Last night’s ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, originally listed as “Rangers at Angels”, became little more than a Mike Trout love-in from the fifth inning on. This is not criticism, this is fact. The (excellent) SNB play-by-play team did some great work highlighting the physical gifts possessed by the Angels incredible outfielder, showing his swing in super-slo motion while noting his incredibly short and powerful swing.
Terry Francona broke down the mechanics of Trout’s plant foot while the booth crew fawned over the 20-year old phenom. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs released the final piece of his MLB trade value series and Mike Trout sits #1 – the most valuable “commodity” in baseball.
Number 2 on that list is Bryce Harper. Harper and Trout can expect their names to be mentioned in the same breath for the next 12-18 years, should everything go to plan. At 20 and 19, they are the future of the game. They might even be the present.
For all the attention garnered by the launch of their respective careers, it is easy to forget the game of baseball is supposed to be hard. Humbling. The ball doesn’t bounce your way. Nagging injuries mount and even the best players slump. Trout took his lumps during his 135 plate appearance cameo in 2011. Right now, Bryce Harper is learning just how cruel a game baseball can be.
While Mike Trout keeps sending his batting line higher and higher, Bryce Harper is quietly mired in a rough patch at the plate. Over Harper’s last 150 plate appearances, he has just a single home run, with an unsightly .594 OPS to match (.229/.280/.314). Bryce Harper is 19-years old so any offensive struggles are not unexpected. It’s really hard to play at the game’s highest level before your 20th birthday. Like, really hard!
The grind of a baseball season takes its toll. Bryce Harper came out of the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader with the Braves after fouling a ball directly off his ankle while attempting to bunt for a hit. Harper didn’t start in the nightcap but did single as a late-game pinch hitter.
The struggles are inevitable. The struggles are predictable. While Bryce Harper seems a safe bet to terrorize National League pitchers for the next half-decade (before his inevitable move to the Yankees, he trolled), right now pitchers are getting him out. That is what they do. Pitchers and catchers and coaches and video coordinators and team-employed analysts put their heads together and develop a plan to get hitters out.
At 19, with fewer than 900 total professional plate appearances to your name, those plans include a steady diet of pitches away. Nothing hard over the plate and faded changeups over the outside corner. Away, away, away.
Bryce Harper will figure it out. He will bounce back from sore ankles and sore backs and become the beast he was to start the season and the beast everyone expects him to be. But he shows that even the most ballyhooed of prospects struggle. It is the nature of the game. He will be fine but, right now, he sort of isn’t. Something to remember while we watch Mike Trout assault the record books (before his inevitable slump brings that hyperbole express back under the engineer’s control.)