Posted: Tuesday November 13, 2012 11:44AM ; Updated: Tuesday November 13, 2012 11:44AM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Taking stock of just how amazing Trout and Harper were in 2012

Story Highlights

Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper both won Rookie of the Year honors on Monday

Trout had the best 20-year-old season ever, Harper the best teenage season ever

Both players play the game with a hustling style that is infectious

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Bryce Harper and Mike Trout
Bryce Harper and Mike Trout made the first of what will surely be many All-Star Games in their careers in 2012.
US Presswire

Harper and Trout. Trout and Harper. They have been linked already in their young careers with strong bonds: travel baseball superstars as amateurs, Scottsdale Scorpions teammates in the Arizona Fall League last year, major league call-ups on the same day this year, their first All-Star Game experienced together this year, texting buddies and now Rookies of the Year announced on the same night.

Get used to the dynamic duo, and not only because they just might be hitting 1-2 in the USA lineup for manager Joe Torre in the World Baseball Classic next spring. They also are the pre-eminent faces of what's now -- not just what's next -- in baseball.

There are not two more valuable commodities in baseball than Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, given their talent, age, marketing appeal, home baseball cities and contract status. Harper will not be eligible to leave Washington via free agency until after the 2018 season; Trout is under control of the Los Angeles Angels through the 2017 season.

The comparisons figure only to grow over the better part of this decade and the next. The Rookie of the Year voting results -- Trout unanimously in the American League and Harper by a smidgen over Wade Miley in the National League -- cemented the bond for perpetuity and stirred up again the essay question floated over many a barstool this season: Who would you rather have, Trout or Harper?

There is no wrong answer. Trout's game is more dependent on speed and Harper's game on power, though each has deep reserves of both qualities. The point is that we may be looking at a rare synchronous arrival of elite talents at such a young age.

Think about what we just witnessed in 2012: the greatest rookie season in history (by Trout) and the greatest teenage season in history (Harper) in the same year. It may be the baseball equivalent of what 1964 was to rock 'n roll in America, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones made their first U.S. tour.

Nobody is putting Harper or Trout even close to the Hall of Fame after just their rookie seasons. But to give you an idea of how rare it is for two huge talents to arrive at the same time, the baseball writers have been handing out Rookie of the Year Awards in both leagues since 1949, and only three times did both winners wind up in Cooperstown: Frank Robinson and Luis Aparicio in 1956, Tom Seaver and Rod Carew in 1967 and Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray in 1977. The Class of 2001, Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, is likely to join them.

Now think about this context to gauge the rarity of Harper, who just turned 20, and Trout, who turned 21 in August: Here is the entire list of seasons with two 20-20 players -- in this case, players in their age 20 season or younger hitting 20 home runs:

1952: Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews

2012: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout

Let's take out the bias toward home runs and put it this way: Here is the entire list of seasons in which two qualified players age 20 or younger posted an OPS of .800 or better:

1928: Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott

2012: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout

Now let's allow for on-base and baserunning skills and try this: Her is the entire list of seasons in which two players 20 or younger scored 98 runs or more:

2012: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout

That's it.

For now, the best year for simultaneous arrivals in baseball might be 1951, when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays made their debuts one month apart and opposed one another in the World Series. But Mantle hit just 13 home runs that year. When you consider two players each hitting 20 home runs and extend the maximum age to 21, you get only 10 such young slugger combinations: some of them Hall of Fame combinations and some that fell a little short:

Hall of Fame combinations

1956: Al Kaline and Frank Robinson

1955: Al Kaline and Hank Aaron

1952 and 1953: Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews

1929: Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott

Not Quite Hall of Fame

1991: Juan Gonzalez and Ken Griffey Jr.

1982: Tom Brunansky and Cal Ripken Jr.

1965: Curt Blefary and Tony Conigliaro

1959: Vada Pinson and Orlando Cepeda

Long Way to Go

2012: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout

2011: Freddie Freeman and Giancarlo Stanton

Seeing Freeman and Stanton pop up on this list made me wonder if we are seeing more extremely young sluggers making an impact in today's game, especially given the advanced training and opportunities for amateur players that can shorten the road to the big leagues for the elite hitters. Such a trend may in fact be true, even taking into account the expansion of the major leagues, the last of which occurred in 1998.

For the first time in baseball history, we have seen five straight seasons in which a player age 21 or younger hit 20 home runs: Jay Bruce in 2008, Justin Upton in 2009, Stanton in 2010 (and 2011), Freeman in 2011 and Harper and Trout in 2012.

Baseball is blessed with a wave of very young players making an impact. This season included six players in their age 19 or 20 season: Trout, Harper, pitcher Dylan Bundy of Baltimore, infielder Jurickson Profar of Texas, infielder Manny Machado of Baltimore and pitcher Tyler Skaggs of Arizona. That's not extraordinary for the number of such players (there were 34 players 19 or 20 in 1969, for instance), but it is extraordinary for the potential impact.

The best part about Harper and Trout -- and we've seen signs from Profar and Machado in their short time in the major leagues -- is the way they play baseball. They represent the game well by making all-out hustle cool, which has made older players accountable for not running hard or giving away at-bats. The former too-cool-for-school body language around baseball has been replaced by Harper and Trout running out bouncers back to the mound as if their pants were on fire.

"Bryce Harper has great power and is a terrific player, too," Greg Mohardt, the scout who signed Trout, told me this summer. "Bryce has got a chance to be a Hall of Fame player, too. I think Mike and Bryce are really good for each other. There's so much pressure on that kid [Harper] to be something that it's nice to have somebody comparable in age and just having fun. Those guys just have fun and play. Mike has never not run a ball out -- ever. He's four [seconds]-flat to first base or lower every time."

Said Eddie Bane, now the Red Sox' special assistant to player personnel, when he was with the Angels this summer, "Profar plays the same way. And they're seeing that [hustle] in Anaheim. Guys are running harder down the line. It would be great if Harper and Profar and Mike set the tone for how the game is played. Just think: Somebody drilled Bryce back in the fall league for the basic reason that he broke up a double play too hard."

Playing hard is cool again. And if that, too, becomes part of the legacy of Harper and Trout, it would be an honor even bigger than the Rookie of the Year Award they each won.

 
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