Effective at 19
Bryce Harper debuted last night, and all things considered, it went fairly well for a super-prospect who made the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. While his Washington Nationals fell 4-3 to the Dodgers in 11 innings, Harper went 1-for-3 with a double and sacrifice fly and nearly threw out a runner at home. Best case scenario, Harper’s first game proves to be a hint of good to come and his rookie season puts him in league with a handful of other iconic players.
Harper is 19. In baseball history, 20 players have had at least 2 WAR in a season at his age. Fourteen of those players have been pitchers, and of the six batters who’ve done it, three are in the Hall of Fame, and another will be shortly.
Let’s start by looking at the players who’ve done this. First, here are the offensive players who had at least 2 WAR at 19:
And here are the pitchers who’ve done it:
|9||Smoky Joe Wood||88||2.4||1909||19||BOS||24||19||13||4||3||11||7||.611||0||160.2||121||51||39||43||2.18||115||1|
Why is it rarer for an offensive player to be effective at 19? Looking over the lists, a few things come to mind.
Nine of the pitchers made their mark here in either the 1960s or prior to 1920, times that offense took a backseat in baseball. It doesn’t necessarily explain how a 19-year-old pitcher could shine above other pitchers in a given year, since all could theoretically benefit from depressed offensive conditions. Perhaps pitchers get more opportunities to put up big numbers when hitting’s down in baseball, though and there’s less risk in trotting a 19-year-old hurler out.
Other factors could be at work, too. Many of the pitchers listed here were used extensively early in their careers, too much really. Smoky Joe Wood, Rube Bressler, Wally Bunker, and Gary Nolan all famously blew their arms out (Wood and Bressler at least came back later as outfielders.) Felix Hernandez and Larry Dierker each had big years in pitchers’ parks. In fact, Dierker was essentially two pitchers in 1966: Playing at home in the Astrodome, he was 8-2 with a 2.34 ERA; on the road, he was 2-6 with a 4.42 ERA.
As for the hitters, there’ve been many times in baseball history when 19-year-old future stars have sat the bench, from Jimmie Foxx in 1927 to Alex Rodriguez in 1995. More often, batters have either been in the minors or college at 19, MLB players below age 20 a rarity in general. Perhaps hitters need more time to find timing at the plate in the same respect that pitchers often have the edge early in a season.
Foxx barely made it off the bench his first three years in Philadelphia. It was how Connie Mack and other managers essentially operated in those days. It makes Mel Ott’s 3.5 WAR for John McGraw and the New York Giants in 1928 all the more impressive and aberrational. Is Bryce Harper the next Mel Ott? Only time will tell.
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