Some statistics recently emerged, via MASN's Steve Melewski and former Orioles executive Jim Duquette, that stack Manny Machado favorably against the game's top young offensive stars -- last year's Rookies of the Year, Washington's Bryce Harper and Los Angeles' Mike Trout. The statistics presented take a look at all three hitters' first 84 games and actually show Machado leading in some key offensive categories (average, HRs, RBIs and doubles).
In discussing this talking point with a good friend who happens to be a Nationals fan, over a couple beers, I got back that special mix of pity and incredulity that only a few good beers and a baseball chat full of homerism can bring about. So I decided to take a closer look at the stats in the cold, sober light of Monday.
Two things immediately jump out about the numbers as fairly arbitrary - the specific choice of statistics to present and the endpoint used to measure them. The endpoint is fairly explicable - 84 games was the number that Machado had under his belt at the time they were measured. But many of Trout's first 84 games were from his 2011 season, in which he was used as a pinch hitter, pinch runner or defensive replacement many times, and which deliberately cuts off much of the time from Trout's absurdly impressive 2012 campaign. As far as the chosen stats go, home runs are the most meaningful. Doubles and batting average are interesting numbers to pull, but fairly one-dimensional in what they measure. RBIs should pretty much be tossed in this comparison, since they're so tremendously a function of opportunity, slot in the batting order, etc. These stats don't incorporate baserunning, defense or ability to take a walk at all.
So let's put together a more useful comparison of these three promising young players to find out whether Machado is really being slighted in the media narrative about baseball's rising stars.
The back stories
An effective comparison requires an understanding of where each player is in his story arc. Each player came into professional baseball as a first-round pick, meaning their talent was obvious pretty early. Trout, however, was a 25th overall pick by the Angels in 2009, whereas Harper and Machado were snagged first and third, respectively, in the 2010 draft. Trout is 21, while Harper and Machado are both 20 (Harper being three months younger). And perhaps most important, Trout and Machado both received late-season callups in their age 19 seasons (Trout's being a year earlier), while Harper was called up very early in his. All of this makes a tough overall job of comparing the players. The easy media narrative that Harper and Trout were twin rookie phenoms in 2012 actually belies two things -- that Trout barely qualified as a rookie (eight more at-bats in 2011 would've made him ineligible), and that Harper was doing some historically significant work as a true first-time player, logging almost a full productive season at age 19.
If there's an easy (albeit limited) comparison, it's between Trout and Machado, simply looking with a one-year offset. For any other legitimate comparisons, we'll simply need to look at each player's body of work to date with the understanding that Trout is a bit ahead of the other two developmentally, and Machado is a bit behind the other two in terms of raw playing time.
So what can we learn?
Let's start with a pretty straightforward assessment: 2011 Mike Trout versus 2012 Manny Machado.
Machado gets a clear but minor edge here, and it's not just because he had a bit more playing time than Trout got. Machado showed a little more patience, power and bat control, even though neither player actually surpassed league average in their first callup. It's worth noting that I left Harper's 2012 season off of this comparison, because it was basically a full season, but it would blow away both Trout and Machado's age 19 seasons by just about every measure - most of them not even close.
So let's take a look at the next thing we can examine -- the career stats for all three players (through May 13th). Again, I'm putting these out with big caveats -- just remember, Harper is actually the youngest of the three, and Trout is way ahead on total playing time, including a historic 2012 run that nearly netted him an MVP. Nonetheless, let's take a look:
That tells us exactly what I thought it might -- Trout has the best career under his belt so far by any measure, mostly because he has the most of it and he's further along in his development than the other two. But what are some of the less obvious conclusions we might draw? Well, Trout is the most accomplished baserunner of the group by far. Harper's raw power is obvious - he's already matched Trout's PA/HR pace at a younger age. The fact that Machado plays third base seems to juice his WAR significantly (his WAR pace actually exceeds Harper's), presumably because Trout and Harper frequently play corner outfield positions, where elite MLB hitters have become much more common. The reality is that we won't know how these players stack up until we see a little bit more of them in action, most particularly until Machado has a full season under his belt.
So where does this leave us?
Looking at the original question -- is Manny Machado being slighted in the media narrative about Harper and Trout? -- the answer is a pretty resounding "yes." Machado belongs right in the conversation with these two elite young talents, with a lot of attention probably being sapped from his career to date by the simple timing of his callup (which essentially removed him from any possible RoY consideration). Baseball being what it is, the odds of each of these three players turning in an elite career is probably nearly equal at this point.
That assessment actually opens up an equally interesting question: If you were a GM, putting aside salary and service time, which of these players would you rather build a team around? There are interesting arguments to be made for each. Trout has the most pedigree and the best speed. Harper seems to have the most raw power and potential, and an all-out style of play that's as terrifying to a GM as it is electrifying to fans. Machado probably handicaps just a bit behind the other two on this question, but does play a more premium position with probably the best defense of the three. You probably can't go wrong (or if you did, it would be due to an unforeseeable injury or or collapse), but how would you choose?