Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 6, 2012
BASEBALL: The Green Monster
I've tried to keep short-term expectations for Bryce Harper in line, noting in my NL East preview how few rookies, even among Hall of Famers, hit with significant power before age 22 and especially before age 20.
It's a long season, and Harper as of now has just 144 plate appearances. But if he can sustain his .288/.375/.528 batting line, he'd have done something virtually unprecedented.
Harper's current OPS is 903, and his OPS+ is 143. Among players with 140 or more plate appearances as a teenager, only two post an OPS above 900: Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx. Both are inner-circle Hall of Famers: Ott was probably the best hitter in his league 4 or 5 times and retired as the all-time NL home run leader (it was 18 years after his retirement before another NL player cracked 500 homers), and Foxx won 3 MVP awards despite playing the same position at the same time as Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg, won a Triple Crown and missed a second by not leading the league in homers in a season when he hit 50, and was - until A-Rod - the only player to have 500 homers through age 32.
The OPS+ is equally impressive. Four teenagers with 140 or more plate appearances have cracked an OPS+ of 140, but one (Whitey Lockman) did it against war-depleted competition in 1945, and the other three (Jack Clements, Oyster Burns and Fred Carroll) did it in 1884, when the Union Association badly diluted the talent base. The only 4 guys to crack 130: Foxx, Ott, Ty Cobb and Tony Conigliaro. That's some pretty fast company. If Harper can avoid the kind of plague of misfortunes that befell Tony C, he already looks like a guy who may have a really epic career.
PS - I'm reminded again, when you compare his numbers through age 22 to comparable hitters at that age, what a special player Conigliaro was and what a tragedy his career and life turned into. He should have hit 500 homers and waltzed into Cooperstown; go read his SABR bio for a full accounting of how it all went wrong, leaving him washed up at 25, brain damaged at 37 and dead at 45. I had not previously read the story of how Ted Williams warned him just before the beaning:
On the 17th [of August 1967], Tony's partner in the music business, Ed Penney, was visiting his sons at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, MA. Ted warned Penney, "Tony is crowding the plate. He's much too close. Tell him to back off. It's serious time now. The pitchers are going to get serious." As Penney was leaving the camp later that evening, Williams shouted to Penney, "Tell Tony what I said. Don't forget to tell Tony what I told you." Penney did tell him, before the game the very next night. Tony was in a slump at the time, and told brother Billy he couldn't back off the plate or pitchers wouldn't take him seriously. If anything, he was going to dig in a little closer.