Sometime soon, Bryce Harper will be hittin’ bombs and blowin’ kisses as the Washington Nationals’ right fielder. But could “soon” actually be this spring? The most hyped prospect in draft history might have actually exceeded expectations at age 18 during his first pro season, hitting .297/.392/.501 with 17 home runs between the Low Class-A South Atlantic League and the Double-A Eastern League in 2011. And, according to Amanda Comak of The Washington Times, Nats manager Davey Johnson seems eager to get Harper’s 80-grade power in his lineup:
“It’s just: is he the best candidate out there?” Johnson said. “Is he going to make our club stronger? I’d like another left-handed bat in the lineup. Our right fielder is probably going to hit seventh in the lineup and I’d like to have a more balanced lineup. So, I’m open for him competing for a spot.”
“I think this guy’s pretty mature. I don’t look at him age-wise like you probably should. But I think he’s definitely going to make the spring very interesting… I said (last) spring, you guys were asking me, ‘When do you think Harper is going to get there?’ I said ‘I think he’s going to have some quality at-bats in the big leagues when he’s 19.’ He’s 19.”
Harper breaking camp with Washington is far from certain. It would start his arbitration and free agent clock, setting up a situation where he could be a Super Two and then a free agent in his mid-twenties. The Nationals would also have to be comfortable with Jayson Werth in center field, or go acquire a CF and keep Werth in a corner. But, barring injury, it’s almost guaranteed that Harper reaches the majors as a teenager at some point in 2012.
What kind of performance could we reasonably expect from the eyeblack-wearing, Sports Illustrated-posing hitting prodigy? The Hardball Times’ Oliver projection system shows that Harper’s 2011 line in the minors translated to a .776 OPS in the big leagues. For 2012, Oliver forecasts a .793 major league OPS. The MLB average OPS was .720 last year, so it’s clear that Harper projects as a quality MLB batter at an age when most prospects are in low A Ball.
It is exceptionally rare for a player to see significant playing time in majors as a teenager, much less hold his own. If Harper were to match or out-OPS the league average, he would join a highly exclusive list of teenage batters who have managed to do so. Since 1901, just 26 teenagers have received 300+ plate appearances in the majors. Of those 26, only 10 posted an adjusted OPS of 100 or better:
That’s a rather impressive list, no? Three Hall of Famers in Mel Ott, Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle, and another future first-ballot Hall of Famer in Ken Griffey Jr. Sherry Magee, Cesar Cedeno and Edgar Renteria had quality careers, too, while Tony Conigliaro‘s was cut tragically short. Let’s take a closer look at the company Harper could soon keep to get an idea of how these teenage prodigies perform in subsequent years.
The lefty-swinging, power hitting outfielder quickly established himself as one of the game’s pre-eminent sluggers, ranking third in the majors behind Chuck Klein and Babe Ruth with 42 home runs as a 20-year-old. He improved his OPS+ to 165 that year, and he followed that up with 25 homers and a 150 OPS+ as a 21-year-old. Ott remained a force at the plate through age 36 and retired with 511 HR and a 155 OPS+. That’s tied for 18th best all-time among hitters with 5,000+ PA, with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio.
A local boy standing 6-foot-3 and sporting The Good Face, Tony C might have received Harper-esque hype if he had played in today’s media-saturated era. Conigliaro led the American League with 32 homers as a 20-year-old, posting a 133 OPS+, and the outfielder then had a 122 OPS+ and 28 HR at age 21. We’ll never know what he was capable of doing in his prime years: A Jack Hamilton fastball shattered his left eye, and his career, the next season. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that even sure things are subject to the caprices of the baseball gods.
Despite, erm, “makeup issues,” The Georgia Peach dominated in the early 20th century. Tyrus led the league in OPS+ nine straight seasons after his age-19 year, including a 167 OPS+ at age 20 and a 169 OPS+ as a 21-year-old. Harper’s game isn’t similar to the speedy Cobb’s, but he’s another point in favor of prodigious teenage hitting being a sign of greatness. Cobb’s 168 OPS+ places ninth all-time.
Magee also had some run-ins that would have headlined ESPN if it existed in the days of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson — he punched out an umpire, demanded a trade after being passed over for a player/manager role with the Phillies and got in trouble for playing basketball during the off-season. But on the field, the outfielder/first baseman possessed decent pop for his day and had a 134 OPS+ at age 20 and a 135 OPS+ at age 21. Magee remained effective through age 33 and retired with a 136 OPS+.
I don’t think we can learn much about Harper through Lush, a two-way player who shelved his bat to become a middling lefty pitcher for Philly and St. Louis. Harper has a Howitzer of a right arm, but a conversion to the mound could be filed in the “not bloody likely” column.
The Commerce Comet became an elite hitter at age 20, putting up a 161 OPS+ as a 20-year-old and a 143 OPS+ at age 20. He then became an all-time great by increasing his homer totals from the twenties to the 30s-40s and using his speed to swipe bases at a high percentage clip. Harper has some sneaky speed (26 steals, 7 CS), though he’s also 6-3, 225 pounds and might have been taking advantage of inexperienced pitchers not holding runners tight. Though injuries cut into his playing time in his 30s, Mantle finished with 536 HR and the sixth best OPS+ (172) of all-time
A power-speed dynamo who received some unfortunate Willie Mays comps, Cedeno didn’t live up to that (who can?) but the outfielder had a fairly productive career. Cedeno struggled as a 20-year-old (96 OPS+), but came back to post a 162 OPS+ at age 21 and retired at 35 with a 123 OPS+.
Ken Griffey Jr.
The Kid followed up his Rookie of the Year age-19 season with a 135 OPS+ at 20 and a 155 OPS+ at 21. He had low-twenties HR totals his first few years in the majors, but then morphed into one of the game’s great power hitters with seven 40+ homer seasons from age 23 to 30 (he broke his wrist in 1995 or it might have been eight in a row). While any discussion of Junior inevitably includes a sigh and an “if only he could have stayed healthy,” he ranks fifth all-time in homers (630) and his 135 OPS+, partially dragged down by holding on too long in his late 30s, is 75th all-time.
While he’s struggling to get a job this winter, Renteria has enjoyed a long, productive career. But there aren’t many parallels to Harper here — Renteria was a shortstop who had value through contact hitting and a decent glove at a premium position.
A 6-foot-3 first baseman/outfielder, Kranepool was never a hulking power hitter. He hovered around average at age 20 (95 OPS+) and 21 (100 OPS+) yet continued to receive a good deal of playing time into his early 30s. “Steady Eddie” retired with a 97 OPS+ in nearly 6,000 PAs. James Loney has a poster of Kranepool hanging in his locker.
If Harper meets his Oliver projection and the run environment remains similar to the last couple of seasons, his OPS+ would rank close to that of Griffey. As the above list shows, posting an above-average OPS+ as a teenager is usually a sign that a hitter is headed for the top of the league leader boards and possibly Cooperstown. There are exceptions, but it’s hard to foresee Harper getting drilled in a freak accident or deciding he wants to pitch. If a batter can stay above water as a teenager (and few doubt that Harper can), he’s likely headed for stardom in short order.
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