It was a different time, 2012. Insane Coaster Wars had just debuted on the Travel Channel. The president was Barack Obama. You could watch television on your phone, but with a slight, almost imperceptible reduction in performance compared to what we're used to now. And Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper columns were everywhere.
You know the column.
Youth and talent. Historical comparison. List of great players who were great before 21. Joke about how they can't drink alcohol. Note that it's still early. Eventual conclusion siding with the guy currently having the best season from anyone since Barry Bonds retired because this isn't limb-going-out class, pal. Final sentence not mentioning Manny Machado, which will irritate the absolute heck out of Orioles fans.
Heck, I wrote one. Everyone did. It was fun. How often does baseball get two players under 20 with such incredible star potential? It was Halley's Comet, a celestial event we were lucky to live through. The Trout vs. Harper (vs. FINE, OKAY, JEEZ, Machado) columns were a natural reaction to an unnatural phenomenon.
On a recent episode of Baseball Prospectus's Effectively Wild podcast, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller revisited the question, inspired by ESPN's Franchise Player Draft. Trout, Harper, and Machado were the first three position players taken. Two years later, and everything's the same.
Except nothing's the same. Since the halcyon days of T v. H v. M, we've learned the following:
- Bryce Harper is mortal
- Mike Trout is mortal
- Manny Machado is mortal
Start with Harper. The comments of the ESPN article are filled with people laughing at Bryce Harper going #2. That is, people who don't understand just how rare it is to see a player as young as Harper to perform as well as he already has, and what the history of baseball wunderkinds tells us. Harper, when healthy, is a fantastic player already. Even if he doesn't get a lick better, he's already fantastic. But he's still mind-bogglingly young. He would still be the youngest player in the International League. When he's George Springer's age, he'll be a few months from free agency.
Players like that are rare, so rare. Impossibly rare. There aren't any great comps, even if you go through history for the Mel Otts and Al Kalines, because there hasn't been a 21-year-old with that kind of combination of production and build. It's possible that the build is an issue, or at least something is an issue with Harper's frame. You can't hold his thumb injury (which happened during a slide) against him, but what about the knee surgery and bursitis?
Suddenly, Harper has a touch of baseball reality about him. There's a reason why Bob Horner went from a preternatural talent to out of baseball before 31, and it had to do with his body not cooperating. Its still ghoulish to point that out, but it doesn't feel inappropriate.
That bit up there about how Harper is unique because of his production/build combo isn't quite true. There's also Trout, who is about the size of Mel Ott stuffed into Al Kaline. We don't know what Trout is going to look like when he's fully formed. At first, that seemed exciting, because we could dream of all that with 50-homer power. Except now it's at least worth wondering about that frame, with Trout missing time this year because of hamstring and back problems. Like Harper, it might mean nothing. Miguel Cabrera had quad problems several MVPs ago. They were just quad problems, nothing that hinted at future calamity.
Photo credit: Lisa Blumenfeld
Except there's that baseball reality again. Trout hurt? Trout with back problems? Trout having the first extended slump of his career (which he promptly snapped the heck out of)? It's made him seem like ... I don't know ... a real baseball player instead of someone from a comic book using baseball as his cover story.
If the three youngsters were New York outfielders in the '50s, poor Manny Machado will have to be Duke Snider for a while. We really should be talking about him more. He deserves better. But the conversation is about the other two for a good reason. Since the 2012 birth of T v. H. v. M, Machado has been hurt (not really his fault), and his plate discipline has been less desirable compared to the other two (probably his fault). He's also in the middle of a wretched slump. Which will happen. But like the other two, we're starting to see baseball encroach on what had been delightful, uninterrupted fairy tale, in which our hero arrives at an early age and just gets better, and better, and better, never slowing, never stopping.
Please note that this all isn't meant to disparage any of these excellent players. The point is that we didn't see the injuries and slumps as tangible realities back in 2012. They were all speculative puffs of mist we got out of the way because we knew they should be mentioned, and then we got right back into the wishcasting. Two years in the future, they have a little more heft.
The answer is still the same: Trout, obviously, followed by Harper and Machado. If it was obvious in 2012, it's even more obvious now. But there's a new contender: the field. As in, if you make the argument between Trout, Harper, Machado, and any of the 1,000 baseball players to debut between 2012 and 2017, the answer just might be the field. At the risk of hyperbole and poor prognostication, it's probably the field. There will be a player who has the Jeter-like ability to stay mostly healthy for 20 years, combined with an eerie refusal to decline like normal folks, and he'll have the best career out of anyone over the next two decades.
If you have to choose between Trout, Harper, or Machado having the better career, choose Trout. Still. Until further notice. That's not really controversial. But if you have the choice between Trout, Harper, Machado, or getting to pick from a pool of 1,000 players with the benefit of hindsight, the latter might be the smart choice. It wasn't in 2012, perhaps, but these brief flickers of baseball reality can mess with your brain.
The column is the same, and the answer is the same, but two years of baseball and baseball-related jerkishness can make us all think just a little bit harder about the question.