HOUSTON - Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals reacts after being called out on strikes against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bryce Harper has been in a terrible slump over the second half of the season. We probably should have seen this coming.
The teenage hitter is a rare creature in major-league history. Since 1918, only 15 hitters have qualified for the batting title at age 19 or younger. If I had to hazard a guess why, it's because baseball is hard. What Bryce Harper is doing this season is amazing and rare, even if he has been slumping.
And, lo, he has been slumping. On June 12, Harper went 3-for-4 with a home run to bring his average/on-base/slugging up to .307/.390/.553, good for a .943 OPS. That would be otherworldly for a teenager in 2002, much less the pitcher-friendly 2012. He was a titan, a devourer of worlds, an instant All-Star. While the MVP was still something of a stretch, he pretty much had the Rookie of the Year locked up.
Since that game: .208/.281/.300, with three homers and 53 strikeouts in 207 at-bats.
The Rookie of the Year race? It's probably between Todd Frazier and Wade Miley, with Mike Fiers and Mike Trout having outside shots. I know Trout plays in the American League … but I'm pretty sure that'd be my vote, just to cover my bases. The Rookie of the Year award that was practically awarded to Harper in June is still very much in play.
This isn't exactly a surprise. There have been three kinds of teenaged hitters in major-league history.
They don't last long, of course. It's rare for a 19-year-old to sniff the majors, so when one does and finds out the fumes are a mixture of bleach, ammonia, and pine tar, organizations don't continue the experiment. There may be good reasons to rush a teenaged prospect. There has never been a good reason to let the teenager grind through his struggles in the majors. Alex Rodriguez was a September call-up when he was 18, then got an early-season look when he was 19. The Mariners didn't let him go through an extended slump, sending him down to Triple-A at the first sign of struggles.
Mike Trout is something of a celestial event right now, but even he had a tough time when he was 19. Hall of Famers who didn't fare well at 19 include Robin Yount and Al Kaline.
Also of note: Jose Oquendo got 353 at-bats when he was 19, despite hitting .214/.298/.255 in Triple-A the season before. That was ... something.
Mickey Mantle wasn't Mickey Mantle as a 19-year-old, but he did hit .267/.349/.443 with 13 homers in 341 at-bats. Ty Cobb and Cesar Cedeno had similarly good numbers, but they weren't instant sensations.
Most of the 19-year-olds who accumulated more than 300 plate appearances were acceptable. It's almost a self-selecting pool -- they're good enough to stick around, not bad enough to get demoted. Of the 26 teenagers to get 300 plate appearances before Harper, 12 of them had an OPS between .700 and .799.
The best comp might be a 19-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr., who started the season on fire, but hurt his hand and finished the year with a miserable .214/.277/.338 slump over his last 159 plate appearances. There were also questions about Griffey's maturity, too:
In an article headlined, "Young Griffey: Brat with Bat," Griffey was described as a "petulant, spoiled 19-year-old who had to be begged and cajoled into conducting one brief mass interview ... an interview in which he had nothing noteworthy to say."
Huh. But we don't remember that early introduction now, just the smilin', jovial Griffey with his hat turned around. Maybe in 20 years, we'll think similar things about Harper.
Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro
In the hundred-plus years of professional baseball, those were the only two teenagers to demolish their league as soon as they were in the majors. Ott hit .322/.397/.524 with 18 home runs for the 1928over a full season, and Conigliaro hit .290/.354/.530 with 24 home runs for the '64 Red Sox, despite missing all of August.
For a while, Harper was in the last group.
It's hard to get a sense for how rare that is, but I'll try one more time. There have been 19,502 individual seasons in which a player accumulated more than 300 plate appearances. Of those, 27 were from a player younger than 20. Of those, two had an OPS over .800. Harper would have been the third.
It doesn't mean that much, of course. It doesn't bode ill or well for Harper's future that he's struggling. The best part is that his relative mortality came at a good time -- the Nationals have the best record in baseball and a decent lead in the National League East. They aren't sitting a player who is clearly better than Harper. All players go through struggles, and that's especially true for 19-year-olds. The Nationals can afford to be patient.
This is the Bryce Harper whom we should have expected, at least for this year. Harper has moved from incredible to just okay with his recent slump, but the gulf between 19 and 20 is huge, as we're seeing with Mike Trout. There's no shame in a perfectly acceptable age-19 season, even if we were teased for a couple of months by something more.