Since first stepping into the spotlight, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has almost singularly been compared to one other current generational talent, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout.
Harper has been the Ben Affleck to Trout’s Matt Damon, with Orioles infielder Manny Machado relegated to the third wheel, an afterthought in the debate over baseball’s two best young players. (Some might peg Machado as Casey Affleck in this analogy, but that would be severely understating Machado’s talent.)
With Harper’s monster season last year, it finally solidified his deserved spot among the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring young athletes in the sport — especially after he’d been repeatedly voted as the most overrated player in Major League Baseball prior to the 2015 season. But Machado, playing in Harper’s mid-Atlantic shadow in Baltimore, continues to be overlooked when discussing truly elite ballplayers.
Machado’s 2016 performance has been an impressive right hook — both literally and figuratively. Through the first two months of the season, Machado’s 3.4 wins above replacement is tied with Trout for the highest in baseball and quite a bit ahead of Harper, who sits at 2.4 fWAR– the 16th-best mark in baseball. While Trout is signed through the 2020 season, Machado and Harper will hit the open market following the 2018 season. And given Machado’s performance this year, it may be time to wonder if he could possibly receive a more lucrative contract than Harper.
Many factors need to be considered when looking at Machado-versus-Harper, and not all of them happen within the confines of the baseball diamond. Harper is clearly the more valuable marketing asset. He’s unabashedly outspoken, has a head of hair that would make a supermodel envious, and is the type of person even your out-of-touch-with-sports relative has an opinion about. Oh, and he’s been in the collective conscious since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at just 16 years old.
Even just last month, Harper received the largest-ever endorsement deal for a baseball player, according to Darren Rovell of ESPN. The deal with Under Armour is set to last for 10 years and includes stock in the company. To the casual baseball observer, Harper is an infinitely more recognizable name and face, an aspect that cannot be discounted when it comes to his value to a franchise.
Machado, on the other hand, has an endorsement deal with Air Jordan. The difference here is that while Harper’s face is plastered on billboards across the country as one of the faces of Under Armour, Machado is, to a certain extent, just another guy for Jordan Brand and Nike.
From a performance standpoint, the debate isn’t as black and white. Machado has made major strides at the plate this year, hitting for more power (.295 ISO in 2016 vs. .216 ISO the year prior) while hitting balls harder — generating 39.9 percent hard contact compared with a career average of 31.8 percent. His current pace at the plate puts him in line to hit 43 home runs with 63 doubles — which would be up from his 35 homers and 30 doubles from last season — and he currently sits in the top-five among all position players with a .408 wOBA, sitting behind David Ortiz, Daniel Murphy, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mark Trumbo.
But to discount Harper’s offensive prowess would be a mistake. As the slick-haired outfielder showed last season, he can put up years that only the likes of Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Ted Williams matched at 22. Despite hitting .249 for the season thus far, there’s a reason why Harper receives treatment at the plate formerly only reserved for the likes of Barry Bonds. The dude can absolutely demolish baseballs.
Where Machado really differentiates himself from Harper is his wizardry with the glove. Early in his career, Machado provided most of his value on defense while churning out slightly above-average production at the plate. More frequently than not, Machado evokes another legendary Orioles player, Brooks Robinson, with his absurdly quick hands, amazing range and strong arm.
“[Machado]’s as good as anybody playing over there,” Robinson told MASN in 2013. “He has great hands, great instincts.”
Machado’s defensive ability manifests itself in value statistics. Since debuting in the majors in 2012, he ranks first among 44 qualified players in FanGraphs’ Def, a measurement that shows a player’s defensive value relative to league average. He’s also first among all third basemen in UZR/150, which measures the number of runs above or below average a fielder is per 150 games since stepping on a major-league diamond. And for the cherry on top, Machado’s 63 defensive runs saved ranks just behind Arenado for second overall since 2012. His ability to play shortstop, which he showed during J.J. Hardy’s stint on the disabled list, only increases his value.
Harper’s track record in the outfield suggests he’s an average fielder. Since 2012, Harper ranks 41st in Def among 130 qualified outfielders. Additionally, he ranks 19th among outfielders in UZR/150 since 2012 with his 34 DRS ranking 10th of 61 qualified outfielders. While he certainly has a great arm, Harper doesn’t rack up a ton value through his glovework in the field as much as Machado, especially at a position where solid defenders are a dime a dozen. Machado plays a position where defense is highly valued and where offensive stars are a premium.
Both players, of course, have had injury troubles. Machado has had issues with both of his knees and has played more than 82 games in a major league season just twice in his four full years of big league experience. Harper, on the other hand, has missed fewer games than Machado, but played more than 139 games in 2015 for the first time since his rookie season.
Dave Szymborski wrote in May that Machado wholly deserves to be in the same “rarefied air” as Harper and Trout. According to the ZiPS projection system, Machado ranks ahead of Harper and behind Trout for projected rest-of-career WAR.
If I ask ZiPS to re-project the remainder of several players’ careers (the table to the right), that extra bit of value from Machado playing shortstop puts him smack-dab in the middle of Trout and Harper, rather than fighting Carlos Correa for fourth place.
And where would a 79.6 WAR, when added to the 20.4 WAR he has already put up, land Machado in history? Second place among shortstops, behind Honus Wagner, just edging out Cal Ripken Jr. Let’s not forget that projection systems aren’t known for being exuberant, so when ZiPS is projecting a result this astounding, it’s a good idea to take notice.
If both players were to hit the open market today, Harper would probably still land the bigger contract. But the question isn’t the no-brainer it might’ve been just two months ago. Yes, Harper is the bigger name and has a more established track record as one of the best players in baseball, but Machado is quickly closing the gap between them. The disparity between Machado and Harper isn’t as big as it was just 365 days ago and it’s hard to discount the impact the Orioles star brings to the game with his glove at two positions where young offensive stars aren’t growing on trees.
Given how much money is rumored to be on the table — potentially the first two $500 million contracts in American sports history — the chances are pretty strong both Machado and Harper hit the open market following the 2018 season. And if Manny Machado continues to improve offensively at the clip at which he’s been moving the last few years, the Orioles third baseman could be receiving an even larger payday than his fellow young baseball prodigy.
Machado is no longer Casey Affleck to Trout and Harper. He very well could be the Leonardo DiCaprio of the group.