The two high schoolers took drastically different paths to top prospect status. Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, got his GED and went first overall to the Nationals in 2010. Trout, by contrast, was a New Jersey prep product who lasted until the Angels popped him 25th overall in 2009 — no SI cover for him. Their games are also a study in contrasts, with Harper possessing mammoth power befitting of a future home run king and Trout profiling as a Tim Raines-like leadoff hitter.
Differences aside, Harper (19) and Trout (20) are coming off historically good Minor League seasons. Harper blew up the Low Class-A South Atlantic League and held his own in the Double-A Eastern League, while Trout dominated the Double-A Texas League in between Major League stints. You have to go back to the ‘80s and ‘90s to find teenagers who tore up the minors like Harper and Trout did in 2011:
|Ken Griffey Jr.||18||California||1988||1.007||.705||143|
|Chipper Jones||19||South Atlantic||1991||.925||.669||138|
|Adrian Beltre||18||Florida State||1997||.967||.709||136|
|Bryce Harper||18||South Atlantic||2011||.977||.724||135|
So, who is the better keeper league pick? Part of that answer depends on the league format. But let’s delve deeper into Harper and Trout’s performance and the tools that matter in every league with the help of some of baseball’s best prospect-watchers. The experts are:
Ben Badler, Assistant Editor for Baseball America
Matt Eddy, Associate Editor for Baseball America
Conor Glassey, Assistant Editor for Baseball America
Marc Hulet, FanGraphs Minor League Analyst
Mike Newman, FanGraphs Minor League Analyst, owner of Scouting the Sally
John Sickels, owner of Minor League Ball
With stats, Minor League mavens and some historical research, we can get a better idea of how good Harper and Trout might become. Here’s a hint: scary good.
Few doubt Trout’s ability to hit for a high average. Opinions are more mixed on Harper, and how much contact he makes will determine whether he’s a best-in-the-game-type hitter or merely a great one who racks up lots of strikeouts along the way.
Trout punched out in slightly under 15 percent of his plate appearances in A-ball, 18 percent in the Double-A Texas League and 22 percent during his stint with the Angels as a teenager. Rough big league start aside (.220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances), many Minor League gurus see .300-plus seasons in Trout’s future.
Trout “has a very good batting eye, should contend for batting titles and has .400 OBP potential,” Badler says. Eddy thinks Trout could put together a string of years with an average around .300, and Sickels says that Trout could peak at .330 with some seeing-eye hits.
Harper struck out 20 percent of the time in the Sally League, and 18 percent at Double-A. Some think he could be a total terror at the plate, swinging through few pitches while popping a bunch over the fence, but others are more reserved about Harper’s contact ability.
Sickels is a believer, throwing out a .320 ceiling for Harper’s batting average. Eddy needs to see how Harper progresses against same-side pitching before he’s sold on his potential to hit for a high average.
“Harper has to prove he can hit southpaws to be a truly elite hitter,” Eddy says. “Teams today carry more lefty relievers than ever before…and left-on-left showdowns are at historically high levels.”
Harper thrashed right-handed pitching for a .317/.428/.560 line in 2011, according to minorleaguecentral.com, but he hit a comparatively tame .264/.321/.392 versus southpaws. He whiffed 17 percent against righties, and 23 percent against lefties.
“If he can keep the strikeouts down and bat .300ish,” Newman opines, ‘he might be the best fantasy player in the game.”
The mythos of Bryce Aron Max Harper’s power dates to the 2009 Power Showcase at Tropicana Field. The then-16-year-old Las Vegas prepster took a hellacious cut and blasted a ball that traveled 502 feet. It probably would have splashed in the Atlantic Ocean had it not crashed off the back wall of the dome. Fans everywhere gasped as video of the moon shot spread, and a YouTube clip of Harper’s feat now has over 2.2 million views.
With a 6-foot-3, 225 pound frame and a swing so violent he makes Dustin Pedroia look like he’s check-swinging by comparison, Harper hit 17 home runs and posted a .204 Isolated Power between two levels in 2011. And he’s just getting started.
“I’ve never seen a player at the A-level of professional baseball drive a baseball like Bryce Harper,” Newman says. Keep in mind that Newman had the pleasure of watching Mike Stanton take aim at bird flocks, low-flying planes and satellites in the Sally League back in 2008.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with Harper’s combination of power and polish at his age,” adds Sickels, calling Harper a once-in-a-generation talent.
All the Minor League gurus see Harper power ceiling at 40 or more home runs per year, and Glassey compares his hitting strength to that of a recent American League MVP.
“The comparison I like for Harper — and one that has been placed on him since high school — is Josh Hamilton,” Glassey says.
Trout doesn’t have Harper-like power (who does?), but it would be a mistake to label him a slap-hitter. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder has some pop in his compact frame. He hit 10 home runs with a .149 ISO in A-ball 2010, and he went deep 11 times with a .218 ISO in the Texas League in 2011. Trout also hit five homers in the majors, becoming the first teen to go yard since Justin Upton in 2007.
“Don’t underestimate the power,” Eddy says. “He hit a career-high 16 homers last year as he learned to take better advantage of hitter’s counts. That Trout hit those homers in two unfavorable home parks — Little Rock’s Dickey-Stephens Park (58 home run park factor for right-handed hitters, according to StatCorner) and Angel Stadium (93 HR park factor for righties) — speaks well to his power potential.”
Eddy thinks Trout could top 20 homers at his peak. If Trout hits for that kind of power while also putting his contact skills and world-class speed to good use, he’ll join some elite company: Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Kemp and Pedroia were the only players to bat at least .300 while achieving 20 homer/20 steal status in 2011.
There’s no contest when it comes to wheels: Trout blows Harper out of the water. While Harper is far from a slug for a big man, Trout could win stolen base crowns.
“Trout gets down the line in four seconds flat, which is almost unheard of for a right-handed hitter,” Eddy says. “That makes him an 80 runner on the scouting scale.”
Trout puts that 80 speed to good use, as he stole 56 bases in 71 attempts in 2011 (a 79 percent success rate). In 2011, he nabbed 33 in 43 tries in the minors (a 77 percent clip) before going four-for-four in the bigs.
Sickels, who also puts a 75-80 grade on Trout’s speed, thinks the running back-sized center fielder could take 30 to 40 bases annually in the majors, with 50 swipes within reach. Michael Bourn ( 61 steals) was the only player to reach the 50 SB mark in 2011.
The benefits of plus-plus speed don’t end with steals, either. “Trout’s swiftness helps him with batting average, turning singles into doubles, and doubles into triples,” Hulet adds.
In comparison to Trout, Harper looks like he’s running in quicksand. But the former catcher managed to go 26-for-33 (79 percent) on the bases in 2011. Don’t get too excited, though: Harper is a quality athlete for his size, but stolen base expectations should be tempered.
“Scouts grade Harper’s speed as average to a tick above,” Eddy says. “He figures to lose a step as he matures, but he could hold onto fringe-average speed through his prime.”
As Harper moves up the Minor League ladder, he won’t be able to take advantage of still-learning battery mates. “Many A-ball pitchers are instructed to focus on the batter and largely ignore base runners, while many catchers at that level are learning to catch professional-quality velocity and breaking pitches,” Eddy says. Eddy does think there’s at least a chance that Harper’s instincts could make him a David Wright or Chase Utley-type base runner, managing 20 steals per season in spite of so-so speed.
That’s possible, but Harper could also fall victim to what might be called The Adam Dunn Effect if he fills out further. Big Donkey nearly stole 20 bases in 2002 at age 22, but he has never reached the double-digits again and ceased running at all in his late twenties.
A Brief History of Top-Tier High School Prospects
Harper and Trout have ranked one-two on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list in back-to-back years. Just how good do high school prodigies ranked at the top of the prospect lists become? To help answer that question, I compiled a list of high school hitters who have placed first or second overall on Baseball America’s Top 100 since 1991. With a few exceptions, these guys become absolute studs at the plate:
|Player||Career wRC+||Career PA|
The average wRC+ of the 14 hitters on this list is 124, and the median (half above, half below) is 119. A-Rod and Chipper are headed for Cooperstown, Hamilton has one of the best bats in the game, and Mauer did before injuries stalled his career. Konerko and Floyd emerged as rock-solid hitters, and the best years for the Upton brothers, Heyward and Bruce may well be in front of them.
Baldelli had to retire at 28 due to illness. Sadly, we’ll never know how his career might have turned out. The three disappointments on the list –- Grieve, Young and Patterson –- aren’t good comps for Harper or Trout. Grieve had a good eye and some pop, but had nowhere near Harper’s power or athleticism for a big man. Young and Patterson have been felled by lousy plate discipline, which isn’t an issue for either Harper (a 13 percent walk rate last year) or Trout (11.5 percent from 2009-2011).
Except for a DH-worthy outfielder and two hackers, high school hitters ranked one or two on BA’s list have emerged as all-star caliber players. It wouldn’t be surprising if Harper turns into a Hamilton-like hitter, and Trout could be B.J. Upton with much better contact skills and a higher batting average.
So, Who Ya Got?
Truth be told, the correct answer to “Harper or Trout?” might be “Yes, please.” With both players being so tooled up, our experts were split on which future star should be picked first.
“I would probably take Harper,” Hulet says. “The chance to secure 40+ home run power and a ton of RBIs is too tempting to pass up. I also like the talent that Washington is compiling to surround Harper.”
Sickels agrees. “As much as I love Trout, the fact that Harper is more than a year younger makes a big difference in their projections.” Bryce was born in October of 1992, Trout in August of 1991.
Glassey gives a slight edge to Harper. “Trout’s speed and Harper’s power grade out as 80s on the 20-80 scouting scale. But since 80 power is much more rare than 80 speed, I would say Harper’s power is better than Trout’s speed.”
Badler and Eddy prefer Trout’s all-around game. Trout “has less power potential, but he will hit for a higher average and have a huge edge in stolen bases,” Badler says. “I would select Trout because he’s going to impact more Roto categories,” Eddy says. “He won’t give you 30+ homers at his peak like Harper will. But Trout will hit near .300 most seasons and also gives you 30 steals.”
“It depends on the format,” Newman says. “In a league with a specified center field position and maybe total bases as a category instead of a standard 5×5, I’d opt for Trout. In a straight 5×5 with outfield positions, I’d choose Harper.”
The Harper/Trout debate will rage on for years to come. Ultimately, the choice may simply come down to how you want to win your league –- by bludgeoning the competition with Harper, or running wild with Trout.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at email@example.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.