Wake up. Pour coffee. Type "Bryce Harper and Mike Trout:" ... Think for a minute. Put a word or several words after the colon. Think for another minute. Or, who am kidding, just start typing. Look over 1,000 words. Go on with day. Fall asleep. Wake up. Pour coffee ...
That is what it was like to write about baseball in 2012. All everyone wanted to read about was Trout and Harper, Harper and Trout. Luckily, that's all anyone wanted to write about. They were the the age of college underclassmen, and they were doing amazing things way before their time.
Nice. But, seriously, that number surprised me, even as I set out to look for a gaudy number to make a point. That's a search for the exact phrase "start a team with," and there are more than 77,000 results. Those results don't include "start a franchise," "pick one of," "you're a GM," or, "hey, dummies, pick one," either. With very limited, specific verbiage, we have tens of thousands of people talking about whether they would start a team with Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. And three years later, the question is back in vogue, as Harper is finally disassembling the National League the way he was predicted to.
This comes up now because I've noticed that some fans and writers have picked up the red velvet ropes and made a bigger VIP area. Here's one tweet/article combination:
Pederson may belong in the same conversation. Carlos Correa keeps texting that he'll be there soon. Wil Myers left a voicemail that got cut off. Giancarlo Stanton hit his phone over the fence and broke it. Manny Machado left the conversation to use the bathroom and fell down the stairs. Jesus Montero used a decades-old version of Mapquest and went to the wrong house in a different city. Yasiel Puig is somewhere in the back, setting stuff on fire and dancing because he feels like it.
OK, maybe that's a little too much fun to have with one turn of phrase, because we all know what "in the same conversation" means, and it's not outlandish. There's a spectrum of good-to-great for young players, and it makes sense to place the best young players on that spectrum. Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant are phenomenal talents, absolutely sensational. There's no questioning that. They're on that spectrum, and they're on a far end of it.
I've seen Pederson more than Trout and Harper combined this year, and he's a stunning player. His defense is top-tier, the right combination of blazing speed and unteachable instincts. He has ungodly power, yet he swings as if he has Ben Revere's power and needs every last scrap of bat speed to get a ball over the fence. One of these days, he's going to collide with Yasiel Puig in the outfield, and liters of machismo and self-assuredness will be ejected and sprayed all over the fans in the first three rows. Both players will get up, act like nothing happened, and continue doing good baseball things.
Bryant is a treat, too, but the crazier thing might be that Addison Russell has a legitimate argument at being the superior prospect. And have you seen what Kyle Schwarber has done in the minors since he was drafted by the Cubs? All three players have Cubs fans giddy. Heck, they have me giddy, and I have no rooting interest in the team. These super-youths are making it a fun time to be a baseball fan, and that's underselling it.
But Trout and Harper are different. Right now, they're in their own conversation and people aren't even eavesdropping. Here's a two-part explanation of why:
Harper had the age, now he has the production
When Harper won the Rookie of the Year in 2012, he was 19. Considering his tools, scouting legend, and draft pedigree, he would have been the No. 1 prospect in baseball if he had hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 homers in Class-A. That's a guess, but it's an educated one. If he had performed that well in the upper minors, he would have been an easy No. 1. As is, he did that in the majors against the best pitchers in the world.
His only crime is that he didn't get exponentially better in front of our eyes. He also shaved off 100 plate appearances in each of the following seasons because of injuries, and that didn't help the hype. But he was excellent right away as a teenager, and now he's entering the supernova part of his career. When teenagers do that well in the majors, they usually become stars who produce star-like numbers for a long time. Now we have those numbers.
That's the argument for Harper to be in a two-player conversation. He was so young, his performance hinted at something more. We have that something more. Look at Bryce Harper.
Trout had the production and the age, and he still has the production
Trout's adjusted OPS, by season:
Total number of OPS+ seasons over 160 from Alex Rodriguez: three. Mike Schmidt had three. George Brett had two, as did Roberto Clemente. Trout's on his way to a fourth at an age when most Hall of Famers and All-Stars are still getting established. Trout is seven months older than Pederson, for example. He's four months older than Bryant.
Harper is younger than all of them, of course, which is why it was still OK for wait for his production to match expectations. Trout doesn't need an age disclaimer. He's steady, steady, steady, and that steady just happens to be otherworldly.
I remember years ago, when the Cubs had the big three of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, an anonymous scout told a reporter that he thought Zambrano was going to be the best pitcher of the three. It made me laugh out loud, and I assumed the scout was some sort of hyper-contrarian loudly proclaiming that his favorite band's EP was the real album of year. Except, you know who had the best career of the three? Zambrano.
Which is to say, in 10 years, we might look back at this era and know that Bryant and Pederson absolutely did spend the next decade as a part of that conversation. They might even surpass Trout and Harper, and one of them might be the preeminent baseball player of his generation. But we're still waiting to see their first extended slumps, how they'll react to the league reacting to them. We've already seen that with Trout. We've seen it with Harper, to the extent that people were asking about him going to the minors and keeping a straight face, just last year. Now he's on the other side.
The other youngsters? Maybe they'll never face that. But they probably will, especially considering their high strikeout rate. And until they do and make it out clean, the Trout-Harper conversation is closed. Those two are still unique in a way we haven't seen in a long, long time. They came in with the advantage of age, and now they're thrilling us with their contributions. The other players can join in eventually, but they'll have some serious work to do.