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Sophomore Stars? The Trout/Harper Debate

No two rookies received as much press last year as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Both rookies were highly touted young raw talents, who we’re going to make a big impact on the game, and when they both got called up, it was easy to make comparisons as to which would be the better performer. While Trout easily out shown Harper last year, and nearly every other baseball player for that matter, a new year is upon us and it seems impossible to start this season without speculating which will have the better 2013.

The Fastball

By: Ryan

Trout arguably had the best baseball season last year with his .326 batting average, 49 stolen bases, and 30 homers. Not to mention he had a WAR of 10.8, highest in the Bigs since Barry Bonds had a 11.6 in 2002. While his five-tool talent and numerous web gems weren’t enough to get the Angels to the playoffs, they did earn the kid Rookie of the Year honors, and a second place finish in AL MVP. While the general conception is that Trout is going to come back down to Earth, he is still no doubt going to be an amazing athlete batting near .300 and stealing over 40. However, where 2012 was the breakout for Magic Mike, 2013 will be all about Harper.

In 2012, the kid (and yes I can call him a kid because he’s younger than me, and probably you too) ran into a bit of struggles midway during the season, which coincides to when pitchers discovered Harper’s kryptonite, the curveball. Over the course of the season, with two strikes (traditional junk ball pitch counts), Harper batted .180. Yet the kid still managed to bat .270 on the season by batting .382 in traditional hitters counts. In other words, he can crush the fastball. Yet once he becomes more disciplined at the plate, he’ll be able to work himself into hitters counts and up his walk rate, both which will respectively benefit his raw power and speed. It is also worth noting that while Harper’s worst two months were in July and August, he finished the year with a better offensive September than Mike Trout. Harper’s BA and SLG all topped that of Trout, while they both shared a .400 OBP.

I see Harper developing into more of a power hitter than Trout, who will regress into a more traditional leadoff batter (high avg, high steal, low slugging). While it’s difficult to compare a true power hitter to a true leadoff man, these two players will continue to be hybrids with a different emphasis on their game. However, what will set Harper apart this year will be a plus average for a power hitter, as evident from his .330 Sept/Oct.

Defensively, Harper will be slow to transition. He finds himself moving to left field, which will take some adjustment. But his WAR of 1.8 in his first year hints at his abilities. Harper has a cannon of an arm, which only got stronger when he bulked up 15 lbs in the offseason. As the season progresses, watch Harper become more of a threat in the outfield, especially over the limited space he’s responsible for.

Plus, let’s not forget about Harper’s hustle. This is the same hustle that allowed him to steal home on Cole Hamels when he tried to pick off the runner at first. This aspect of his game allows him to prove to be a vital asset on the base paths, where he can stretch singles to doubles and double to triples. This aspect of his game allows him and the Nats to capitalize on defensive mental errors, something few other players do as well as Harper.

2013 is going to be an exciting season and its going to be great to watch Trout and Harper duke it out again. But I give Round 2 to Harper; expect his 5.0 WAR to jump as his game continues to develop.

Oh and did I mention, the kid’s only 20.

The Changeup

By: Matt

That’s a clown article, bro.

With respect to my colleague, he’s just taking the party line on these rookies and not actually looking beyond the stats. Yes, Mike Trout is a candidate for regression, and he might even have a sophomore slump. That being said, he was the best player in baseball last year and should have been the MVP; even if he does regress, it is hard to imagine him falling far. Trout put up ridiculous numbers in his first full season, but unlike some rookies that have shone bright and faded, this young man’s numbers don’t actually suggest regression, but insanely, improvement.

Trout ended the season with a .326 BA, .399 OBP, .563 SLG with 27 doubles, 30 home runs, 83 RBIs, and 49 stolen bases (while only being caught stealing 5 times). These are fabulous numbers that bring you back to Barry Bonds pre-steroids or Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime. In some senses he actually beats these two out though thanks to his speed and defensive ability. However, though these are the sexy numbers that people like to tout, the most important numbers are the ones below the surface:

Trout grounded into 7 double plays in 2012, he had a .88/1 Ground ball to fly ball ratio, he drew only about 1 walk per 10 plate appearances and he saw about 4 pitches per at bat. These are not the numbers of a leadoff hitter, but those of a power hitter in his prime. Trout had to carry his team for a few months last season with Prince Albert was slumping, and being a rookie, he faced many fastballs from pitchers who didn’t know his weaknesses yet. And Trout did what any good hitter does with fastballs and hit them a long way, usually in the air. This likely inflated his home run totals, and brought his OBP down. While a .399 OBP is good for a leadoff hitter, it is due mostly to his high average, and ridiculous knowing that Trout only walked at a .105 bb/pa rate. It is likely that Trout in the offseason will work on taking more pitches and drawing more walks, especially since he is likely to see more off-speed and junk pitches in his second season. Trout will face a harder time in his second season, and his numbers will change, but not necessarily for the worse. I see him learning his trade more in his second season, lower power numbers, but higher peripherals.

My predictions for Trout’s second season:
118 R, 192 H, 30 2B, 20 HR, 78 RBI, 58 SB, .320 BA, .415 OBP, .500 SLG, 158 OPS +

Yes the power will be down, but the hits will be up. With Pujols and Hamilton hitting behind him, Trout will be able to do his job and see pitches and get on base. He won’t have to carry the team anymore, and can work on just being the best leadoff hitter in baseball.

Oh and did I mention he’s also the best defensive center fielder in the game?

Alright, on to Bryce Harper. Harper is a young hotshot and he probably gets more scrutiny than he deserves. He is a good player, but not great, and he is a prime candidate for regression, not improvement. Harper is a “hustle” player. He beats out infield singles, turns singles into doubles and makes spectacular plays in the outfield. However, his hustle actually makes up for some glaring problems that he will have to try and fix. Unlike Trout, Harper has not learned how to play the outfield. He gets bad jumps on balls and takes bad routes to get to them, but his hustle and grit often make up for it and he manages to make the catch. Case in point:

Harper’s swing is gorgeous. When he gets a ball where he is expecting to get it he can hit it as far as anyone and he can fly on the basepaths. That being said, he still hasn’t learned how to hit a curve ball. It’s the prototypical problem for young stars that are rushed through the minors, the inability to hit major league off speed. Harper will definitely improve some parts of his game, but he won’t be able to take it to the next level until he learns to hit offspeed pitches and hit them well.

Currently, the advantage lies with the pitcher, since they can nibble and throw junk until Harper bites and strikes or grounds out. And he does, as evidenced by his .09 bb/pa. Harper still needs to learn how to hit. And he will, but I don’t think he puts it together right away this season. Harper will put up decent numbers and will help his team contend through his hustle and raw talent. And he is raw. He may just be the best #2 hitter in baseball, but he is not much more than that. Until he gets some more seasoning, Harper will continue to be a positive player in the big leagues, but he is still a year or so away from taking the jump and becoming elite.

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The Designated Hitter

The Fastball

By: Ryan

One of the most polarizing arguments within the baseball world revolves around the designated hitter. Created in 1973, this position is the only distinguishable difference between the two different leagues, with the American League incorporating the position. While this discrepancy between the two leagues does not seem to have a large impact on the game, it gives the AL advantages over the NL in nearly every aspect of the game. With this inequality between the leagues, the Commissioner has two options to balance things out, remove the advantages or universally allow them. In other words, the Commissioner needs to decide whether or not to allow or abolish the designated hitter from the game. With respect to the traditional history of the game, it is in everyone’s best interest to fully integrate the designated hitter.

As may have been noticed in the recent off-seasons, most notably with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, AL general managers use the DH as a lucrative bargaining chip when attempting to sign high-value free agents. Under the current system, AL GM’s are able to offer longer term contracts to these players, knowing full well that there will be a sharp decline in player performance. However, general managers also know that they can stash aging hitters in the DH role when the time comes (a position that limits the appearance of deteriorating player abilities). That’s not to say that these long-term investments are/or aren’t wise, that’s the basis of another argument, but it does display the thinking of American League GM’s, which for the Angels, has lured two of the best hitters to Anaheim in the last two off-seasons. The incorporation of the designated hitter into the NL will remove the AL advantage of signing top-tier hitters, an adjustment that would most likely have left Pujols in St. Louis.

Managers also appreciate the DH because they are given greater flexibility in their lineups. In the AL, coaches are able to stash one more powerful bat or speedster on their bench, even if that bat comes with a defensive liability. They can also use it to keep their bench involved in a manner far more inclusive than the current NL pinch hitter. If a manger chooses to rotate through a couple bench DH’s, these players will continually see game time reps, reducing the amount of rust they develop on the pine. The DH also allows managers to give players more frequent rest by having players play one side of the ball, while still contributing to the game. This helps to maintain player health and allows injured players to have another stepping stone in rehab when they return from injury.

While some may argue that the expansion of the DH will kill the “small ball” style current used in the National League, consequently rendering the manager useless, the opposite appears to be true. If anything, the manager’s role is expanded with the addition of an additional hitter in the lineup. More emphasis is placed on lineup creation, as different DH’s can produce different results. High OBP/power guys can help create run production, while speedsters will be able to do the “small ball” moves typically done by an NL pitcher in the nine hole. However, when comparing the speedster to your standard pitcher, the speedster poses a stronger threat, with his ability to beat out throws in the field and on the base paths. Thus, the elimination of the “small ball” style of play is not in the hands of the commissioner and his handling of the DH, but rather rests with the mangers and their use of the DH position.

Players will appreciate the full incorporation of the DH because it offers job security with the longer contracts listed above, and more ability to rest and/or recuperate. That’s not to say all players will approve of the incorporation of the DH, as pitchers will see their stats rise. However, this can more appropriately be called a normalization. Under the current use of the DH, pitchers in the AL are forced to face one more bat in the lineup, and this additional hitter results in higher ERA’s, lower IP, and higher WHIP’s. These numbers do have some weight in contract negotiations, and when AL pitchers are compared to NL pitchers, it leads to questions regarding the quality of the pitcher. However, if the designated hitter were expanded to the NL, pitchers in both leagues could be evaluated on a more level playing field, as this discrepancy would be eliminated. Furthermore, pitchers would no longer have to worry about developing injuries in the batter’s box or on the base paths, resulting in improved long term health.

While pitchers might disapprove of the uptick in offensive production, fans would not be opposed to the greater possibility of home runs. This offensive uptick will not entirely remove pitcher duels, or pitching gems either. In fact, 7 of the last 10 perfect games occurred in the American League. Thus, while there is an increase in offense, which can result in a greater fan experience, it does not eliminate the possibility of great pitching matches.

While the designated hitter breaks off from the traditional understanding of baseball, it serves to improve the baseball experience for all parties involved in the game. If something were to improve the game of baseball in such a way, why shouldn’t it be incorporated?

david-ortiz-stroh2

David Ortiz is an example of the type of player who has benefited from the DH rule.

The Changeup

By: Matt

Why shouldn’t the DH be incorporated? Because not only has it limited innovation and strategy, but it gave birth to the steroid era and glorified those that were ruining the integrity of the game. With the switch of the Houston Astros to the American League and the change in schedule so that Interleague play takes place throughout the course of the season, the next step is to institute a DH in both leagues. However, the DH represents everything the game of baseball should be moving away from, and should it be instituted in both leagues, will make managers and strategy a thing of the past.

The DH is bad for the game because the steroid era was bad for the game. Monetarily, the owners made a killing with the renewed interest from fans interested in the home run races, but when it came out that these former heroes were just cheaters, the game was forever tainted for many fans. While the DH was first instituted in 1973 and many of the steroid users were in the National League, the DH characterized a change in what baseball was about. It put power over drawing a walk or stealing a base. Individual glory over that of the team. The DH characterized all of these traits because it showed that you could make a living playing baseball as a power hitter and nothing else. You didn’t have to field, you didn’t need to know situational strategy. If you could hit home runs, teams could find a place for you in their order. And is it any coincidence at all that about 25-30 years later baseball endured its worst scandal in its history? Is it any wonder that these athletes acted selfishly and took PEDs to give themselves more power? Baseball players grow up idolizing the players that came before them. Kids watch the pros and want to be just like them. So when the switch over to the DH took place a whole generation of young players grew up under the “new” version of the game. The version that rewarded power over everything. The version that showed players making the big bucks for hitting homers. And when it came down to it, young players were willing to do whatever it took to up their numbers and their glory.

From an owner’s standpoint, the designated hitter makes sense. He doesn’t have to risk the health of his pitchers by making them run the bases and bat and ticket sales go up by advertising towering home runs and more scoring. But for the true fans and the students of the game, the DH is not much more than a cheat code. The DH allows a manager to just insert a hitter that cannot field into every lineup. It also means that late in the game, there is less intrigue or strategy, as it erases the need for double-switches or pinch runners. The players on a bench are changed from defensive specialists and runners to utility players that are there to give the normal starters a rest. In essence, a manager can draw up his lineup card, and then not make a single switch for the entire game.

Another argument for the DH is that it allows teams to give older players contracts with less risk, as they do not need to worry about defensive liabilities that often develop late in a career. The players’ union likes the DH because older power hitting type players like David Ortiz and Adam Dunn can still get big contracts and stick around for longer. This argument is valid, but there is a way to get around it…

My alternative: Raise the size of active roster from 25 to 26 players. Not only does this allow for managers to have one more guy to fit their style of managing, be it a speed specialist or an extra reliever, but it also makes the players’ union happy since they get to have more players in the majors making money. With an expanded roster, teams would still be able to have that extra power hitter if they chose, but he may be relegated to a late-inning pinch hitting role instead of getting 4 at bats a game. If anything, this will actually increase the possibility of late-inning heroics and fans will get their intrigue while TV stations get their ratings. Most happy with this change will be the managers, as most managers live for the matchups and substitutions that they can make late in a game to give their team the best possibility of winning.

The designated hitter should be done away with altogether and an increased importance placed on all aspects of the game. This is not football where there is an offense and a defense. Baseball players are athletes and must be able to play all parts of the game. That is why baseball is the hardest sport and why it is the best.