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Bradley Zimmer is the Cleveland Indians’ top prospect, the 19th best prospect in all of baseball, according to MLB.com. The Indians didn’t give him a chance to compete for a job this spring, but with three outfielders on the disabled list, they called Zimmer up Tuesday for his major league debut.
Exciting day. Great to see a talented young guy break in. And Zimmer is young, just 24 years old.
Bryce Harper is older than him. Barely. By 42 days.
Zimmer played his first major league game Tuesday. Harper played his 692nd.
It’s nothing against Zimmer, whose career went through a fairly normal progression from the time the Indians took him in the first round of the 2014 draft out of the University of San Francisco (when Harper was already a two-time All-Star). Nothing against New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, who might well be the American League’s Rookie of the Year but is definitely a few weeks older than Harper.
It’s Harper, the Washington Nationals outfielder, who is the outlier here.
He’s been around so long that we barely notice a game like the one he had for the Nationals Tuesday in Pittsburgh. He had two hits (for the 195th time in his career and the 16th time in 35 games this season). He homered, for the 134th time in his career and the 13th time this season.
We should notice, because as good as Harper was in his 2015 Most Valuable Player season—his 198 OPS+, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com, was a level basically only reached by Hall of Famers and Barry Bonds—he’s off to an even better start this year.
His OPS+ through his first 34 games this year: 228, a level reached only by Bonds, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
If you want to talk about Mike Trout, yes, Trout’s 2017 OPS+ is even higher than Harper’s, at 233 through Monday. Yes, Trout has more MVPs, two, and fewer subpar seasons, none. He’s a year older, but he has done spectacular things at a young age, too.
The focus here is on Harper because he’s the one who is as young or younger than a few prominent rookies. He’s also the one who was coming off a subpar 2016 season, which we can pretty much now say was caused by an injury he didn’t want to talk about.
When Harper started off strong in spring training, we suggested paying attention to him this year. If he was as healthy as the early reports suggested, he was going to have a good year.
He’s having a great year, or at least a great first six weeks. He’s leading the National League in hitting (.388), one off the lead league in home runs (13), leading the league in runs scored (42), two behind teammate Ryan Zimmerman for the lead in RBI (36) and leading in OPS (1.271).
Every one of those numbers is better than where he was at the same point in his MVP season.
The number we can only guess at is the one on the contract Harper signs after next season. He’s already agreed to play for $21.65 million in 2018, in his final arbitration year. But, unlike Trout, whose six-year, $144.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels delayed his free-agent eligibility by at least three years, Harper is set to hit the market just after his 26th birthday.
No one does that.
Almost no one, anyway. Manny Machado can be a free agent after next season, too. He’ll also be 26, although he’s a few months older than Harper.
Machado, in fact, is one of the stars MLB put together in this tweet, just to remind everyone how young Harper is:
Name a superstar.
Chances are @BHarper3407 is still younger. https://t.co/81EyTsguBn https://t.co/RLyjDLqgOP
5/12/2017, 6:30:04 PM
He’s younger than five of the eight guys who have won Rookie of the Year awards since Harper himself won it in 2012. He’s younger than Judge, who might well win this year.
We feel like we’ve been watching Harper forever, because he was just 16 when Tom Verducci wrote about him in that 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story titled “Baseball’s LeBron.”
“You don’t know him,” Verducci wrote, and it was true then.
You know him now. You feel like you’ve known him forever.
And he’s still so young he could be a rookie.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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