Harper, Trout, Machado or Puig?
Major League Baseball is experiencing a youth movement of great proportions. The best 21-year-old baseball players are no longer found in Omaha or Single-A All Star Games; they are now found in Major League All Star Games and near the top of MVP ballots. With all due respect to Jose Fernandez, four hitters are leading the charge. You saw three of them at Citi Field for the All Star Game and another in the final vote, one in the Home Run Derby finals, one as the reigning MLB leader in WAR, one has his own mania throughout his city, and all four are in the top 10 of 2013 MLB Jersey Sales. You may have heard of these four young studs: 20-year-old Nationals OF Bryce Harper, 22-year-old Angels OF Mike Trout, 21-year-old Orioles 3B Manny Machado, and 22-year-old Dodgers OF Yasiel Puig.
In this exercise, we will rank these four players in a series of categories with the ultimate goal of determining who is the most valuable, both in the present and in the future.
Trout’s otherworldly slash line of .335/.437/.567 combined with his .79 BB/K ratio places his firmly at the top of the current list. Puig’s line may be helped in part by a .409 BABIP, but his .339 AVG is too high to ignore. Harper is just starting to come into his own at the plate, as his improving BB/K rate suggests (.47 last year to .66 this year). Machado has put together a solid season at the plate, hovering around .300 most of the year, but his impatience is often his own worst enemy, as his 4.1% BB rate suggests.
Nothing about Trout suggests this is a fluke. He strikes out relatively often but makes up for it with a high walk rate. His BABIP is high at .391, but I believe it is somewhat sustainable because Trout hits the ball hard and uses his blazing speed to turn 15.8 percent of his ground balls into infield hits. The other three project highly but have drawbacks leading to a lower ceiling that Trout. Both Puig and Machado draw walks at a below average rate and have a tendency to chase the pitchers pitch. Contrarily, Harper displays a high walk rate, but his AVG remains a good but not spectacular .272, which his .307 BABIP suggests he deserves.
It may seem odd to place Trout, who sports a .567 SLG and leads this group in home runs with 23, anywhere other than at the top, but there is good reason for it. At the top instead is Harper, who has only four fewer dingers but with 213 fewer plate appearances. Harper’s ability to hit for raw power was on full display at the Home Run Derby where he not only finished second but also displayed the ability to hit baseballs uncharacteristically far. I fully expect Harper to emerge as one of the premiere home run threats in the league sooner rather than later.
The big change in future rankings will be the development of Machado’s power. Machado has the most room for projection in his frame, and once he fills out we can expect many of his league leading 49 doubles into home runs. Harper remains at the top, while Trout falls not due to his own lack of power, but due to the development of the power of his contemporaries.
This is really a case of Trout and then everyone else. Machado, Harper, and Puig all have negative base running runs above replacement for both this season and their career, while Trout’s career BsR is a strong 21.7.
If speed is Trout and then everyone else, defense is Machado and everyone else. No matter what defensive statistic you prefer, it will confirm his greatness at the hot corner. He sports a 27.3 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), while Trout, Harper and Puig all fall between 1.7 and 5.7. Factor in Machado’s 32 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and you have a defender worthy of a Gold Glove. Furthermore, Machado plays a premium position at third base and with the ability to move back to his original position of shortstop should the need arise.
This category is only necessary because of Puig and his on-field shenanigans. In his defense, his antics are a result of playing extremely hard and having too much confidence and belief in his own abilities, but he is quickly garnering the reputation of a player who violates baseballs first unwritten rule: respecting the game. Do pimping home runs and using a self-titled song for his walkout cross the line? Some would say yes. If I were a general manager I would not be too concerned, since his dedication and desire to be the best he can be are evident, but his antics have caused manager Don Mattingly to bench him at times.
And the winner is...
So how do these players stack up? In totaling the results, I will assign one point for first place through four points for fourth place, thus meaning the player with the least amount of points at the end will be deemed most valuable. The one tweak to the system will be doubling the value on defense to create balance in the scaling system.
1. Trout (14 points)
2. Machado (19)
3. Harper (21)
4. Puig (26)
Mike Trout has been arguably the best player in the league two years in a row, so it shouldn’t come as much surprise that he grades out at the top. His WAR was an even 10.0 last year and is already at 9.9 this year with a little over two weeks to go. This is a rare talent, and it is scary to think that he might not yet be at his peak. If we translate WAR into a dollar value, Trout has been worth an absurd 49.5 million dollars. He is not only the most valuable player on this list, but the best player in the league, and yes, the same league that includes Miguel Cabrera.
Machado comes in second on the list with 19 points, but a case could be made for the gap between him and Trout to be smaller because of Machado’s defense. Is a hit taken away as good as a hit recorded? His 5.9 WAR would suggest so. The scary part about Machado is that he is still a long way away from fulfilling his offensive potential. If he can reach his ceiling, we could be looking at one of the best two way players to ever play the game. If there is one knock on Machado, it’s that he will never be an elite steal threat, but his other four tools certainly make up for it.
In third is Harper, helped primarily by his status as the elite power hitter of the group. At his peak, Harper will play an average defensive right field, helped by his plus plus arm while consistently competing for home run titles. He may not win a batting title, but his hit tool is still plus. It would not be far fetched for Harper to have a career .300 average. Though injuries have taken a toll on him this year and he is currently playing at below 100 percent, Harper remains one of the elite talents in the game.
Puig comes in fourth at 26 points, but in the company of these players there is no shame. The biggest reason for his ranking at the bottom of this elite list is the risk that comes with him. Will his impatience lead to pitchers figuring him out? Vladimir Guerrero doesn’t think so. Will his antics and failure to respect the game catch up to him? Of the four, Puig also has by far the fewest big league at bats, so are we seeing a fluke resulting from a small sample size? There is no doubt that his tools are legit, but his future success will be determined by how he answers the many questions currently surrounding him.