they were 22. Mike Schmidt hit .196/.324/.373 in 443 plate appearances when he was 23. Harmon Killebrew wasn't a regular until he was 23, neither was Johnny Mize. Hitting before turning 21 is a great predictor of future success. But it's not the only predictor.
It's easy to forget, especially in the shadow of Harper, that Rendon was an exceptionally hyped prospect in his own right. He was a good bet to go first overall before an injury his junior year. When they announced a college tournament at AT&T Park three years ago, I wasn't going to go ... until I realized that Anthony Rendon was going to be there. He made me sit in freezing nonsense to watch him; the hype train was that strong back then. It's bananas that he slid to sixth overall.
He almost certainly has the pedigree of an All Star. That doesn't mean he'll be one. That doesn't mean I would take his future over Harper's. But he could, eventually, be better. Think of Jose Cruz and Cesar Cedeno in 1971. One was a teenaged star, and the other one was a 22-year-old prospect just breaking in. Cruz probably had the more valuable career. Just because one guy was young, didn't mean the other guy couldn't be better.
You know who's watched both players quite a bit? Kevin Frandsen. His opinion might be off, or his enthusiasm misplaced, but it's not like he's hyping up Zach Walters this way. Rendon is off to a great start, and he just might be better than Bryce Harper.
Anthony Rendon just might be better than Bryce Harper.
I know which one I draft if I'm a GM. But I'm not sure what Frandsen said should be that controversial. Great hitters have different kinds of backstories. Maybe Rendon is one of those great hitters after all.