The Nationals-Cubs series wrapped up Wednesday night with another low-scoring affair, a 3-0 Washington victory driven by a classic Max Scherzer performance (7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 13 K). However, Bryce Harper added his second homer of the series and thus had the last rebuttal in a newly-emerging debate: Who’s got the brighter future—Harper or Kris Bryant?
It’s easy to forget Harper is nine month Bryant’s junior, particularly if you’ve had your ear to the ground regarding young prospects in the last few years. As much hype as has surrounded Kris Bryant during and since his 43 home run campaign last season, Harper has been catching scouts’ eyes since he was 12 years old and drawn comparisons to some all-time greats leading up to his Major League debut at 19. This early-week series in Wrigley gave us our first head-to-head comparison of these rising stars. It reminds me a bit of the period in the mid-‘90s when Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar all began to make their individual arguments for being the best young hitter in baseball.
Instead of comparing these two by their scouting reports and reputations, let’s use this face-off between the two as an excuse to compare where they’re both at right now. Their individual futures are both bright and we’ll be seeing them square off against each other many more times, but which one’s skills are most fully-realized right now?
Hitting for average/Getting on base: HARPER
When Harper came up in 2012, he was immediately overshadowed by the ascendance of Mike Trout to the Platonic ideal of a perfect baseball player. Still, his rookie and sophomore campaigns were impressive regardless of his age. He socked at least 20 homers in both seasons while working on his plate discipline (which manifested in marked improvement in his walk and strikeout rates in 2013). Last season was a bit rocky—his slash line and batted ball rates stayed around his career norms, but he struck out a career-high 26.3% of the time. Now, he’s taking his doubters by surprise with an all-around excellent campaign.
Bryant’s never been a slouch at the plate in his (incredibly young) pro career, he managed a .327 average and a .426 on-base percentage across all minor league levels before being promoted this season. His time in the majors has resulted in an expected drop in both numbers, but he’s shown impressive early discipline with a walk rate just shy of 15%.
In the series against each other, both had incredibly similar stat lines. Both struck out three times in ten at-bats, but Harper had three walks to Bryant’s one and three hits to Bryant’s two (which were both homers). Harper across the board has shown this year an improved ability to get on base and one of the differentiating factors is how they each tend to hit the ball. Harper and Bryant are both adept at hitting the ball with authority to the opposite field, but Harper’s tendency to hit more line drives helps more of those balls in play fall for hits. Kris Bryant right now is close to an extreme fly ball hitter (with a fly ball rate of nearly 50%) and that will hurt his average and BABIP—though not his overall value—in the long run.
Hitting for power: BRYANT
Both Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant have the sort of power that inspire pages and pages of anecdotal “I was there” stories, tales that may get a bit embellished as they make their way from batting practice to general circulation but are awesome nonetheless.
We saw plenty of that in this series, despite their five combined hits. Four of those five hits were home runs, with Kris Bryant adding one more story of his to the collection:
That 477-foot blast left the bat at just over 106 MPH and carried all the way to somewhere beyond the new scoreboard in left field. This came after there had been some coverage wondering if Bryant was pulling the ball enough. He’s pulled only 15.6% of fly balls this year (though he’s evenly spread his line drives all around):
That was his second bomb of the series to left field—it’s just speculation, but perhaps he’ll begin to pull the ball more in the coming weeks as his timing gets better. Bryant is so strong and has such a smooth swing that he regularly makes good contact on his swings, but as his plate discipline and pitch recognition improve, so will the frequency that he turns on pitches.
Harper’s first home run of the series was a wind-assisted fly ball to left that just got over the outfield wall, but his second—his 18th of the season—was a much more authoritative drive to left.
Notice that too was a line drive (or a fliner, if you will). Harper’s fly ball rate is way up this season, resulting in his massive .745 slugging percentage, and if he keeps it up he may outshine Bryant in this department as well.
Speed/Baserunning ability: BRYANT (for now)
Harper should take this category by default. It’s not Kris Bryant’s fault that he’s not a five-tool threat—he’s not meant to be as a power-hitting third baseman. But Harper’s stolen base totals aren’t close to his first two seasons, between last year’s inability to get on base and this year’s explosion of extra-base hits. At this point, Bryant has five of his own to Harper’s two, though Bryant probably has the element of surprise on his side for the time being.
Currently, and perhaps surprisingly, Bryant is seen as more valuable in terms of overall baserunning, providing two more runs of production on the paths. The stolen bases help, but certainly so must being smart on the basepaths. Harper’s aggressiveness has gotten him into three TOOTBLANs on the season, one of which was being picked off at first. Bryant, meanwhile, only has one such error, but that was being thrown out at home on a close play.
Bryce Harper’s speed an athleticism will almost certainly make him a better asset on the basepaths than Bryant over the course of his career, but that won’t be certain until the data starts agreeing with his raw skill again.
This, much like the speed category, is one that isn’t entirely determined on merit and performance. Harper has a tougher job as an outfield and has more impact with his arm when he’s playing right field. Bryant, between scouting reports and his time in the pros, has been thought of as a solid-to-above average defender at third. If not for his dalliance in center field in April, his total fielding value would likely be close to Harper’s 1.6 runs saved.
Bryant’s primary position may still be in flux, but if there’s any move in his future it’s likely to left field, a position with less emphasis on fielding prowess. Harper seems to have settled into right field somewhat permanently and will look to build on his four outfield assists thus far this season and come close to or exceed his 2013 total of 13.
Overall potential value/Team impact: HARPER
Of course, this one is the least measurable and thus the most like a coin flip of any of the above categories. Importance to their franchises’ presents and futures here means more than trying to guess what records these two players might set.
The Cubs, of course, are one of the major stories of 2015, a team with all the potential stars we’ve been hearing about arriving in droves. Now, they have a winning record, an excited fanbase, and a shot to make some noise in the postseason a year earlier than some were expecting. Kris Bryant has quickly become one of the biggest names of all the new ones, but he’s not really under any pressure to be the catalyst for the Cubs offense. Alongside Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell, Bryant represents just one quarter of a daunting core four that are going to be showing off at Wrigley for the next several years.
Washington, however, is in a comfortable but not entirely stable position. They’ve been touted as the class of the National League with their formidable roster, but have Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span all likely to hit free agency after this season. Ryan Zimmerman’s health is going to be a concern for the remainder of his contract and Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, and Wilson Ramos all have their last year under arbitration control in 2016. Harper—under contract through 2018—is going to be the player Washington looks to for stability in the years ahead, the centerpiece they can build around when it’s time to restock talent. For a young man long expected to become an all-time great, Bryce Harper will soon have a chance to show if he can carry a franchise like one.