A year after posting one of the greatest single seasons in baseball history, Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper is off to an even more stupendous start this season. Through Washington’s first 14 games, Harper is hitting .327 with a .417 on-base percentage and an MLB-best .837 slugging percentage; he’s also finished more at-bats with a home run (seven) than a strikeout (six) while producing nightly feats of optimal exit velocity and launch angle, like this blast from Tuesday:
Harper’s longtime rival for the mantle of “best young player in baseball” is, of course, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who has consistently run circles around him. But last season, Harper finally outplayed Trout, and the Millville Meteor has flown in a lower orbit than usual to start the 2016 campaign as well. Here’s each player’s percentile ranking in the major leagues in the most important batting rate statistics, plus wins above replacement per 600 plate appearances:
You can probably guess what’s happening now: a variety of articles either wondering whether Harper has surpassed Trout as the game’s best player or flat-out declaring the race over. Never mind that Trout has been the best player in baseball history, for his age, through every one of his full major-league seasons — his spot atop the game is officially in jeopardy.
That conclusion is still a bit premature, though. FanGraphs keeps a running set of projected statistics for the season, historically calibrated to find the most accurate balance of short- and long-term samples for making predictions. That means they can give us a pretty good proxy answer to the “who’s the best right now?” question, and all three of the rest-of-season projections at FanGraphs1 say Trout is still the game’s best bet among position players:2
|PROJECTED WAR/600 PA|
|5||Josh Donaldson||Blue Jays||5.6||5.0||5.8||5.5|
|12||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||4.9||3.9||4.4||4.4|
That probably won’t come as a surprise to most saber-friendly fans, who may as well drive around with “Small sample size!” stickers on their bumpers this early in the season. Even so, it doesn’t exactly take magical thinking to believe Harper is an exception to the rules of historical projections. At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron wrote a nice, nuanced piece Monday about how the particulars of Harper’s game evolved to get him where he was last year and how their continued development could give his newfound productivity more staying power. The upshot is that over the past year-plus, Harper has turned into a powerful pull hitter with the strength of Chris Davis and the plate discipline of Joey Votto — a terrifying combination that lends credence to the theory that his game has found another gear.
I also devoted the Significant Digit segment of Wednesday’s Hot Takedown podcast to looking at how Harper’s numbers have improved this season despite a drastically reduced batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which makes you wonder how zany his numbers could be if he starts experiencing better BABIP luck. (And both of those analyses took place before Harper launched his grand slam Tuesday night.3)
But in general, it takes a compelling reason to think any player is an exception to the trends of history, which are proven out far more often than they’re upended. Although reasonable people can find reasonable reasons to believe Harper is one of those exceptions, it’s important to remember just how high that threshold is. Otherwise, there’s a preponderance of evidence that Harper still hasn’t chased down Trout — at least not yet.