When my grandfather passed away last spring, the family had to clear out and sell the wonderful little house in northern Virginia that he had lived in (with my grandmother, until 2008) since sometime in the sixties. Among the few things that I ended up with, being the baseball guy, was my pick of whatever I thought was salvageable of a large, worn stack of sports magazines that had belonged to my dad and uncle -- primarily SPORT Magazine, with some Sports Illustrateds, Sporting Newses and Athlon Baseball Season Previews mixed in -- with dates ranging from 1963 to 1969.
I ended up keeping most of them, and I've been saving them in a stack in my basement, sure I would want to look through them and write about them eventually. And I'm still sure I will, but what brought them to mind just now was this: when they focused on baseball (as most issues did, with much less competition in those days), their covers were dominated by two men. Two men who, by that time, were old news.
Start with any given issue of SPORT (or so it seemed to me -- what follows is an exaggeration, but seriously, I'm not far off; check the actual list here), and Willie Mays might be on the cover. The next month, it was probably Mickey Mantle, then the month after that, it could be Mantle again. Then maybe there's a month where it's Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax or something about football or boxing. Then Mantle again, then Mays again. Mantle and Mays were plainly the two stars in all of sports at that time. And the bulk of the magazines I have are from 1966 through '68, when both were fifteen-plus-year veterans in their mid-thirties -- Mantle was essentially done, and Mays was pretty clearly slipping.
I bring this up because Jeff Sullivan has written a characteristically good piece over at SBNation, titled "Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, And What's Sadly Fleeting," in which he likens baseball fandom's current relationship with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout to the early, "discovery" stages of a romantic relationship, and -- more illustratively, I thought -- to something called the Three Bite Rule:
The first bite you have of something is the best. The second bite confirms the first bite, the third bite is to be savored, and then it all comes down. After three bites, whatever it is isn't special anymore. The rule seems a wee bit simplistic, but, in general, it's easy to believe.
It is, and I think in most cases, it's right on. Great new things seem to fascinate us less because they're great than because they're new, and once we're used to them, they could be just as great as ever, but they become a lot less interesting. And that's probably going to be true for Trout and Harper, too.
Probably, but not necessarily. And I'd like to think about another possibility for a second. What if it's Mantle and Mays all over again?
It seems to me that one of the biggest, most unfortunate effects of what has foolishly been dubbed "the Steroid Era" in baseball is that it's made us forget what it's usually like to follow the careers of really elite, all-time-great talents. Almost every single player who might have qualified for that label over the past 20 years has eventually become diminished in one way or another. Barry Bonds is the most obvious example, of course (and maybe the only one who was a "really elite, all-time-great talent" in the same way Mantle and Mays were), but a lot of his greatness went largely unappreciated; for most of his career, Ken Griffey Jr. was considered the definitive player of the era. But it's a pretty similar story with McGwire, and Sosa, and Clemens. It's not just steroids, either; Griffey himself was derailed by injuries. A-Rod has the steroid thing, but even before that, he was "diminished" to some degree by the various perceived flaws in his character (fair or not) and his reputation as a postseason choke artist (decidedly unfair).
And the reality is, most players, even great, Hall of Fame players, aren't that great for that long. The luster wore off of Pedro Martinez at roughly the time he stopped being PEDRO MARTINEZ (which was really only 1999-2000) and became just a pitcher (a truly great one for a few more years, but one of several, not the one). Greg Maddux was really only gotta-see-him good for those four consecutive Cy Young years; most of his tremendous value comes from his being simply very, very good for a ridiculously long time. Randy Johnson's starts were always an event, though some of the shine probably came off with the turmoil from his years in New York.
Most of our other love affairs fade even more quickly, many because they were never that great to begin with. Most top prospects are like that (and Harper and/or Trout may well be too). Even the super-hyped prospects that develop into really good players -- Mark Teixeira, for instance -- are rarely quite as good as they look when people first start raving about them; the fascination fades because there's just nothing quite that fascinating about them. It probably also helps that players change teams much more often than they used to (Mark Teixeira, for instance), so there's rarely a single fanbase that keeps pumping a guy up.
Then again, counterexamples:
(1) Sullivan refers to Stephen Strasburg in his piece, noting that he's just as amazing now as he was when he captivated the country two years ago, but that now he's "old hat." I don't think that's true. I know I still try to watch as many of Strasburg's starts as I can, and I've seen a lot of talk this season about how thrilling his stuff is. He's certainly less of a story than he was, but I think that's a function of Harper and Trout being even better (and not simply newer) stories. Without them, I think Strasburg is as much of a sensation now as in 2010. And:
(2) I don't think most people ever lost that whole dumbstruck, wow-can-you-believe-we're-watching-this thing with Albert Pujols, at least until last year, when he seemed to come back to the pack a bit (the pack of other great players, that is). Even if he's more or less human now, he's still a huge star, someone ESPN or MLBN is going to mention every single night that the Angels play, and I expect that will remain true for the rest of his career, no matter how it goes. Even Pujols, though, has been dogged by age questions and "PE"D whispers, the two darkest shadows of the skeptical era we're apparently on our way out of.
What happened, or seems to be happening, with Pujols is pretty much what happened with Mantle and Mays, only not to nearly the same degree (Pujols, after all, is in the "best 1B" conversation; Mantle and especially Mays got into the "best ever" conversation). They were crazily good at young ages, could do everything, and did it on big stages. They did it well enough and memorably enough for long enough that even as their skills finally, inevitably faded, that sense of wonder never did; you'll find people who clearly remember seeing Mantle at age 34 playing first base with basically no knees, or Mays at 42 stumbling around center in a comically off-looking Mets uniform, and they'll readily admit that he wasn't anything like the player then that he had been, but if it's the only time that that person got to see him, he or she will talk about it in just the same star-struck way that people right this moment are talking about Harper and Trout. Mantle and Mays kept making the covers of magazines and what-have-you right to (and beyond) the very end, because they kept on being the players that fans couldn't wait to read about (and in a genuine, excited way, not the tabloid schadenfreude that so often gets A-Rod in the news). Mantle and Mays were walking demigods, and were well above the Three Bites Rule.
Harper and Trout, or at least one of them (but both would be so much more fun), could be that, too. Probably won't be -- almost certainly won't be -- but could be.
And really, the Mantle-Mays/Harper-Trout parallels are a bit startling. Mantle and Mays were both rookies in 1951; Mantle was in his age-19 season, Mays his age-20. Harper is 19 and Trout 20, as you probably know, both technically in their rookie seasons -- though they're over a year apart, while Mantle and Mays were closer to six months. All four players have been centerfielders, and in both pairs, the older of the two appears to be the more defensively gifted and more likely to stay and excel there long-term (in fact, Harper's already played more right than center). In both cases, the younger appears to be the slightly better hitter, while the older has stolen base titles in his future. In both cases, the younger had been hyped as a golden boy from well before day one, while the older took the sport somewhat by surprise (Mantle was hailed as the deserving heir to Joe DiMaggio, while the Dodgers passed on signing Mays not long before his MLB debut because he couldn't hit the curveball).
They're superficial comparisons, but there's an eerily large number of them to be made. In the end, they're totally unfair. Trout and Harper are still much more likely to go the way of most young phenoms and, exactly as Sullivan expects, become "old hat" in a sense -- because while it seems clear that both are very good, they probably aren't the two best players in the game, and even if they are, they probably won't stay the two best players year in and year out for more than a decade. But they could, and they could do it in the same, breathtakingly exciting way in which they're doing it right now, and the way Mantle and Mays did it for years: by doing simply everything there is to do, by being players you feel like you're not safe taking your eye off of at any time, whether they're at the plate or in the field or on the bases or in the on-deck circle. They could dominate the baseball news (in a good way) for the next twenty years, even if they're only great for the next ten or twelve or fifteen, because they could be just that damn fun to watch at their best, as fun to watch as they have been for these past six or seven weeks.
We've forgotten that that's the sort of thing that can happen, because the media's and fans' reactions and overreactions to the most recent era have (wrongly, insanely) taken Bonds and most of the rest of its greatest heroes from us, and because, Pujols aside, it hasn't really happened in the timespan encompassing most of our lives (or at least our memories). But it can happen. It might. Trout and Harper, like Mantle and Mays, might just go on astounding us just as much on the fourth bite, and the fortieth, as they have on this first one. Sullivan's view of things is very well-reasoned and certainly more realistic, but this one (to me) is a lot more fun, so it's the one I'm sticking with for just as long as it feels like a possibility.
Scotty- thanks for the comment and the compliment. Around here, we subscribe to the "outs are really bad" school: all else being more or less equal (as it was), a 40-point difference in OBP pretty much seals the deal. The wRC+ difference -- 171 to Mays' totally pathetic and terrible 157 -- backs that up.
I DO think you can make cases that raise some doubt -- the NL was almost certainly the better league back then, thanks in large part to the AL's hesitance to integrate, and Mays' numbers probably get dragged down by his longer decline phase -- but I'm pretty confident that Mantle was at least a slightly better hitter.
And on Harper vs. Trout, please give me some credit. I haven't watched anything other than a live sporting event on ESPN in at least a year or so (and I've only been able to stomach a couple of those). I certainly didn't say Harper was better than Trout, I said he was probably a slightly better <i>hitter</i> than Trout; the defense, position, and baserunning things you mention as being in favor of Trout are all explicitly mentioned in one way or another in this post.
I mean, the age difference is pretty significant at this stage, and your assertion that the "experience difference" cancels it out doesn't really cover it. Also, from what little I know of minor league environments, Trout had easier parks to hit in (in the PCL, certainly). Their current MLB stats could flip on their head entirely between today and tomorrow. I say Harper is probably the slightly better hitter because that's the general consensus among scouts and similar people who are much better at evaluating these things than you or I are -- the stats don't (and can't, really) enter into it at all at this point, and whatever they're saying on ESPN certainly doesn't.
@Bill_TPA I do a bit of scouting and I'm not going to lie, I trust my own evaluation more than I do others and I'd expect nothing different from anyone else. Trout had an easier environment n AAA, however, in AA he was in the most pitcher friendly park in debatably the most pitcher friendly league in all of minor league ball and still hit over .320 with power and speed.
As for the experience difference, I do believe that cancels it out. Could you say a junior in high school taking college classes is more prepared for college than a senior in high school taking high school classes? At this stage, age does play a big factor, but experience and performance play just as large of factors.
And if you're going to factor in environment, then you might as well factor in that Trout plays the majority of his games in extreme pitcher friendly parks (Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle) whereas Harper plays the majority of his in very hitter friendly parks like Washington, Philadelphia and Citi Field (if you buy into them moving the fences in closer as a legitimate argument to stimulate offense, which I do not necessarily).
To me, if I'm judging both players based on their abilities with the bat in hand, I'd say Harper has more power (obviously, though numbers suggest otherwise so far), but I'd worry that his swing can get a little long and the torque generated through his load and hips may decrease as he build more muscle (possibly, though unlikely decreasing his flexibility). With Trout, I'd say He offers more plate coverage and has shown an innate ability to adjust quickly. He's lethal on anything low on the zone just as Harper is lethal on anything belt high or higher. With Trout's speed I'd say he's a better bet not to slump as much either and hit for a higher average.
So from a pure scouting point, I could not justify saying Bryce Harper is the better of the two offensively. Does he have the higher upside? Yes. But I could certainly justify saying Mike Trout is the better of the two offensively.
Again, I don't want this to interfere with the article, because I found it extremely entertaining to read and I cannot emphasize that enough.
Not the point of the article, but calling Harper a slightly better hitter than Trout is simply ridiculous, and calling Mantle slightly better than Mays is debatable at best. Their 162 game average (yes, they did not play 162 for a portion of their careers), Mays averaged the same number of HR's, 5 more doubles, 8 more SB and BA 4 points higher and an OBP 40 points lower. Nothing there outside of the OBP suggests Mantle was a better hitter than Mays.
In the same line of thought, Bryce Harper hit .256 and .250 in AA and AAA before the majors. It seems HIGHLY unlikely that his .303 BA is sustainable given his struggles in the high minors. Whereas Trout hit .326 and .403 in AA and AAA. You could use the age argument as much as you'd like, but when you consider that Harper had been playing against collegiate level or pro caliber baseball since age 16/17 and Trout's first taste of this type of competition came at 17/18, the age argument is nullified by the experience argument.
Furthermore, Trout is hitting .50 points higher than Harper is, in a much less hitter friendly environment, AND is playing elite defense at a premium position AND is the stolen base leader despite playing one month in AAA. If anything, right now Harper isn't slightly better than Trout, Trout isn't even slightly better than Harper, Trout is MUCH better than Harper. We'll see how it plays out for the rest of their careers.
Again, I realize this wasn't even the point of the article, but it just irks me that most people just think Harper is a better hitter, just because ESPN spends 15 minutes a night talking about him versus 3 minutes talking about Trout. This is a WONDERFULLY written article otherwise.
@ScottyAllenLAAI For what it's worth on Mantle/Mays, 40 points of OBP is <em>enormous</em>. It's not like Mays made it up in power, either, because they finished with identical SLGs for their careers. Mays was the better player and has more career value because of defense and longevity, but Mantle was, by a pretty clear margin, the better hitter. (Which always raises the unspeakably sad question of whether Mantle would have been the best player of all time, beating Ruth and Mays and everyone else, by a mile, frankly, had he not jacked up his knees as early as high school, and famously in right field as a 19-year-old. And that's before we get to the drinking.)