In a comment yesterday, senators69 provided a link to a fascinating compilation of the top 10 players each year measured by bWAR, and noted the comparison between current stars Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and the biggest stars from the 50s and 60s, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
It’s a great comparison to think about, particularly because it leads you to look back at Mays and Mantle and appreciate how phenomenal they were. We loved those two, and many other stars from the 50s, 60s, and 70s without the benefit of the stats that we often refer to now. Looking back at them through the prism of modern analytics in a way lets you discover their greatness all over again.
I first thought about comparing those two great stars from my childhood and the current young phenoms because of this article from June 2012. I even saved the link on my phone, though I will confess I had not looked at it in awhile:
When the article was written, Harper had just come up to the big leagues at age 19 and was playing great, en route to being named Rookie of the Year in the NL. And Trout was taking the baseball world by storm in his astonishing rookie season at age 20. He won the RoY in the AL and finished second in the MVP balloting. The stage was set for a titanic year after year struggle for who would be the best player in baseball. And then in 2013 and 2014, Harper came back to earth a bit, while Trout continued to excel, again finishing 2nd in the MVP race at age 21, and winning it last year at age 22. It seemed like comparisons to Mays and Mantle might be overblown.
It was only senators69’s comment that led me to check Baseball Reference and realize that Bryce and Trout are now the *same ages* that Mantle and Mays were when they started their 12-year reign at the top of the baseball mountain. That realization almost made me tear up.
Here are the player pages for each of these four greats under consideration here in links below from Baseball-Reference.com. Please click on the links for each player:
At 22, Bryce is now as old as Mantle was in 1954. Mantle had a great year that year. His slashline was .300/.408/.525/.933 with 27 HRs and 102 RBIs. He had a bWAR of 6.9 and and OPS+ of 158, and finished 15th in the MVP balloting.
It wasn’t until he was 24 in 1956 that Mantle had a season that compares to the one Bryce is having now: .353/.464/.705/1.169, with 52 HRs, 130 RBIs, a bWAR of 11.2, and an OPS+ of 210. That was a truly monster season, and he won his first of 3 career MVPs that year.
Mays on the other hand was 23 in 1954 when he won his first MVP, playing for the New York Giants, and had the highest WAR in baseball — 10.6. (He would win only 2 MVPs in his career, though he finished in the top 5 nine times. Think about that for a minute – nine times!) In 1954, he slashed .345/.411/.667/1.078, with 41 HRs and 110 RBIs. These numbers, except for his “anemic” OBP, sound a whole lot like our friend Mr. Harper’s. But his OPS+ was “just” 175. In fact, Mays’s career high OPS+ was 185. That came in 1965, the year he won his second MVP. Mays was 34 years old!
Regardless of whether he wins the MVP this year, and I sure think he deserves it, Bryce is having a season for the ages. His slashline going into the O’s series was .343/.470/.674/1.143, with 41 HRs, 95 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 206. Those slash numbers read like a 10 game sample of red hot play, not a full season. And he still has 13 games left! While Trout is having what might be considered an “off-year” for him, .291/.394/.580/.974, with 39 HRs and 85 RBIs and OPS+ of 173 going into tonight’s game, it’s worth remembering that he’s just 23.
What’s ahead could make our heads spin, and what we’re seeing now may be seen 50 years from now by our grandkids as just the beginning — just as we now look back at Mays and Mantle in 1954.