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DALY: Harper, Trout — Think Mays, Mantle

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What's happening in baseball feels almost like a celestial event. Like two comets crisscrossing. Like a day-night doubleheader of eclipses. On one coast you have Bryce Harper, 19 years young, almost instantly becoming the top bat for the first-place Washington Nationals. And on the Pacific side of things, you have Mike Trout, all of 20, out-OPS-ing Albert Pujols, his Hall of Fame-bound Los Angeles Angels teammate, by nearly 200 points.

It's enough to make you reach for a pair of dark sunglasses, lest you singe your retinas. Talent of this magnitude, at such a precocious age, doesn't come along often ... in any sport. But it's lovely when it does, especially since everybody these days seems to be toting a camera phone — and recording every moment for posterity.

Here's Bryce blasting one off the BlackBerry sign in Toronto.

Here's Mike going 4 for 4 against Seattle.

Here's Bryce stealing home after Philadelphia's Cole Hamels plunked him.

Here's Mike swiping his league-leading 16th base Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

And they're just getting underway.

It's early, sure, but you get the sense these two outfielders are going to be playing Highlight Tag for the next decade or so. They're the sports equivalent of Irish twins — Trout breaking in with the Angels midway through last season, Harper being called up by the Nats 20 games into this one. Indeed, they remind you a little of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, center fielders supreme, debuting in 1951 at 19 (Mantle) and 20 (Mays).

Mickey, of course, went on to wallop 536 homers, and Willie reached an even loftier total: 660. Better still, they shared the same city in the early part of their careers (in the years, that is, before the Giants moved to San Francisco). Harper and Trout won't enjoy quite the same proximity, their home bases being 2,500 miles apart, but the world is a much smaller place than it was half a century ago. Besides, as he showed at Rogers Centre this week, Bryce might be able to hit the ball 2,500 miles.

At last glance, Harper had a .303/.384/.548 line (OPS+: 150), and Trout — 14 months older, for those of you scoring at home — was at .341/.401/.541 (OPS+: 163). Nice starting points, especially if you want to make some history. After all, Alex Rodriguez reached The Show at 18, Ken Griffey Jr. at 19 and Frank Robinson and Eddie Mathews, to name two more legends, at 20. All topped 500 homers, and all are either in Cooperstown or headed in that direction.

In other words, for all the hand-wringing about "rushing" phenoms such as these, many of the greats made it to the majors — and did damage there — before they reached drinking age. It's one of the reasons they were so great.

As much as Harper and Trout might mean to their franchises, though, they might mean even more to baseball. Since the advent of drug testing, you may have noticed, the pendulum has swung from the hitters to the pitchers. San Francisco's Matt Cain threw the second perfect game of the season Wednesday night — the Chicago White Sox's illustrious Philip Humber tossed the first — and, according to Elias' number crunchers, this is the first time since 1917 there have been five no-nos by mid-June.

(Heck, a New York Met even fired a no-hitter. The franchise had been waiting only 51 years for that.)

The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, have an OPS of .640. This wouldn't be good even by the Dead Ball standards of 1917. In fact, six big-league clubs had a higher OPS that season than the Pirates currently do. Oh, and did I mention that the Nats' 2.94 earned-run average, if it holds up, would be the lowest since the 1988 Mets (managed by a fellow named Davey Johnson)?

Should the trend continue, batsmen of Harper and Trout's ilk will be all the more crucial ... in helping the game retain some sense of balance. "See?" we'll be able to say. "Stephen Strasburg might have an ERA that's invisible to the naked eye, but the Louisville Slugger hasn't become completely obsolete. Look at how Bryce and Mike are tearing it up."

Just think how entertaining it'll be, in the years ahead, to debate the relative merits of these two prodigies. Will Harper's raw power give him the edge at the plate? Will Trout's athleticism give him the nod on the bases and in the field? How will they stack up statistically? It could be like The Mick and the Say Hey Kid all over again. A man can hope, at least.

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