<
>

Bryce Harper's explosion: Has he surpassed Mike Trout as game's best?

The Washington Nationals had the bases loaded with two outs in the seventh inning, leading the Marlins 2-0 and with Bryce Harper up. The count was 2-1. Marlins reliever Chris Narveson had a quick meeting with catcher J.T. Realmuto, and I imagine the discussion might have gone something like this:

Narveson: "What do you think?"

Realmuto: "Do you want to give it up on a fastball or a breaking ball?"

The next pitch was a slider, and Harper didn't miss, depositing a fly ball in the stands in right-center field, 413 feet from home plate. A swing of beauty. It was Harper's second grand slam of the season in his second bases-loaded opportunity. It gives him 20 RBIs in 13 games. It was his fifth home run in six games, his seventh overall. He is hitting .333/.429/.867 and has more walks than strikeouts. He's so locked in at the plate, you wonder if he's going to start receiving the Bondsian treatment: a lot of unintentional intentional walks, and maybe even an intentional free pass with the bases loaded at some point.

Like Bonds, the trouble with getting Harper out is that he's so good at covering the entire plate.

I wasn't sure Harper could get better after his monster 2015, but he has improved his contact rate when swinging, from 73.1 percent in 2015 to 81.1 percent, and has cut down on his chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone. Maybe he has a little weakness down and in or up and in. OK, but you need a pitcher who has the command to locate the ball there and preferably with plus velocity.

Harper broke out at the plate last season in part because he started hitting more fly balls and pulling the ball more. This year, those numbers have continued to climb, with his fly ball rate increasing from 34 percent to 49 percent. He has pulled six of his seven home runs, with one going to center field; last year, he pulled 20 of his 42 home runs. Good luck.

As Harper terrorizes opposing pitchers while Mike Trout gets off to a slow start, I wonder: Is Harper surpassing Trout as the unquestioned best player in the game? Now, all you Harper haters out there, relax. I know we're only two weeks into the season, and Trout's obviously going to improve his .220/.333/.340 line, which includes just one home run. I get that Harper has feasted so far on the Marlins, Braves and Phillies, thanks to the Nationals' early cakewalk schedule. I get that there are readers out there like my chat regular A.J. in Virginia, who likes to point out that Harper has performed less heroically against the Mets:

2015-2016

vs. Phillies: .366/.477/.873

vs. Marlins: .342/.446/.767

vs. Braves: .322/.438/.701

vs. Mets: .254/.359/.493

Of course, I suspect almost all hitters don't hit good pitching as well as they hit bad pitching. That's why it's good pitching!

Anyway, that's worthy of further investigation. But back to Harper versus Trout. When both were rookies in 2012, when Harper became a 19-year-old All-Star and Trout a 20-year-old phenom, there was a fun debate: Who would you rather have? That debate ceased to exist the next two seasons, when Trout morphed into this generation's Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle and Harper performed well but missed some time with injuries. Through 2014, Trout crushed:

Trout, 2012-2014: 27.9 WAR

Harper, 2012-2014: 9.9 WAR

But then Harper became the National League's unanimous MVP in 2015:

Harper: 9.9 WAR

Trout: 8.9 WAR

One reason to like Harper's bat a little more than Trout's moving forward is his control of the strike zone. While he did fan twice against Adam Conley on Tuesday, Harper still has nine walks against six strikeouts this season. Trout has nine walks but 16 strikeouts. Last year, Trout had 66 more strikeouts than walks, whereas Harper had just seven more strikeouts than walks. That's why Harper was able to post a .460 OBP compared with Trout's .402. Now, some of that is mitigated by ballpark effects -- Trout plays in a good pitchers' park -- and perhaps quality of opposition, but if Harper ends up putting more balls in play, that's going to lead to more hits and a few more home runs.

Trout still has the advantage of playing a premium defensive position, and Harper still has to prove he can be durable season after season. Certainly, in career value right now, it's not close. But moving forward? Bryce Harper is not just the straw that stirs the drink, the brash character not afraid to challenge the status quo, the most interesting, must-watch player in the game. He might now be the best player in the game.