Mike Trout is back just in the nick of time. The Angels superstar, who missed six agonizing weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb, returned to action Friday, getting five hits and a walk during L.A.’s weekend series against Tampa Bay.
During Trout’s absence, his bizarrely marginalized place as baseball’s consensus best player was compromised further by the Homeric emergence of New York’s Aaron Judge, and the H-word is capitalized not because it’s referring to long balls but rather because Judge appears to be part of an ancient Greek ballad. No one — I think — is actually suggesting that Judge has replaced Trout as baseball’s best player. But it can be argued that, in the hardball zeitgeist, Judge has garnered more attention than Trout has in the past three months or so. It’s tough to quantify something like that.
Trout’s return is timely for the Angels because they are one of many teams mired in the tepid race for the AL’s wild-card slots. Trout on the field equals more wins, and one of the unsung tales from the first half of the season is how well L.A. held up in his absence. But the return is timely for the rest of us because it sets up a rare meeting between Trout and the only real candidate to take his best-in-baseball crown: Washington’s Bryce Harper. (Sorry, Mr. Judge — put up a few more half-seasons like this one, and we can revisit the subject.)
Are Trout and Harper rivals? It’s hard to see them that way. They play on opposite coasts in different leagues. They’ve yet to meet in a World Series. During their time in the majors, the Angels and Nationals have played just once — an otherwise forgettable three-game series in April 2014. Neither player homered and Harper went just 1-for-11.
Yet it’s natural to pit them against each other. A quick Google search of the terms “who better trout harper” yields 478,000 results, many of which are legitimate articles pondering which player is better, or which player you’d take first in a draft. Without reading of any of those, let me spoil the conclusion: It’s Trout.
A few years ago, it might have been otherwise. Harper, 24, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16. Trout was drafted at No. 25 in 2009. Since then, Trout, 25, has enjoyed arguably the best start to a career by anyone ever. His 48.5 WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com) through age 24 is the most ever, and in 2017 he’s well on his way to his best season yet.
That’s not to say the comparison is ridiculous, and if anyone will supplant Trout’s ongoing reign as baseball’s best player, it will be Harper. Two years ago, at age 22, Harper put up 9.9 WAR, second-best ever at that age to Ted Williams, who had 10.6 WAR in 1941, the year he hit .406. This season, if Harper maintains his current pace, he will be high up on that list of best-through-age-24 players, perhaps cracking the top 20.
The chief difference between the two to date is consistency. Harper’s OPS+ ranked No. 24 in the National League last year. Many believe the downturn was due to physical problems that Harper wouldn’t quite admit. Still, Trout hasn’t had a down season, not once he established his supreme level of play. He has put up one monster season after another. What other player could miss six weeks and still not be ruled out of the MVP race?
Throughout history, we’ve had great baseball debates like this. Ty Cobb vs. Honus Wagner. Hank Aaron vs. Willie Mays. Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio. Ted Williams vs. Stan Musial. Albert Pujols vs. Miguel Cabrera. Albert Pujols vs. Barry Bonds. And on and on. In this case, it’s not yet a great debate. It might not even be the right debate. Because what I’d like to know is this: Why pick one when we could pick both?
Harper has put any lingering questions about his 2016 season to rest. Trout is a year older than Harper, roughly speaking. So when you’re comparing the career treks of the two, Trout’s edge is dulled if you consider that. Age-wise, you’re always comparing Harper’s current season with Trout’s previous season.
Through that prism, Harper has had a better OPS+ in his age-19 and age-22 seasons. The early-season leap Trout made this year might come for Harper next year. Trout earns the edge in most accounts in the nonhitting facets of the game. While his baserunning is certainly more valuable than Harper’s, it’s worth noting that Harper has a better career mark in defensive runs saved, albeit while playing a generally less demanding defensive position (right field, while Trout plays center field).
We’ve noted that Trout is on a best-ever kind of pace. What, then, does it mean if Harper emerges as an equal? What if we don’t just have Superman, but Batman too?
Would that mean we are seeing the best tandem of hitters we’ve ever seen in the game at the same time?
Let’s run through the top 12. Why 12? Because a top 10 is standard, but I wanted to write about No. 11, and No. 12 deserves to be written about. Anyway, after we get through this list, we’ll get to my broader point.
Note: The list identifies the last year for each three-year total of weighted runs created (wRC). For example, for No. 11 on my list — 2004: Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols — 2004 denotes the wRC total from 2002 to 2004. For further details, see the accompanying inline: How the best were determined.
12. Early 1930s: Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson (unknown combined 3-year wRC)
The ranking here isn’t important because we have no data to make the calculations, but the likely peak period for the overlapping parts of their respective careers probably would have fallen in the first half of the 1930s. There is no doubt in my mind that this duo, widely considered the greatest hitters in Negro Leagues history, would rank high on the list. Or perhaps at the very top of it.
11. 2004: Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols (301.8 combined three-year wRC)
The end of late-peak Barry and the middle of Pujols’ decadelong peak. It was a good time in the National League.
10. 1999: Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell (311.6)
Here are a couple more National League sluggers who typified the era when they were at their best.
9. 2002: Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds (317.8)
Another Bonds appearance. As for Giambi, there was a reason his departure from Oakland led to both the book and movie versions of “Moneyball.”
8. 1941: Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (322.2)
As great as this rivalry was, think of what it would have looked like if World War II had never happened and both players hadn’t lost three years.
7. 1949: Ted Williams and Stan Musial (323.75)
I have always loved this interleague rivalry, mostly because their careers spanned roughly the same expanse of time and because they had such wildly different personalities. Are you a Ted or a Stan?
6. 2017: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper (324.2)
Would we be doing this piece if they didn’t show up on the list? Keep reading, though, because this ranking is only the jumping-off point.
5. 2001: Sammy Sosa and Jason Giambi (324.4)
Yes, it was an unusual time in baseball, and I’m sure this pair will elicit a certain response in many.
4. 1920: George Sisler and Babe Ruth (338.2)
And so we begin the Babe Ruth portion of the proceedings, starting with a pairing from the years before Gehrig came along. What’s remarkable is that Ruth went directly from being a star left-handed pitcher to the very best hitter in the game.
3. 1936: Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx (349.9)
This is the year after Ruth retired, which shows how long Gehrig was an all-time great hitter in his own right.
2. 1921: Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth (368.1)
Ruth’s 1921 season is on the short list of the greatest ever, and this three-year stretch from 1919 to 1921 was the period when he redefined the game. He overshadowed everyone, including Hornsby, who, speaking of short lists, is high on any list of best-ever right-handed hitters.
1. 1927: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth (394.2)
This is the combined output Trout and Harper are shooting for — if not this season, then in the seasons to come. Only for the full effect, they would have to join forces in the same lineup. Can you imagine?
If we “fix” Harper’s 2016 season and restore Trout’s missing weeks, this power duo will belong on any list of contemporaneous historical tandems. However, I have left out a crucial factor: Both remain at ages that suggest the best may lie ahead.
With that in mind, here’s one more quick list. These are the youngest combined ages of the 73 tandems in our group: 1. Trout-Harper, 2017 (48.6); 2. Williams-DiMaggio, 1941 (49.4); 3. Willie Mays-Mickey Mantle, 1957 (51.9).
Because of World War II, Williams and DiMaggio never got a chance to fully capitalize on that budding rivalry, though what they ended up with was certainly worthy of the annals. However, we are just entering the meat of the Trout-Harper era, which may end up worthy of a few epic poems, too. It may, in fact, become the most memorable epic yet.
In the meantime, whom in the MLB office can we talk to about tweaking the interleague schedule so we can see this matchup more often?