"I want my team to win 105 games to have a shot at winning the World Series. If I achieve the numbers and we don't win, I'll be furious."
So littered is the landscape with second-year regressions that baseball mythology has embraced a most unscientific explanation for second-season flops: the sophomore jinx. Recent history has done nothing to weaken belief in dark forces. Of the 32 pitchers and 48 position players who received Rookie of the Year Award votes from 2007 to '11, 59 had a worse ERA or OPS in their follow-up act—a 74% attrition rate. Among those hit hard with the malediction were White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham (2010), Braves outfielder Jason Heyward (2011) and Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (2012).
This year's sophomore class may be talented enough, however, to dismiss the jinx. There's not only Harper, who had the best season ever by a teenager, but also Trout, who can make a claim for the best season ever by a rookie. The American League Most Valuable Player runner-up, Trout became the first player to hit 30 home runs, steal 45 bases (49 to be exact) and score 125 runs (129 at final count). In his age-20 season, he replaced Alex Rodriguez as the youngest 30--30 player while supplanting Ty Cobb as both the youngest player to steal 40 bases and the best 20-year-old as ranked by adjusted OPS, a measure of offensive production that adjusts for ballpark and league factors.
It's not difficult to imagine Harper or Trout joining Cal Ripken (1983), Ryan Howard (2007) and Dustin Pedroia (2008) in the exclusive club of players who have followed their Rookie of the Year acts with an MVP. But this year's second-year crop also includes Rangers righthander Yu Darvish, 26, who last season joined Dwight Gooden (1984), Herb Score (1955) and Pete Alexander (1911) as the only first-year players to win 16 games and strike out 220; A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, 27, whose 23 home runs were the most by an Oakland rookie since 1987; Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, 20, the former shortstop who hit .262 after being called up on Aug. 9 and thrown into a pennant race at a new position; A's righthander Jarrod Parker, 24, who won 13 games; Reds third baseman Todd Frazier, 27, who hit 19 home runs; and Diamondbacks lefthander Wade Miley, 26, who won 16 games.
"In this case," says Padres general manager Josh Byrnes, "I'd like to think talent overwhelms precedent, especially for Trout and Harper. These guys are really good, and they hit in good lineups. I'd be more inclined to think we'll see improvement [from them] rather than drop-off."
Perhaps not surprisingly, given their youth, Harper and Trout still are growing. Indeed, Harper blamed his two-month funk partly on growing an inch or two during last season, a spurt that may have thrown off his timing and mechanics. Drafted in 2010 at 205 pounds, the 6'3" Harper played last season at 220, now weighs 231 and aims to be 245 pounds by the time he's 25. Likewise, the 6'1" Trout was drafted in 2009 at 190 pounds, played last season at 220 and said last month he weighs 238 pounds after an off-season regimen of twice-daily workouts. "I'm going to have to make sure [Angels manager Mike] Scioscia is not worried when I get to camp," Trout says. "I'll show him I'm just as fast."
Says Byrnes, "These guys have such great strength, but they're speed athletes as well. You don't want to lose top-of-the-scale speed as a tool.... Trout's speed is unbelievable. One day I was sitting with some veteran scouts, and somebody asked who was the fastest guy from home to first you've ever seen. I was expecting to hear about Bo Jackson, Mickey Mantle or one of those guys. And one scout goes, 'I'd have to say it's Trout.'"
In 1954, Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting at age 19. The following winter he packed on weight to beat the sophomore jinx. "I got married that October and put on 10 to 15 pounds," he explains. "I got a lot stronger for the next season."
It worked: In one of the alltime great sophomore seasons, Kaline led the AL in batting (.340), hits (200) and total bases (321) and finished second in the MVP balloting. "There wasn't a lot of pressure on me going into the season," Kaline says. "The Tigers were not a very good team at the time. I had hit .276 the year before. So there wasn't a lot of attention or pressure on me. If you struggled or had an off night, not that many people paid attention.
"The attention is a lot different now, especially after the years these guys had. Trout, he reminds me so much of Mantle, even with how he's built. He's so strong but can run like a deer. He's one of the best rookies I've ever seen."