Comparing Bryce Harper and Mike Trout is like comparing Snickers and Twix. They’re both pretty darned good. Which one’s better? For the moment, Trout. At least according to our BBTN 100 rankings, in which the Los Angeles Angels outfielder again holds the No. 1 spot. That noise you hear? That’s the sound of Harper breathing down Trout’s neck more loudly than Darth Vader at the finish line of an ultramarathon.
Given that Harper is a former first overall pick who was selected 24 spots higher than Trout (albeit a year apart), not to mention a freakish talent who has been on the national radar since before he was shaving, the underlying assumption was that the Washington Nationals' best player would eventually develop into the best player in all of baseball. That time appears to be upon us.
First, let’s get the caveat out of the way: Any discussion of Trout vs. Harper has to take durability into account. In 2013 and 2014 combined, Harper missed 106 games due to various injuries, while Trout missed just 10. Last year, Harper’s third full season in the big leagues, he was finally able to stay healthy and appeared in a career-high 153 games. As you might have heard, the results were pretty good. Assuming the reigning National League MVP can stay whole again this season, it’s hard not to envision a change atop our leaderboard.
As good as Trout is -- and to be clear, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be making hotel reservations in Cooperstown for, say, the summer of 2035 -- the numbers suggest Harper was better in nearly every facet of the game last year. From doubles to homers to walks to K-rate to batting average to on-base percentage to slugging percentage to OPS to WAR, Harper outdid Trout in pretty much every statistical category. That doesn’t even factor in defense.
To most casual fans, Trout probably seems like the better defender. Chalk it up to the speed. Or to playing center field. Or to his preternatural knack for scaling outfield walls and turning bombs into outs. Or to all three. But if you look a little more closely, advanced metrics suggest Harper is the better defender. For his career, according to FanGraphs, Trout has been credited with a total of 10 defensive runs saved. Meanwhile, Harper and his rocket arm have accounted for a total of 28 runs saved, despite playing about a thousand fewer innings. As for last season, Harper finished 14th among outfielders with 10 DRS. That’s twice as many as Trout's 5 DRS, which ranked 24th at the position. The scary part is that after he spent his first three seasons playing mostly left and center, last year was Harper’s first full season playing right field.
That’s the thing. When you look at Trout, who has been unfathomably consistent the past four years, you get the sense that he has already reached his potential, that what you see now, which isn’t all that different from you saw in 2012, is what you’ll get for the next decade or so. But when you look at Harper, both with the bat and the glove, you get the impression that he’s just scratching the surface, that before all is said and done, he could do things baseball has never seen before.
The obvious question, then, is that if Harper is so stinking good, why isn’t he already No. 1 on our list? The obvious answer: Because he has been that good for only one season. But if his 2016 campaign in any way resembles his 2015, the smart money says that a year from now, he’ll have leapfrogged Trout. I’ll even bet you a Snickers -- and a Twix.