Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were the 2012 Rookies of the Year at age 20 and 19 respectively, and Trout was second that year in the MVP race, a debut season equal to Fernando Valenzuela or Fred Lynn.
Three years later Trout has won an MVP and been runner-up again, and likely will be once more when this year’s awards are announced Thursday.
Harper, hampered by injuries, temperament and expectations, got two MVP votes in his first three years, but should make up for it Thursday with a unanimous verdict.
Trout is 23, and will have one MVP and three near-MVPS; Harper just turned 23 after the season and will have an MVP, too.
Not even Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who became major leaguers in the same year in 1951, ascended so rapidly (Mays was the Rookie of the year and Mantle shut out when there was one vote for both leagues and one vote on the ballot. Mays got 18 of the 24; four went to the Braves’ Chet Nichols and two to Clem Labine, who was warming up in the bullpen as Ralph Branca threw the playoff home run to Bobby Thomson, as Mays was in the on-deck circle. It’s one of the great what-ifs of MLB history: what if Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen had brought in Labine, Thomson hadn’t homered and Mays batted. But I digress.)
Mantle was 24 when he won his first MVP in 1956, his sixth season, and it took a Triple Crown to do it. Mays was 23 and in his second full season — he lost most of 1952 and all of 1953 to military service — when he won his first MVP and his only World Series.
Like Mantle and Mays, Harper and Trout arrived as centerfielders, though the former has since moved to right (if he was making out the lineup card, he might still be in center). Like Mantle and Mays, they’re in opposite leagues, though today there is interleague play and daily digital exposure.
And like Mantle and Mays, they’re the best players in the game, even at a time when baseball is awash in young talent (both Rookies of the Year, Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant, look like future MVPs; Kyle Schwarber and Miguel Sano could be, Byron Buxton and Addison Russell might be, to say nothing of Cory Seager or even Joey Gallo, and that’s just from 2015 debuts).
So how many more can Harper and Trout win? Mantle won three MVPs and had three runner-ups and six top-five finishes by the age of 32 before his legs deterioated. Mays was MVP again in 1965, runner-up twice and had seven top-five finishes; from 1957-66 he was in top six of every MVP vote.
Trout has won one and will be top two in his first four seasons; according to espn.com, only Barry Bonds, Yogi Berra and Stan Musial have had four straight top-two finishes and not in their first four seasons. Score one for Trout-Harper.
Trout was the fifth-youngest MVP when he won won in 2014; Harper, 14 months younger, will be fourth. The 10 youngest MVPs (Who were they, other than Trout? Answer below) won six more, but four never won another. The youngest MVP winner never finished better than 12th; one Hall of Famer had five third-place finishes and six top-fives after he won, but never won again.
It’s not that easy no matter the age.
- NL MVP: Harper will win despite the Nats’ poor season, and should be unanimous despite Paul Goldschmidt’s 33 homers, 118 walks, Gold Glove and 8.8 WAR. Anything Goldschmidt did, Harper did better: he hit 42 homers, walked 124 times, had a 9.9 WAR and led the NL in on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649) and OPS (1.109). His OPS was the highest in MLB since 2008 (Albert Pujols, 1.114), and he even rid the Nationals’ clubhouse of Jonathon Papelbon for a week, though he had to offer up his neck to do so. The third finalist, Joey Votto, is just there to fill out the picture.
- AL MVP: Josh Donaldson is the likely winner, and he’s not a bad choice, even if Trout is a mite better. Donaldson hit 41 homers and led the AL in runs scored (122) and RBIs (123), the latter two stats proving he had better teammates than Trout. Despite Donaldson’s homers, Trout had a better slugging percentage (.590-.568) and on-base percentage (.402-.371) and he led the league in OPS+ (176-155). Plus he played center fied to Donaldson’s third base, though WAR gives Donaldson a slight edge defensively (1.5-1.0). Overall, WAR favors Trout (9.4-8.8), and unlike Wednesday’s Zack Greinke-Jake Arrieta comparison, that seems about right. Unfortunately for Trout, he’s in that Michael Jordan-Albert Pujols strata where he has to clearly outperform his competitors and his own expectations (see Ryan Howard, 2006, and Charles Barkley, 1993). Or play on a better team.
The four MVP winners younger than Trout were: 1. Vida Blue, Oakland, 1971, 22; 2. Johnny Bench, Cincinnati, 1970, 22; 3. Stan Musial, St. Louis, 1943, 22; 4. Cal Ripken, Baltimore, 1983, 23. The rest of the 10 youngest: 5. Trout, Angels, 2014, 23; 6. Hal Newhouser, Detroit, 1944, 23; 7. Mays, Giants, 1954, 23; 8. Jeff Burroughs, Texas, 1974, 23; 9. Hank Aaron, Braves, 1957, 23; 10. Fred Lynn, Boston, 1975, 23. Harper will become the fourth-youngest when the vote is announced Thursday.