After just a single month of play in the 2017 Major League Baseball season, we already begin to see familiar faces across leaderboards as numbers begin to stabilize. Of course, Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames and Mitch Haniger are all still in the Top-10 in the fWAR department, but there are many names that are already in their expected places.
You don’t even have to go very far to see it, either. In fact, baseball’s two wunderkinds— Bryce Harper and Mike Trout — are No. 1 and No. 2 in 2017 position player fWAR to date. To me, this is funny to see. The fact that the two best baseball players on the planet (let me hyperbolize for a second because many, many others have a good case) are already playing like the two best players on the planet after just a combined 229 plate appearances which tells you something about their abilities.
Seeing Harper and Trout sit calmly at the top of this list makes me happy. It makes me feel like we are finally entering an era where the two players who were expected to create dinner table arguments will finally do so. It reminds me of this Sports Illustrated Kids cover (yes, I used to read that) that already made me ponder the question then: who will be the better player?
And now, with the two seemingly pacing the rest of the league after the start of this marathon that we call baseball, I will stir the pot, add to the intrigue and hopefully give you all some food for thought about what I believe is a new phase of the Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper debate.
Where we have been: All Trout
So yes, Trout has been the far better player so far. Over his career, he’s already accumulated 49.7 fWAR and already has passed some Hall of Famers in career WAR. A reminder: he’s just 25 years old.
Oh, yeah, he’s also been the league’s most consistent player, according to Five Thirty Eight. Not only has Trout been the best (or one of the best) player in Major League Baseball, he has been consistently great over the course of his six full seasons in the league. Since his true rookie season in 2012, Trout has never posted a wRC+ lower than 167, hovering between 167 and 172. He led the American League in that metric in 2012, 2015 and 2016. He’s been either leading the league, or close to leading the league in wRC+, every year since 2012. Trout also won the MVP award in 2014 and 2016 (despite that 2016 team finishing in fourth place and winning only 74 games). It’s no wonder why Trout has been compared to Mickey Mantle.
On the Harper side of ‘where we have been’, he has certainly been good....just not ‘Troutian’. And, let’s be honest here, it’s pretty hard to be Mike Trout. However, when Harper was constantly compared to Trout throughout his minor- and major-league careers, seeing Trout blow past him in performance has to be even just a bit disheartening. But, let’s not be lost on Harper, either.
He’s just 24 (most players his age are still in the minor leagues) and also has six full seasons in MLB. He’s a four-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year, and the 2015 NL MVP during a year in which he hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 bombs and a 195 wRC+ over 654 PA. He actually beat out Trout that year in fWAR, by a half of a win. But, unlike Trout, Harper has not found the same consistency in his game, so he’s ‘only’ been worth 25.1 fWAR. An alleged shoulder injury kept him from posting a repeat performance in 2016, but he still managed to post a solid .373 OBP and a 112 wRC+.
Where we are now: Deadlocked
‘Where we are now’ is an awfully subjective sub-headline, but I mean this season. Literally, right now. And, since Harper has posted a 2.1 fWAR and a 223 wRC+ through the season’s first month vs. Trout’s 2.0 fWAR and 220 wRC+, it’s pretty hard to pick out a distinguished “winner” in this debacle for the 2017 season.
While it’s still early, how cool would it be if Trout and Harper each won their respective MVP awards this season? The one year Harper won his, Trout finished second to Josh Donaldson, even though he easily could have won. If both Trout and Harper capture the AL and NL MVP awards this season, then we could crown the 2017 season as when they both hit their peaks at the same time. This would happen just over a half-decade past when people were predicting them to be baseball’s next big things. This season would be forever known as the year Trout and Harper finally became the two best players in the Majors, just as we all predicted.
That’s the pace that has been set after one month. That’s why I’m, in a way, bringing this debate to the forefront of our collective minds. Trout and Harper are finally doing what we all thought they would do: be the best players in the Major Leagues. And, it only took one month into the 2017 season to already distinguish themselves in the eyes of the metrics.
Where we are going: Who knows?
Trout obviously has a leg up. He’s practically doubled Harper in career fWAR, and it would take an epic collapse in order for Harper to ever catch up.
But, if we take out Trout’s out-of-this-world head start and pretend that their careers are starting over now, then who is going to be the better player? It’s not fair to do this, I know, but I’m genuinely curious to see if Harper has turned a corner and is ready to establish himself with more consistency. His April statistics certainly show that he could be ready to do so, granted he stays healthy.
Then, there’s Trout, who is doing things like he always does, to the point where it has become the expectation. When Harper has a good month, it feels like everyone freaks out, but when Trout has just as good of a month, we think, ‘well, that’s Trout’. In reality, we need to freak out more about Trout as well, but establishing him as a face of baseball is a different discussion for a different time.
All I know is that I’m excited to see what the future holds for both.
Lastly: Why compare?
People love comparisons. They establish a winner, one that is better in their minds. It gives them a peace of mind. Is this ice cream flavor better than that one? Is this movie better than the book? The list can go on.
But, with Harper and Trout, why do we need to compare? Both are phenomenal baseball players. Why can’t we just enjoy them for who they are, with all their idiosyncrasies, both on- and off-the-field?
So, even after writing this whole piece, I urge you: let’s just love Michael Nelson Trout and Bryce Aron Max Harper as baseball players. Let’s hope they continue to do what they do because it’s pretty fun to watch.
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Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.