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Baseball’s Most Unproductive Debate

Pablo Martinez - AP

Mike Trout has been better than Bryce Harper, no matter how many times we try and debate it.

Every sport has a quintessential rivalry between two of its great players: Federer-Nadal, Magic-Bird, and so on. Baseball has Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, two young superstar players who have graced the sport with their talents in the last several years. There have been a number of parallels in their careers, so naturally the baseball world has taken to this narrative. With Harper off to a sizzling start this season, the discussion is likely to be rekindled. But the rivalry has largely been one-sided, as Trout is clearly the one on top.

Trout and Harper each had their first full season in 2012, and each won Rookie of the Year in their respective league. Trout was just 20 years old at the time, while Harper was a year younger.


Since then, Trout has far and away been the better player. He led all AL position players in WAR from 2012-2016 and finished in the top two in MVP voting for five straight seasons. He was on his way to the best season of his career in 2017 until a thumb injury sidelined him for nearly two months. Even then, he was one of the best players in the league, finishing fourth in MVP voting. There really isn’t a hitter who can rival what he’s done in that span.



Harper, on the other hand, has been streaky throughout his career. After a few successful years to begin his career, he was unproductive in 2014. He followed that up with one of the best seasons of any player in recent memory. His 2015 season’s 1.109 OPS is the highest single-season OPS since Albert Pujols in 2008, and one of the highest this century for players not named Bonds. While his next couple of seasons were good, they certainly were not MVP-worthy.



It would be hard, if not impossible, to argue that Trout isn’t the better player based on the numbers. He’s produced five MVP-caliber seasons, while Harper has really only produced one. His career WAR is nearly double that of Harper, and second all-time for his age behind Ty Cobb. Trout could probably make it into Cooperstown at this point in his career; Harper still has a long way to go.


There have been a number of bad takes debating which player is better. A lot of bad takes. The media loves to string together this head-to-head narrative as if they are competing for the title of ‘Best Player In Baseball’. But this is largely an artificial storyline created by the baseball media, mostly for hype. 


Trout and Harper are only 26 and 25 years old, respectively. Barring a career-ending injury, they will probably keep playing for at least another 10 years. Since players tend to peak sometime in their late-20s, it’s possible that neither player has quite reached his ceiling.


So what will that peak look like for each player, and whose will be better? Harper’s 2015 was far and away his best, and some would try and make the argument that it was better than Trout’s best. He topped Trout’s career highs in home runs and OPS. His 197 wRC+ not only tops Trout’s highest full-season mark of 176, but also ranks among the top 10 in the last three decades:
Image titleThat’s some pretty good company to be in, and it shows just how incredible that season was. More importantly, it shows he has the potential for that kind of production. But even that season didn’t top Trout’s career high in WAR. Harper sat at 10 WAR in 2015, while Trout twice put up 10.5 WAR seasons (2012, 2016).


Trout on the other hand, has ranked in the top three in wRC+ since 2012:

YearwRC+MLB Rank
Trout 20121671
Trout 20131762
Trout 2014167T-2
Trout 20151713
Trout 20161701
Trout 2017 (114 G)1811
Harper has ranked in the top 30 in wRC+ just once in his career, though he would have in 2017 if he had the qualified number of plate appearances.


As for baserunning, Trout’s skills are also remarkably better than Harper’s. Beyond just stealing, Trout is a smarter, more heads-up baserunner. FanGraphs’ baserunning metric BsR combines steals with other metrics like pickoffs and double-play balls. It aims to put a number on runs produced by a player through good (or bad) baserunning. Trout’s career total is 47, while Harper’s sits just below 10. 


This article isn’t meant to bash Harper. He is a five-tool superstar who will probably end up in Cooperstown. He’s accomplished more at age 25 than a lot of players do in their entire careers. He is undoubtedly a generational talent. Not enough can be said about his dominance and grit. But he is just not on Trout’s level. It’s an inherently unfair comparison. He has not been anywhere near Trout’s level when it comes to consistency, and he has given no real sign that he will be. In virtually every aspect of the game, Trout has outperformed Harper. He has consistently been the best player in baseball in his career.


Harper is off to a magnificent start to 2018, meaning this debate is already being revisited. It will likely be revisited every time Harper goes on a hot-streak, whether for a week or for an entire season. It is a narrative that will likely never die. Nothing is impossible, but Trout has likely already settled this debate.


Note: Harper is set to be a free agent after the 2018 season. He will likely command the largest contract in the history of the sport. Trout, however, signed an extension with the Angels that takes him through the 2020 season. He will be a free agent at 29, and while he’ll be a bit older, will likely also receive a record-breaking contract, wherever he lands. New destinations for either player could affect their production in the future, for better or worse.


* All statistics came from Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and MLB.com

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

SQuiz
What player had the most WAR through their age-25 season?
Created 4/14/18
  1. Mike Trout
  2. Babe Ruth
  3. Mel Ott
  4. Ty Cobb

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