History in the making: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are baseball’s best players at 23 and 22

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I know they both receive plenty of attention, but while looking over the All-Star rosters it struck me that we’re seeing something truly special with Angels center fielder Mike Trout and Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper being the two best players in baseball at ages 23 and 22.

Trout, the reigning MVP, leads the American League in home runs, slugging percentage, runs scored, and Wins Above Replacement at age 23.

Harper, an All-Star in 2012 and 2013 having a spectacular breakout season, leads the National League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and Wins Above Replacement at age 22.

Players who’re that great and that young just don’t come around very often, so two of them dominating baseball at the same time is amazing. Here are a couple stats to illustrate my point, via Baseball-Reference.com’s indispensable “Play Index.”

First, here are the highest OPS totals ever posted by a 22-year-old:

1.287 – Ted Williams, 1941
1.168 – BRYCE HARPER, 2015
1.085 – Joe DiMaggio, 1937
1.066 – Jimmie Foxx, 1930
1.026 – Eddie Mathews, 1954

Harper will probably come back down to earth a bit in the second half, but still seems likely to finish the season with an OPS solidly above 1.000. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, and Eddie Mathews are the only 22-year-olds in baseball history to top a 1.025 OPS and they’re all in the Hall of Fame.

As the reigning AL MVP and many people’s pick to win the award in 2012 and 2013 as well Trout has been doing the historic excellence thing for longer than Harper, so here are the highest career Wins Above Replacement totals compiled by hitters through the end of their age-23 seasons:

36.0 – Ty Cobb
34.2 – Ted Williams
34.1 – MIKE TROUT
31.4 – Mel Ott
30.1 – Ken Griffey Jr.
29.7 – Mickey Mantle
27.7 – Alex Rodriguez

Incredible company and here’s the thing: Trout still has two-and-a-half months remaining in his age-23 season, which means there’s a very strong chance he’ll pass Ted Williams and Ty Cobb to sit atop that list.

I realize “Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are both really good and really young” isn’t exactly a ground-breaking revelation, but I’m still not sure that we fully grasp the level of young greatness we’re witnessing right now.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.