December 5, 2022

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10 years ago, 2 superstars arrived for good

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On this date 10 years ago, two stars reached the Majors for good. The Nationals’ Bryce Harper made his debut as a 19-year-old, batting seventh at Dodger Stadium. And the Angels’ Mike Trout returned to the Majors after a 40-game stint in 2011, batting leadoff in Cleveland.

They quickly became two of the most notable and recognizable players in the game, winning multiple BBWAA Awards and making many All-Star teams. They both bring intangibles, too, representing the game and engaging fans in numerous ways.

Ten years after they arrived in MLB to stay, here is a look back at what brought Harper and Trout to that moment, how they fared, and where their paths have aligned or diverged since.

Both players reached the Majors on the heels of significant prospect hype. Trout was the 25th overall pick in the 2009 Draft and was the No. 1 overall prospect entering the 2011 season, according to MLB Pipeline.

He made his Major League debut as a 19-year-old on July 8, 2011, after being called up directly from Double-A, but struggled initially. In his first 14 games with the club, he hit .163 with a .279 slugging percentage and three extra-base hits. He was sent back to Double-A on Aug. 1 and returned on Aug. 19 with some improvements — he hit .250 in the 26-game stint which ran through the end of the season, slugging .450. Overall, in 40 games with the Angels that year, he hit .220 with five homers and a .390 slugging percentage.

But Trout didn’t make the Angels out of Spring Training in 2012. His spring debut was delayed that year in part due to an illness, which led to some weight loss and kept him out until mid-March. And the Angels’ outfield situation was pretty crowded, with Peter Bourjos, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells on the roster. The DH situation was similarly packed, featuring Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo and Bobby Abreu — with Albert Pujols newly installed at first base. Thus, Trout headed to Triple-A for the first time in his career.

Harper was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 Draft, the year after Trout’s selection. He’d been heralded as ‘Baseball’s LeBron’ on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old. He was the No. 3 prospect in baseball entering the ’11 season, behind Trout and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. He was ahead of Trout by one spot the next year, coming in at No. 2 behind lefty Matt Moore with Trout third.

But like Trout, he had no experience at Triple-A at that point, and didn’t make the team out of Spring Training.

“He doesn’t need improvements,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said at the time. “As far as I’m concerned, just go play. Get some time in Triple-A. I like his stroke. I like his aggressiveness. I like the way he plays the game of baseball. That’s no secret. . . . Last year I said he’d get some quality at-bats when he’s 19. I still believe that.”

In 20 games with Triple-A Salt Lake after Spring Training, Trout, then 20 years old, hit .403 with a .623 slugging percentage. That caught some eyes, and after the Angels lost a game on April 27, they made a move. The team released the struggling Abreu and recalled Trout. This time, he’d stick around, with the team saying he’d play every day and likely hit leadoff.

The 19-year-old Harper didn’t thrive in Triple-A the way Trout had, hitting .243 in 21 games for Syracuse, with a .365 slugging percentage. Nonetheless, on April 27, the team made a move to call him up in place of the injured Ryan Zimmerman.

“Suffice it to say, this isn’t the coming-out party for Bryce that we had in mind. This isn’t the optimal situation developmentally,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said at the time. But Rizzo also stressed that Harper would play every day.

“This is a very confident person, and we expect him to do well in the Major Leagues. He’s the type of guy who will handle anything that is thrown at him and will be the better for it,” Rizzo said.

Trout’s game happened first — a 3:30 p.m. ET game at Progressive Field in front of 11,316 fans. He started in left field — the defensively-gifted Bourjos was in center — batted leadoff and went 0-for-4 in a 2-1 Angels win.

That evening, it was Harper’s turn — under the lights at a Dodger Stadium packed with 54,242 fans. Harper also started in left field, hitting seventh in the order and going 1-for-3 with a double and an RBI on a sacrifice fly. (Jayson Werth started in right field, Harper’s primary position for the majority of his career afterward).

On his way to second on his seventh-inning double, Harper knocked his helmet off as it was already falling off his head. It was a sign of things to come, in a way, as Harper’s hair is a part of his identity and what makes him so recognizable — and we’ve certainly seen him round the bases without his helmet a handful of times since.

“He seemed very relaxed. I asked him if he had enough sleep, because he came in very late last night. But as strong and as young as he is, I’m sure he doesn’t need any sleep. Basically, I told him: ‘Glad to have you. Just relax and have fun,”‘ Johnson said at the time.

The 0-for-4 day had very little bearing on what the rest of 2012 would look like for Trout. In his 139 games, he hit .326 with 30 homers, a .564 slugging percentage, and a Major League-leading 49 stolen bases. He was an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger Award. On top of that, he was the unanimous American League Rookie of the Year and finished second to Miguel Cabrera for AL MVP, despite a 10.5 WAR season, compared to Cabrera’s 7.1 in his Triple Crown season.

Trout has gone on to finish in the top two of AL MVP voting seven times, finishing fourth in 2017 when he was limited to 114 games and fifth in the shortened 2020 season. He did not receive votes for MVP in 2021 for the first time since he reached the Majors for good, but he also played only 36 games. His seven top-two finishes are tied for second-most — with Pujols and Stan Musial — since the BBWAA began voting on the award in 1931. The only player with more top-two finishes is Barry Bonds, with nine. Trout is also the only player to finish top-two in seven of eight seasons, and the only player to finish in the top five in eight straight seasons.

Trout won his third career MVP Award in 2019, becoming just the 11th player to do so. The only player to win more than three MVPs is Bonds, with seven. And Trout is just 30, with plenty of career left. He’s already 46th on the all-time WAR list for position players with 77.3, ahead of numerous players already in the Hall of Fame.

As for Harper, he went on to hit .270 with a .477 slugging percentage and 22 homers in 139 games during the 2012 season. He, too, made the All-Star team and won Rookie of the Year honors in the NL, though not unanimously on the latter honor.

In 2021, Harper won a second MVP Award, this time with the Phillies. He became the fifth player to win MVP with multiple franchises since the BBWAA began voting on the award in 1931, joining Frank Robinson (Reds, Orioles), Barry Bonds (Pirates, Giants), Alex Rodriguez (Rangers, Yankees) and Jimmie Foxx (Athletics, Red Sox).

There’s no question that, based on career performance so far, Trout is on a fast track to Cooperstown, and Harper’s legacy is still to be determined, but grew stronger with that second MVP Award. Trout is in the Hall of Fame inner circle already based on his stats. But the two have always been linked and compared to each other — because of the timing of their careers and their status as top prospects. These comparisons aren’t because of the shared date of April 28, when Harper debuted and Trout returned for good, but it is a fun coincidence, and a good chance to revisit each player’s path so far on this date.

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