Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have a wonderful symmetry going. One hits from the right side of the plate, the other from the left. One plays on the West Coast, the other in the East. One appears uncomfortable in media scrums and lapses into cliché-speak at the drop of a rosin bag. The other feels right at home in the spotlight and finds a way to entertain with words as well as deeds. And that’s no clown observation, bro.
At the end of the day, they go together like surf and turf, or doubleheaders and nostalgia. While it’s premature to declare them the next Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle—or even a new-age equivalent to Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds in the 1990s—they’ll suffice until a more dynamic tandem comes along.
Of all the captivating storylines in baseball this season, from Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown to the startling resurgence of ball in Baltimore and Oakland, the long-term ramifications are most profound in Anaheim and Washington, D.C., where two precocious outfielders expedited the learning curve and staked their claim among the game’s elite.
The Angels went a disappointing 89-73 to finish out of the playoff picture, but Trout’s coming-out party was a sight to behold. He became the first player in major league history to surpass 30 homers, 45 stolen bases and 125 runs in a season, and the youngest player to steal 40 bases since a kid named Ty Cobb swiped 53 for the 1907 Tigers. Trout finished three runs short of Joe DiMaggio’s American League rookie record of 132 in 1936, and fell one steal short of joining Barry Bonds and Eric Davis as the third player in history to pull off a 30-50. At one point, Trout bagged 30 steals in a row without being caught.
OF THE YEAR
|2011||Jeremy Hellickson, rhp, Rays|
|2010||Jason Heyward, of, Braves|
|2009||Andrew McCutchen, of, Pirates|
|2008||Geovany Soto, c, Cubs|
|2007||Ryan Braun, 3b, Brewers|
|2006||Justin Verlander, rhp, Tigers
|2005||Huston Street, rhp, Athletics
|2004||Khalil Greene, ss, Padres|
|2003||Brandon Webb, rhp, Diamondbacks
|2002||Eric Hinske, 3b, Blue Jays
|2001||Albert Pujols, of/3b/1b, Cardinals
|2000||Rafael Furcal, ss/2b, Braves|
|1999||Carlos Beltran, of, Royals|
|1998||Kerry Wood, rhp, Cub|
|1997||Nomar Garciaparra, ss, Red Sox|
|1996||Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees|
|1995||Hideo Nomo, rhp, Dodgers|
|1994||Raul Mondesi, of, Dodgers|
|1993||Mike Piazza, c, Dodgers|
|1992||Pat Listach, ss, Brewers|
|1991||Jeff Bagwell, 1b, Astros|
|1990||Sandy Alomar, c, Indians|
|1989||Gregg Olson, rhp, Orioles|
AL rookie of the year? Trout sewed that one up by winning the rookie of the month award in May, June, July and August. In the process, he turned Yoenis Cespedes, Yu Darvish and other worthy candidates into innocent bystanders.
His all-around performance was stunning enough to put him right in the thick of the American League MVP debate with Cabrera, who won the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Traditionalists favor Cabrera, but Trout has garnered widespread support through a rare combination of offense, baserunning and superb defense in center field. Trout’s 10.7 wins above replacement (WAR) was the highest for a position player since Bonds posted 11.6 WARs for the Giants in 2001 and 2002.
Trout’s performance earned him another first, becoming the only player to win Baseball America’s Rookie of the Year and Major League Player of the Year awards in the same season.
“The most remarkable thing was the way you felt every day, because it was remarkable every day,” Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “To see someone of his age and experience level come up and play as consistently well as he did and be the guy who stirred it up. It’s fascinating that someone has the trait to be able stand up against the best players in world and overcome. Mike set a tone all year long. He played every day, every inning of every game. The electricity on the bases and the defensive prowess were tough to look past. I mean, every day.
“It was the ball you thought was going to drop in that Trout was there to catch. It was bringing back homers. It had to happen four or five times during the year. They weren’t just simple, ‘Jump up on the yellow stripe.’ It was two feet over the wall where it looked like his arm was going to disconnect from his body and then bringing the ball back. He put together a speed-power combination that I don’t know if we’ve seen in the game. It’s very rare that you have a guy with 50-stolen base potential and 30-homer power who goes out there and couples it with a .320-something average.
“And he handled everything with such an unusual degree of humility, it really stood out to everyone around him. There’s that old baseball adage, ‘He plays the game the right way.’ I would venture to say that every player who played with or against Mike or any staff that came across him felt the same way. You saw it when he made the All-Star Game and went into Kansas City and people were coming to see him—rather than vice versa. That’s kind of remarkable for a 20-year-old guy.”
Harper endured more bumps in the road and finished with a less gaudy stat line than Trout, but his performance was nevertheless impressive. His 22 homers were the second-most ever by a teenager, behind only Tony Conigliaro’s 24 with the Red Sox in 1964. Harper finished strong, with seven homers and a .330/.400/.643 slash line in September and October. He joins Mantle, Bert Blyleven, Andruw Jones and seven others on a list of 11 teenagers to appear in the postseason.
Harper, like Trout, has put a major imprint on the Nationals with his aggressive style of play and relentless energy. It’s natural to suggest that his veteran teammates would rub off on him. But he has also rubbed off on them.
“On groundballs to the pitcher, he’s going 110 percent down the line, sprinting through the bag at the end of it,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “It’s infectious. Now it’s not the exception. It’s the rule, and everybody’s doing it from the most veteran veteran to the youngest rookie.
“The energy he leaves on the field has kind of rubbed off on everybody in our clubhouse—and even the other teams, when they play against us and see guys bust it down the line. At first people thought it was fake. It was almost showboating to hustle like that. But Bryce has shown, because of his consistency in the way he does it, that it’s the only way he knows how to play.”
As scouts feel free to dream and Sabermeticians crunch the numbers, Trout and Harper display a magnetism that transcends statistics. Baseball has two newly minted superstars who play the game with passion, flair and an unyielding devotion to the fundamentals. Trout wins new fans with every leaping catch in center field and celebratory smile, and Harper matriculates at the Pete Rose-Derek Jeter school of non-stop hustle.
Red Sox special assistant Eddie Bane, who selected Trout with the 25th pick in the 2009 draft in a previous role as Angels scouting director, points to Trout, Harper, Cespedes, Will Middlebrooks, Jurickson Profar and a passel of good young pitchers as players who will set a standard for excellence and fan appeal in the game moving forward.
“It’s a nice time for another golden age in baseball,” Bane said.
Amazingly, both Harper and Trout began their seasons in anonymity, navigating the final step of the apprenticeship process in Triple-A. In a fitting coincidence, they both received their big promotions to the majors on April 27.
Trout started out in Salt Lake City after a spring that was interrupted by a viral infection and a shoulder inflammation. But the enthusiasm was already building in Anaheim based on an encouraging cameo in 2011. Trout hit only .220 in 40 games, but he averaged a hearty 3.96 pitches per plate appearance.
OF THE YEAR
|2011||Matt Kemp, of, Dodgers|
|2010||Roy Halladay, rhp, Phillies|
|2009||Joe Mauer, c, Twins|
|2008||C.C. Sabathia, lhp, Indians/Brewers|
|2007||Alex Rodriguez, 3b, Yankees|
|2006||Johan Santana, lhp, Twins|
|2005||Albert Pujols, 1b, Cardinals
|2004||Barry Bonds, of, Giants|
|2003||Barry Bonds, of, Giants|
|2002||Alex Rodriguez, ss, Rangers
|2001||Barry Bonds, of, Giants
|2000||Alex Rodriguez, ss, Mariners|
|1999||Pedro Martinez, rhp, Red Sox|
|1998||Mark McGwire, 1b, Cardinals|
“He’s not scared,” teammate Torii Hunter said in March. “That’s what I like—the heart he has. We would see this guy battling, fouling balls off and getting to 3-2 counts. He’d have a 10-pitch at-bat and strike out and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s impressive.’ We didn’t look at it like, ‘He struck out.’ We were thinking, ‘Wow, this dude battled.’ “
The Angels were 6-14 when they released veteran Bobby Abreu and put out an all-points bulletin for Trout, who was hitting .403 in 20 games in the Pacific Coast League. Trout hit .324 in May, and took charge when Hunter left the team for two weeks to tend to a family situation and Vernon Wells went down with a thumb injury.
The kid displayed a knack for producing big moments. The Angels made a trip to Camden Yards in late June, and Trout made a jaw-dropping catch to steal a home run from J.J. Hardy with dozens of friends and family members from back home in New Jersey watching from the stands. He went 9-for-17 with a 1.409 OPS against Felix Hernandez, and homered twice in 17 at-bats against Darvish. Bane, in hindsight, figured the kid might hit .285 with 15 homers and 20 stolen bases. Trout blew past those numbers in a heartbeat.
“I would personally look and see, ‘Oh God, Mike is facing Felix Hernandez tonight. I wonder what he’s going to do?’ ” Bane said. “And then he’d hit a home run or you’d see a quote from Felix saying, ‘Geez, that guy does things I haven’t seen before.’ He isn’t feeding off the bottom of the pool. He’s hitting the big guys.
“More than the numbers, he energized a lot of baseball. Everywhere you’d go people would say, ‘Who’s that nut who jumps up and down and you can see the joy on his face every time he hits a triple or dives into third?’ Just the look on Mike’s face when he jumped over the fence and caught that home run in Baltimore. Bryce was the same way. These kids really like baseball and enjoy playing it.
“Mike’s teammates were good for him, but he was good for them too. They saw that baseball could be fun again. It’s like in Little League when you went out after the game and got a free Coke or something. He makes it look like that.”
Two displays of all-around play from Trout stand out for Dipoto. In September, the Angels were driving for a playoff berth when they hosted the Tigers in Anaheim. Trout led off back-to-back games with homers off Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, and Los Angeles swept the series.
Then there was the speed. During the Angels’ final home series against Texas, he hit a routine grounder to the left of Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre that didn’t turn out to be quite so routine. Beltre took a mini-pirouette and threw a rocket across the field, and the call could have gone either way at first base.
“Beltre put his hands up and he laughed, like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me. That’s a play I make every day and I throw somebody out by 25 feet,’ ” Dipoto said. “It was a 5-3 like any other 5-3. But Mike made that close every time. His teammates appreciated that—and frankly, so did the opponents.”
Dipoto, a product of Toms River, N.J., was asked if he has a special affinity for Trout because the Angels center fielder is a fellow Garden State native. Not exactly.
“He could be from the moon, and I’m all-in,” Dipoto said.
Harper was playing for Triple-A Syracuse in late April when he got the call. Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder necessitated a trip to the disabled list, and Nationals left fielders were hitting .097 as a group. Even though Rizzo conceded that the timing wasn’t optimal, the Nats decided to throw Harper into the deep end of the pool.
Amid considerable hoopla, Harper hopped a plane and spent the better part of 5 ½ hours seeing his young life flash before his eyes. Upon disembarking in California, he exchanged hugs with his family and watched his mother shed tears of joy. When Harper arrived at Dodger Stadium for his first game, manager Davey Johnson penciled him into the lineup in center field and No. 7 in the batting order. Harper responded with a double off Chad Billingsley and a sacrifice fly.
“There was that moment where you realize, ‘Wow, I’m going to the big leagues,’ ” Harper said. “It was everything I had ever wanted in my whole life, and it was just the beginning of it. It was a humbling experience going into a clubhouse with all these great major leaguers, playing against the LA Dodgers and seeing Don Mattingly in the other clubhouse. You got Vin Scully up in the booth. What a great place to open. We were only 4 ½ to 5 hours from Vegas, and all my friends and family were there.
“I just remember walking into Davey’s office and him greeting me and saying, ‘Keep doing the things you’ve been doing. Keep playing the game you’ve been playing your whole life and don’t change.’
“That was all I really needed to hear to get going.”
Unlike Trout, who kept plugging away each day amid an atmosphere of smiles and goodwill, Harper had to feel as if he had a target on his back. Literally and figuratively.
When Cole Hamels drilled him between the shoulder blades with a fastball in the first inning of a 9-3 Phillies victory on May 6, it was a welcome-to-the-big-leagues statement. After advancing to third base on a single by teammate Jayson Werth, Harper stole home to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. Rizzo unloaded after the incident, calling Hamels “gutless” and “fake tough,” but Harper remained above the fray.
“He did a great job of neutralizing it right from jump street,” Nationals teammate Mark De Rosa said. “He could have been a typical 19-year-old. Probably a lot of us would have wanted to say some things in that situation, but he didn’t. He handled it like a pro and it went away.”
Now and then, Harper found a way to make news for reasons other than his bat and glove. During a trip to Cincinnati in May, Harper smashed a bat in anger after a strikeout and gave himself a gash and a welt beside his left eye. In Toronto, a reporter asked if he planned to commemorate a victory with a “celebratory Canadian beer.” Harper stared a hole through the questioner and deadpanned, “That’s a clown question, bro.” To Harper’s surprise, Under Armour emblazoned the phrase on a T-shirt, and a piece of lingo that he had tossed around so casually with his old College of Southern Nevada teammates had become a national catchphrase.
Harper experienced a blip on the national stage with an early baserunning gaffe in the National League Division Series against the Cardinals in October. But for the most part, he was adept at stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples and harnessing his aggressiveness for maximum impact on the bases.
On the other side of the ball, Harper missed some cutoff men while trying to throw 300-foot tracers to home plate. But he earned enough of a reputation with that gun of an arm that baserunners learned to stay put when the ball came in his direction.
By the end of the regular season, Harper’s all-around game portended a future that made his veteran teammates shake their heads in wonder.
“It’s different for him,” De Rosa said. “When I got to the big leagues, it was about proving I belonged, and sticking around, and kind of finding my niche and grinding it out. For him, he’s got Hall of Fame on his mind. I didn’t think like that when I came into the league.
“In his mindset, that’s his goal. That’s what he’s gonna try to accomplish. He wants to be one of the best players ever. That’s a big burden to carry, but what he’s doing at 19 is pretty unbelievable. I look forward to being at home 10 years from now and seeing where he’s at. I really do.”
Last year, Trout and Harper were playing catch in the outfield as teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. Now they’re friends and texting buddies who revel in each other’s success. If things work out according to plan, they’ll spend the next 15 years hanging out at the All-Star Game each July.
“He’s an unbelievable talent,” Harper said of Trout. “He’s got that sixth tool—that mentality of playing ball and taking that mental side and playing the game he knows how to play. He has a really long career ahead of him. I’m happy for the things he’s doing this year.
“I can’t wait until I’m 20.”
Let the record show that Harper turned 20 on Oct. 16, and Trout turned 21 all the way back on Aug. 21. They still have a few things to learn on the way to fulfilling their promise. But when the talent is this profound, the next pleasant surprise is just another lineup card away. The new faces of baseball have figured it out in a hurry, as bookends in a new golden age.
|Highest WAR Totals By Position Players Since 2000|
|Note: Walk totals (BB) do not include intentional walks|
|Most Home Runs In A Season By A Teenager|
|1||Tony Conigliaro||LF||Red Sox||1964||404||.530||24|
|4||Ken Griffey Jr.||CF||Mariners||1989||455||.420||16|
|Note: All players in age-19 seasons|
|Most WAR Runs Batting By A Player In Age-19 Season Since 1947|
|1||Tony Conigliaro||LF||Red Sox||1964||444||69||24||52||2||34||.290||.354||.530||20|
|4||Ken Griffey Jr.||CF||Mariners||1989||506||61||16||61||16||36||.264||.329||.420||6|
|Most WAR Runs Batting By A Player In Age-20 Season Since 1947|
|Note: Walk totals (BB) do not include intentional walks