Not even 21 years of age, Manny Machado has been the Orioles’ most valuable player through the first 47 games of the season. He leads the American League with 21 doubles, is hitting .330 and has played sterling defense at the hot corner, giving Orioles fans a glimpse of an exciting future.
Machado's blazing start to the 2013 season has prompted comparisons to two other highly-touted young players: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Two weeks ago, MASN's Steve Melewski made a statistical argument that Machado does, in fact, belong in the same conversation with the two, and the debate has intensified in the time since.
I disagree with the comparison while also believing there is a very good chance Machado retires having had the best career of the three. In fact, you couldn't give me good enough odds to bet against Machado.
My first issue with the comparisons most have made has to do with methodology. Melewski and others have compared Machado to Trout and Harper with a straight statistical comparison based on production through the player's first X games. For Machado, the sample encompasses his entire career (at the time, 84 games); for Trout, 84 games is only two-fifths of his career.
Melewski noted that Machado had accrued a .284 average, 12 home runs, 47 RBIs, and 20 doubles in his first 84 games, which is pretty good -- better than Trout and Harper, even. Interestingly, it is also comparable to future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, who had a .260 average, 13 home runs, 48 RBIs, and 17 doubles in his first 84 games. Thus, it should follow that Machado is just as good as Jones; otherwise, the methodology is flawed. And I doubt anyone would say that we can make the claim that Machado is Jones' equal through 84 games, or just over half of one season.
Secondly, the comparison glosses over just how good Trout has been thus far in his career, partially by limiting the sample. Last year, Trout posted 10.9 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference, the 23rd player-season of 10-plus WAR since 1950, the first since Barry Bonds in 2007, and the most since Bonds in '02. Most astonishingly, it was by far the most valuable season by a position player in his age-20 season dating back to 1901. The previous owner of the honor was Alex Rodriguez, who posted 9.3 WAR in 1996.
Even if you limit the scope to just offense, you struggle to find a way to keep Trout out of conversations involving historical greats. Among players younger than 21, Trout's 169 adjusted OPS last year ranked ahead of Ty Cobb's 167 in 1907. Other players on the best-at-20 list include Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and Ted Williams.
Overall, Trout has amassed 13 WAR in his young career and he is only 21 years old. He is the 13th player to do that. He is joined by Williams, Mantle, Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, A-Rod, Kaline, Ken Griffey Jr., Cobb, and Ott.
WAR is not a perfect stat. No matter which version you use, it is based on some subjective data which can skew one's conclusion. However, one does not simply luck his way into 10.9 WAR. In looking at the list of all players to have posted 10+ WAR, the only non-Hall of Famers are Bonds, Sammy Sosa, A-Rod, Al Rosen, Rico Petrocelli, and Trout. Bonds and A-Rod are slam-dunk Hall of Famers, PED issues aside. You can make a case for Sosa. Rosen started playing every day late in his career and then suffered back problems. Petrocelli's 1969 season is the one outlier, a good player having a monster season (.297, 40 home runs, 98 walks while playing shortstop).
By the way, we haven't even talked about Harper yet. The case is stronger for Machado against Harper than against Trout. However, Harper -- minor injuries and all -- is having a significantly stronger offensive showing thus far. The biggest point against Harper is that he has had 50 fewer plate appearances in 2013, forcing the Nationals to use inferior players in his stead due to arguably poor decisions to make risky catch attempts in the outfield.
As mentioned, there is a strong possibility Machado has the best career of the trio when all is said and done. However, this is Machado's first full season and he has just 400 plate appearances. If he finishes the 2013 season anywhere near as well as Trout finished 2012, then the comparisons can be made. At the present moment, though, they are premature and misguided, often based on convenient trimming of sample sizes and narrowly focusing on one aspect of the game. Mike Trout had an out-of-this-world season last year. Expecting any other player to match that is simply unfair.