In a sport deemed “boring,” “slow,” and generally talent-deficient, it sure seems as though nobody told a pair of 20-something superstars. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are the talented duo transcending the perception and the future of America’s pastime, every towering home run, every stolen base, every leaping catch at a time. Baseball has long needed a marketable star to re-energize an increasing local, aging, and dormant fan base; now they have two stars shining bright and shattering stereotypes.
This will be every bit of Magic/Bird, Brady/Manning, Ali/Frazier, Gretsky/Lemieux; This is Trout/Harper, and this is next 15 years of professional sports.
The No. 1 prospect at the time, Mike Trout was called up to the big leagues with high expectations. While his triple-A peers were, on average, nearly seven years older than he was, Trout hit .403 with a 1.091 OPS in just 93 at bats at triple-A Salt Lake City. It would have been reasonable for Trout, even at the ripe age of 20, to hit the ground running when he arrived with the Angels. In 135 at bats at the end of the 2011 season, Trout hit a mere .220.
However, in the next season, everything clicked. Boasting a .326 average, a .963 OPS and 30 bombs, Trout took the league by storm, running away with Rookie of the Year, finishing 2nd in MVP (wrongfully snubbed, in my humble opinion), and sparking bickering between the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) guys and the old-timer, curmudgeonly experts. Trout alone has not only transcended the term “5-tool player” but has also changed the discussion of statistics and how they are perceived.
But any way you wish to judge players, Trout is nearly flawless. An MVP award and the highest WAR in MLB since his rookie season, Trout is shattering the misconceptions that have plagued the sport since the steroid era. Boring? Try turning away when Trout steps in the box or scampers under a tanking line drive. Baseball players aren’t athletes? Trout sits in the pantheon of all professional athletes in terms of his combination of speed, size, coordination, and physique. He even reached 20 mph legging out a triple last season. Not marketable? Nike, Subway, BodyArmor, and many others seem to disagree. Trout is the complete package that the skeptics of baseball’s entertainment have long clamored for. If not for residing on the west coast and the other guy I’m about to talk about, Trout may be getting even more attention.
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‘The other guy’ is a phrase not generally mentioned when preceding Bryce Harper’s name. Harper has long been the golden boy; he’s brash and occasionally inflammatory, but his raw baseball skills have long been groundbreaking. The scary part is, Harper has begun to channel those raw skills and refine them.
The Lebron-like hype – and therefore intense criticism – has chased Harper since his days at Las Vegas High School and his lone season at the College of Southern Nevada. For that reason, the young star has been under undue pressure to perform right away. He debuted as a mere teenager (age 19) to expectations of immediate MVP and all-star caliber play. His power was dubbed an 80 (on the scouts’ scale of 80). By any other standards, the .270/.340/.817 stat line with 22 homers and 59 RBI at the ripe age of 19-20 would have signaled a clear path to stardom. But though he won Rookie of the Year, there was an underlying sense of disappointment. Maybe he wasn’t baseball’s messiah, ready to bring Barry Bonds power back to the game.
Injuries plagued Harper the next couple of years, and though he showed flashes of what he could become, some began to write off the outfielder as merely “above-average.” After 51 games in 2015, any suggestion of anywhere near average for Harper would be utterly ludicrous. His 18 homers and 44 RBI lead and is second in the MLB, while his slugging percentage, OPS, and OBP lead the majors. He’s the clear-cut favorite for MVP and strikes fear into every opposing pitcher who dares throw him anything worth hitting. That anyone would consider writing off a 21-year old for not reaching his full potential is, and always has been, asinine. Sorry to those rival fans who share a distaste for his helmet-throwing, fiery disregard for what a baseball player should look like or act like. The new Harper is here, and he’s here for good. Bryce Harper is the change MLB needs, and he’s coming to a ballpark near you.
The Bird/Magic comparison, however, falls flat in two important aspects. First, they can hardly be considered rivals to this point. Having never played in a playoff series – and not likely to consistently do so given the parity in baseball – the two haven’t been able to establish a rivalry. And neither seem too intent on manufacturing any such rivalry. Harper told ESPN.com, “I still believe Trout is the best player in the game, hands down.” Whether he believes it or not (wouldn’t bet on it) misses the point. Baseball needs Trout. Baseball needs Harper. But a Trout/Harper rivalry would become the greatest baseball has ever seen.
Secondly, the Bird/Magic comparison seems to lack because, well, there is no baseball Jordan; nobody to forever undoubtedly claim to have been so far and away the greatest player of all-time. While we look back on the 80s as the time owned by the two greats, Jordan will always supersede them in basketball history. Harper and Trout very well may be the Jordan that baseball fans have long been clamoring for.