Catch 22

Bryce Harper is having one of the best age-22 seasons in history

AP Photo

One year ago, to the day, Bryce Harper was hitting .270 with little power, no speed, and barely any excitement. He was in the middle of his second straight injury-prone season. Some wondered if — with his stubborn, attacking, dive-first mentality — Harper could ever stay healthy for a full season. He was a defensive question mark, too, with the Nationals gingerly trying him in all three outfield spots in the somewhat uncertain hope that one would suit him.

Understand, nobody was calling Harper a bust. He was just 21 years old, and he’d flashed so much potential that any of the league’s 30 team happily would have given up half the world to get him. Still, there’s a wide gap between being a sure thing and a bust, and Harper was somewhat in limbo between those worlds.

Harper’s brilliant future had once been a near certainty. Sports Illustrated had called him “Baseball’s Chosen One,” when he was 16, and that had been his general theme ever since. He won the Rookie of the Year Award, he got off to an insanely good start in his second year … and then it began to get muddled. Injuries. Inconsistencies. By the end of 2014, I think even many of Harper’s biggest fans worried that, while he would certainly become a star, he might not become that all-time superhero that once seemed certain. When this year began, one of those huge Harper fans told me, “I just hope he has a solid year, stays healthy and gets back on track.”

Instead: Harper skipped all that stuff and is having one of the great age-22 seasons in baseball history.

Some of the most famous seasons in baseball history happened when a player turned 22. It can be a very good year for gifted young players. Usually they are still new, the league hasn’t yet adjusted to them, they feel like they are invincible. Dick Allen was 22 in 1964 when he showed up in Philadelphia and he had one of baseball’s great rookie seasons. He hit .318 and led the league in triples (13), extra-base hits (80) and runs (125). He was the key figure in the Phillies’ stunning run into first place in the National League and he singlehandedly tried to keep them from collapsing down the stretch. You know the story: The ’64 Phillies led by 6 1/2 with 15 games left and then went 2-13 down the stretch to blow it. Allen, though hit .419/.471/.710 with 10 extra-base hits, 15 runs and 12 RBIs in those 15 fateful games. He tried.

Cal Ripken was 22 in 1983, when he had his breakthrough season, leading the league in runs, hits and doubles and carrying the Orioles to what is still their last World Series title.

Stan Musial was 22 for his breakthrough season too. It was 1943, so many of the best players had already gone to war. Still, he hit .357, led the league in almost everything, and won the first of three MVP awards.

Joe DiMaggio hit 46 homers at age 22 — the only time he managed to hit 40-plus homers and the only time ANY right-handed hitter ever hit 40-plus homers at old-old Yankee Stadium.

Johnny Bench had his first great season, banging 45 homers, driving in 148 RBIs, leading the Big Red Machine to its first World Series. Ty Cobb hit .377 with 76 stolen bases. Alex Rodriguez led the league in hits and hit 40 homers for the first time. Henry Aaron won his first batting title.

Anytime you talk about great 22-year-old seasons, you have to mention Pistol Pete Reiser. He was a gung-ho, slam-into-walls player many have compared to Harper. Reiser led the league in hitting, runs, doubles, triples and slugging percentage in 1941. At that moment, if you had given baseball decision makers the option to have Ted Williams or Pete Reiser (born 7 1/2 months apart), many would have taken Reiser. And remember that was the same year that Williams hit .400.

Well, that’s the most famous age-22 season of them all — the year Ted Williams hit .406.

MORE: Baseball’s new Ted Williams — Would you believe it’s Joey Votto?

This Bryce Harper season is the best age-22 seasons since Teddy Ballgame. He leads the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, runs scored and Wins Above Replacement. Just about everyone predicted that Harper would become this kind of star, but there’s still something jolting about how quickly Harper went from park to idling to 200 mph.

For fun, let’s compare Harper to Ted Williams in 1941. That will be sacrilegious for some, but it gets to the point of just how good a year Harper is having.

Let’s look at the offensive numbers first:

Williams in 1941: .406/.533/.735 with 185 hits, 33 doubles, 3 triples, 37 homers, 147 walks, 135 runs, 120 RBIs in 606 plate appearances.

Harper in 2015 (numbers through the weekend): .343/.470/.674 with 166 hits, 35 doubles, 1 triple, 41 homers, 115 walks, 116 runs, 95 RBis in 607 plate appearances.

So, Williams’ numbers are obviously better. Harper actually hits for a little more power so he has almost the same number of total bases (326) as Williams (335).

But in almost exactly the same number of plate appearances, Williams had 19 more hits and 32 more walks. This means he made 51 fewer outs, which is a huge thing. I asked Bill James to do a quick statistical sketch:

He estimated that Williams created 171 runs while making 285 outs.

He estimated that Harper creates 123 runs while making 336 outs.

That’s a substantial difference if you break this down per out: Williams created about 16 runs per 27 outs, and Harper creates about 10 runs per 27 outs. Big gap there.

You also can break this down by comparing each to the average player in the league — Williams created runs at about three times the pace of the average player in his time, Harper creates runs at about twice the average player of his time.

Again, big gap. Williams unquestionably created quite a few more runs than Harper.

MORE: Harper has strongest case for NL MVP

But, well, three buts:

1. But Runs Created is only one way of measuring offense.

Bill says you can do another simpler formula: You add runs scored and RBIs and divide by the team run context.

In this case,  Williams drove in and scored 255 runs. The Red Sox scored and allowed 10.4 runs per game – so you can say that is how many runs they needed to win a game (this is a whole other math experiment, but it makes sense). That means Williams scored and drove in enough runs to win between 24 and 25 games.

Now Harper: He has driven in and scored 208 runs .But this is a much lower scoring environment – the Nationals have scored and allowed only 8.45 runs per game. That means, after the math, that Harper has ALSO scored and driven in enough runs to win between 24 and 25 games. That would make Williams and Harper a lot closer.

2. But any of these offensive systems do not take into account defense.

Williams was a famously poor defensive left fielder. Harper, by the defense stats and his reputation, seems to be a slightly better than average right fielder. You can make a little of this (Fangraphs, for instance, sees only a three-run difference between their defense) or you can make something more of this (Baseball-Reference estimates Harper is about 16 runs better).

By Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement – which attempts to consolidate offensive, defensive and base-running contributions — Williams was 10.6 wins above replacement, Harper is 10.2 WAR. That’s awfully close, especially when you consider the quirks of measuring defense.

Which gets to the third but.

3. But any comparison between a player in 1941 and 2015 will, by its very nature, be of a very personal nature.

As Tom Tango says, when I ask him about Harper vs. Williams: “The timeline adjustment has its own set of assumptions, enough that you can basically end up getting whatever answer you want.”

In other words, if you believe baseball in 1941 was BETTER than today (most of America’s best athletes played it, there were many fewer Major League teams so competition was stiffer, that was a more driven generation of people, baseball fans generally venerate the past) then you can argue that to compare Williams’ .406 season with Harper or anyone else today is ridiculous.

MORE: Drew Storen and the value of confidence

On the other hand, if you believe Major League baseball in 1941 was SIGNIFICANTLY INFERIOR to baseball today (no African-Americans played, no players from Latin America, players didn’t train the way they do today, strategies were very different, etc., etc., etc.) then the relatively small statistical distance between Harper and Williams is easily washed away.

Consider just one change: The use of fresh and hard-throwing relief pitchers.

Ted Williams had many, many more plate appearances against tired starters than Harper. Unfortunately, we do not have the complete stats from 1941, but based on what we do have, Williams CRUSHED starting pitchers but did not have the same success against relievers. We have more complete stats from 1957, the year Williams almost hit .400. That year, Williams hit .457 when facing a starting pitcher the fourth time or more. He hit a more human .311 when facing a relief pitcher. The limited numbers we have from 1941 more or less match up to this.

Well, do you know how many fourth-matchup plate appearances Harper has against a starting pitcher this year? Eleven. That’s 11 all year, and you know those 11 were against pitchers who were having spectacular days.  It’s a just different game now – Harper has had about 200 plate appearances against fresh relief pitchers, perhaps twice as many as Williams did. He’s hitting .292/.458/.571 against them, which is good.

But he’s hitting .367/.475/.721 against starters. If you switch 100 plate appearances from overpowering relief pitcher to exhausted starter, well, you can imagine what it would do to Bryce Harper’s numbers.

Different game. Tango has toyed around with very complicated timeline systems comparing players of different ages to create a baseline … but he has found it extremely problematic. Bill James says the same thing. I could make a pretty strong argument that Harper’s season, when you consider defense, the run-scoring environment and the way the game has changed, is every bit as good as the season as Ted Williams in 1941 or any other 22-year-old in baseball history. Of course, that’s Tango’s point. You can argue anything. The only thing we can say for sure is that Bryce Harper is having an historic baseball season.