On Monday, Harper became the first everyday player to win rookie of the year for his performance as a teenager. He deserves it. Right pick, even though his seven-point margin over 16-game winner Wade Miley of Arizona in the National League race was narrow.
Including his throwing arm, speed to run down balls and aggressive-bordering-on-nuts base running, Harper had perhaps the best all-around season ever by a teenager. But he’s also lucky he plays for Davey Johnson, who might be named NL manager of the year on Tuesday.
It would be hard to imagine a better match than the Washington Nationals’ confident, outspoken old manager, nearly 70 years old, and a brash extroverted young player, now 20, to face what will be fair, yet almost insane, expectations for Harper next season.
Johnson was also the manager of the only pitcher ever to win rookie of the year for his teenaged exploits: the Mets’ Dwight Gooden, who fanned 276 in 1984. The next year, with sky’s-the-limit demands on him, Gooden went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA. With the New York media and fans demanding “more . . . more,” Doc produced it.
Can Harper? We’ll see. But be glad Davey’s next to him. Kryptonite to hot rookies is the sophomore jinx. The cure may be confidence squared. In Johnson, Harper has a unique mix of teacher, critic and booster.
Johnson has called Harper “maybe my favorite player ever” for his ferocious, uncompromising style. If any young, potentially great player ever needed such a staunch experienced backer, it’s probably Harper. Why?
Now that Harper has done dazzling teenage deeds, including score 98 runs despite playing just 139 games while amassing 57 extra-base hits, he will suddenly move to an entirely different scale of measurement. And it could be a shock to anyone’s system.
So many of those 20- to 22-year-olds became most valuable players — or batting champs or home run kings — within just two years of being rookies of the year that comparisons are not only going to be inevitable, they are also going to be appropriate. But they will be staggeringly difficult to match.
Mike Trout’s amazing season at age 20, for which he won the American League award Monday, just sets the comparison bar higher for Harper. Bryce and Trout are buddies, and Harper never shies from measuring himself.
Since the rookie award began in 1947, some of baseball’s greatest players have won the award at extremely young ages, from 20 to 22. But despite their youth, they were already close to their prime.
Players such as Johnny Bench, Albert Pujols, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray were nearly fully formed stars when they won it. Pujols hit .329 with 130 RBI. Robinson had 38 homers. Derek Jeter hit .314 for a World Series winner and Evan Longoria hit six postseason homers to help the Rays to the Series. And this year, Trout hit .326 with 129 runs and 49 steals.