At that age, Ted Williams drove in 145 runs, and Mel Ott 151. Alex Rodriguez, Ty Cobb and Al Kaline hit .358, .350 and .340, respectively, and all won the batting title. That may have been A-Rod’s best season ever. Frank Robinson hit 38 homers, and Tony Conigliaro led the American League with 32.
Vada Pinson and Mike Trout scored 131 and 129 runs. Mickey Mantle finished third in the MVP voting. Pudge Rodriguez and Johnny Bench were all-stars and won Gold Gloves. Miguel Cabrera’s cleanup slugging (12 postseason RBI) helped the Marlins to a world title. Jimmie Foxx, Arky Vaughan, Rogers Hornsby, Orlando Cepeda and Ken Griffey Jr. hit .328, .318, .313, .312 and .300, respectively.
And at 20, Babe Ruth went 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA as a southpaw pitcher for the world champion Red Sox and hit .315 when they let him bat.
Before you say, “Harper can’t possibly do anything like that,” just look at his numbers for the last 41 games of last season. He hit .327 with 12 homers, 37 runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.045. How good is 1.045? It is exactly the OPS that both A-Rod and Teddy Ballgame had at 20. Harper most likely won’t be that good. But a year ago, who thought he would be the best teenager ever, edging out Ott (who hit 42 homers at 20)?
Regardless of generation, when great players appear in the big leagues as regulars at a young age, they tend to blossom very quickly, and some of their very best years arrive at 20 or 21. Yes, others, such as Robin Yount, get to the big leagues early but need years to become top hitters. And plenty of the best players in history are invisible at 20 or even at 24.
There’s no rule, but there certainly is a pattern not many seem to grasp.
FanGraphs offers four sets of Sabermetric “projections” for every player this season, based on age, minor league numbers and especially previous big-league totals. So, naturally, because they are looking at a wide range of talent levels, they get modest answers for Harper’s 2013 production.
All four have nearly identical predictions. Bill James projects Harper will play 154 games and hit .272 with 65 RBI. The average of the four gurus is 153 games and a .274 average with 24 homers, 90 runs and 73 RBI.
Come on, man, give me a break. Last season, Harper spent the Nationals’ first 20 games in the minors and still hit .270 with 22 homers and 98 runs scored after his promotion. If healthy, Harper might pass those “projection” numbers in August.
Harper and Manager Davey Johnson, who has installed Harper as his No. 3 hitter, have a better sense of the lay of the land. As soon as he got to spring training, the now-230-pound Harper said, “There are [personal] goals in my head, but I’m not going to share them. People will think I’m crazy.”