Last night, Bryce Harper collected the first major award of his major league career, and the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year most likely will have company on the Harper mantle some day. How soon is anyone’s guess, but there’s a decent chance it won’t be long.
Harper joined the select group of players who earned ample playing time at age 19, and he surpassed most of them. His total of 4.9 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com, has never been topped by a teenage position player. He played a standout center field, ran the bases like a demon and slugged 22 home runs for the 98-win NL East champs. He turned 20 on Oct. 16.
Harper’s encore could be even better. Two of the best seasons of the wild card era – Alex Rodriguez’s 1996 and Mike Trout’s 2012 – came from 20-year-olds who had gained experience at 19. Harper, in hitting .270/.340/.477 with 18 steals, blew both A-Rod’s and Trout’s age-19 seasons out of the water. The majors overwhelm future superstars when they are 19, but it could not keep down Harper.
In the spring, Harper’s debut will cede to his encore. Because so few 19-year-olds have thrived like Harper, it is hard to find a proper comparison for how he might perform. If Trout is any guide, he may well win the National League MVP. Being 20 years old has traditionally not been a hindrance for players who burst into the league at 19.
In the past 25 years, eight position players have totaled at least 100 plate appearances at 19 and then played a full season at 20. Four of them were named to the all-star team, and five of them posted at least three wins above replacement. Rodriguez finished second in the MVP vote at 20, and Trout could win the MVP on Thursday.
The league has shown it can adjust to Harper, evidence by his swoon coming out of the second half. But then, Harper has shown he can adjust to the league. Down the stretch he became more patient and calmer during his at-bats. He stopped chasing breaking balls over the outside edge of the plate.
And then he became one of the most destructive forces in the National League. From Aug. 17 until the end of the regular season, Harper hit .327/.384/.660 with 12 homers in 179 plate appearances. As former third base coach Bo Porter was fond of saying: Harper made a habit his entire life of playing against older competition and finding a way to be the best player on the field.
In his final games as a 19-year-old, Harper left a lasting impression from a historic season and made you wonder what might come at 20.
And here, if you are wondering, are the eight hitters from the past 25 years who have had reasonable playing time at 19 and then played a full season at 20, with their slash line (average/on-base/slugging) and WAR, per Baseball-Reference.
Edgar Renteria: .277/.327/.340 3.1
Ken Griffey Jr.: .300/.366/.481 5.0
Andruw Jones: .231/.329/.416 3.2
Mike Trout: .326/.399/.564 10.7
Alex Rodriguez: .358/.414/.631 9.2
Adrian Beltre: .275/.352/.428 3.6
Ivan Rodriguez: .260/.300/.360 2.1
Justin Upton: .250/.353/.463 0.7
The Nationals may well win a second straight major BBWAA award tonight, with Davey Johnson seemingly the favorite to win NL Manager of the Year. He’s up against co-finalists Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy.