19 year old Bryce Harper made his Major League debut the very same day Mike Trout was called up by the Angels. For a while, they were both linked as the two young stars simply thrashed through Major League pitching. Harper started unbelievably, especially when factoring in his age. He hit .271/.355/.505 with 5 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 10 RBI, and even drawing 13 walks. He followed that up with a productive June. It looked like Harper would lock up Rookie of the Year honors and have the best 19 year old season in Major League history.
But, it rarely works that way. It didnít for Harper.
The League caught up with him. The daily grind of being a Major Leaguer also caught up with the phenom. His patience that he demonstrated during the first month began to wane. 19 year olds rarely become instant stars.
Many future stars would debut with solid, yet unspectacular 19 year old rookie seasons. Ken Griffey Jr. hit .264/.329/.420 with 23 doubles, 16 home runs, and 61 RBI in 455 at bats. Mickey Mantle hit .267/.349/.443 with 11 doubles, 5 triples, 13 home runs, and 65 RBI in 341 at bats. Alex Rodriguez would hit just .232/.264/.408 in 142 at bats. Adrian Beltre hit just .215/.278/.369.
The list of 19 year olds who had great seasons is quite small. Mel Ott hit .322/.397/.524 as a 19 year old, but that was actually his third season in the Major Leagues. Tony Conigliaro hit .290/.354/.530 with 24 home runs and was on his way to a tremendous career before he was beaned just two seasons later. It has been rare for a 19 year old to come up and succeed right away.
We only have to look at Mike Trout for even more proof. Trout was called up last season by the Angels, who were hoping for the spark he has provided this season. It didnít happen as Trout looked simply overmatched. His .220/.281/.390 slash line is a far cry from this seasonís ridiculous totals.
Yet, Harper has received some criticism as being a disappointment. The 19 year old did go through a terrible July during which he hit just .222/.306/.313. He finished August with a .243/.292/.456 slash line. Is Harper overmatched? Could he be a disappointment?
The answer to both is no.
Yes, Bryce Harper has gone through two months of a season and his hit poorly. He is walking a bit less and, until recently, he was going through a power outage. But, there are a few reasons why he has struggled. First, the league has adjusted to Harper. Secondly, Harper hasnít played this much baseball in his life. He took his GED so he could play community college baseball. He played in 109 games last season in the Minor Leagues. He has already far surpassed that total when his 21 Minor League games before his call up to the Majors is factored in.
But, most importantly, he was going through a funk. His lack of patience caused him to swing at more pitches. Some may believe that BABIP is a statistic about luck. That is one of the biggest fallacies in the game. While luck can be a small part of the BABIP equation, it really is a skill. Harperís BABIPís for the first three months of the season read: .333, .301, and .338. His July and August BABIPís were .276 and .257.
The immediate conclusion would be to say that Harper has been very unlucky the past two months. Surely, there have been some balls that were hit right at fielders for outs, most likely in July. But, his BABIP totals werenít about luck. They were about the type of contact he was making, which is more of an indication of failing to adjust to how the league was pitching him. In July, his line drive percentage was 26.3%, his highest total for any month of the season. But, in August, it was just 17.5%, while his groundball percentage rose to 50%. When combining those with his season low 7% walk rate in August, the image of Harper chasing too many pitches and striking out often is clear.
But, thatís normal for a 19 year old. And, he is showing signs of coming out of the funk. While his August statistics look poor, he finished the month rather strong. During his last three games, he 6 hits in 14 at bats, including 3 home runs. In his last 13 games of August, he hit .302/.346/.700 with 2 doubles, 1 triple, 5 home runs, and 13 RBI. While he is still prone to the strikeout (11 during that time) and allergic to the walk (just 2), it seems that he is finding his way after a difficult stretch while playing for a first place team and under extreme expectations.
And, his overall numbers---.254/.324/.430 along with 19 doubles, 6 triples, 15 home runs, 45 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 433 at bats--look pretty similar to Griffeyís and Mantleís. Neither Griffey nor Mantle were disappointments.