Bryce Harper’s career arc from teenage sensation to full-blown superstar has been an 11-year process, hitting a crescendo Sunday night when his two-run homer in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series proved to be the deciding hit that sent his Philadelphia Phillies to their first World Series since 2009.
One of the game’s biggest stars is finally on the game’s biggest stage.
Meanwhile, Mike Trout’s wait continues.
Their careers have been linked since they were teenagers, when Sports Illustrated touted Harper as “Baseball’s Chosen One” and Trout began drawing Mickey Mantle comparisons. They had nearly impossible expectations heaped on them before even entering a big league lineup, billed as the game’s next superstars.
Somehow, Harper and Trout have pretty much been as good as advertised.
They’re mature ballplayers now, both in their early 30s and each on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Harper is one of the game’s most feared sluggers. Trout patrols center field for the Los Angeles Angels, MLB’s best all-around player for most of the last decade.
Trout has largely dominated the debate about which player has been better. But Harper has at least one item missing from Trout’s resume — a signature October moment. Thanks to his homer Sunday, the Phillies travel to face the Astros in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday.
“This game is ‘What have you done for me lately?’” Harper said when discussing the Phillies journey this season. “That’s how it’s always been.”
Purely by the numbers, Trout has an edge in most categories.
He’s a three-time AL MVP while Harper has been named NL MVP twice. Trout has made 10 All-Star teams while Harper has been on seven.
If sabermetrics are your thing, baseball-reference.com says Trout has been worth 82.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over his 12 seasons. Harper has 42.5 WAR over 11 seasons.
Or if you prefer dollars: Harper set a North American pro sports record with his $330 million, 13-year free-agent deal with the Phillies in 2019 — then immediately and unsuccessfully tried to recruit Trout to join him in Philadelphia.
Trout instead extended his deal in Los Angeles for $360 million and 10 more years, surpassing Harper’s record total.
It’s hard to blame Trout for the Angels’ woes, but Harper’s recent run magnifies how little team success and postseason baseball Trout has seen. Even in a year where 40% of MLB teams made the postseason, the Angels were done after the regular season, finishing with a disappointing 73-89 record.
It’s been a confounding several years for the Angels, who have paired Trout with several superstars throughout his career. Currently, Shohei Ohtani is the game’s best two-way player since Babe Ruth.
“We’ve got two of the greatest players ever to put on uniforms, but we need more,” Angels GM Perry Minasian said recently. “It’s not a 2-on-2 game. If it was, I would love our chances.”
Trout has played in the postseason just once, in 2014. The Angels were swept by the Royals in the AL Division Series and Trout was 1 for 12 at the plate, though his one hit was a homer.
In retrospect, it was a prophetic stretch of games earlier this season back in June, when Harper’s Phillies swept Trout and the Angels in a three-game series. It was the start of Philadelphia’s rise that culminated in their unlikely trip to the World Series.
The Angels were mired in a 14-game losing streak at the time and continued their collapse while Trout eventually got hurt. His back problems this season served as a reminder about the fragility of professional athletes: As awesome as he is, the 31-year-old won’t keep putting up MVP-caliber numbers forever.
“I’m doing everything I can to stay on the field, but things pop up,” Trout said. “I play the game hard.”
It’s not clear if the Angels will compete for championships any time soon. The team’s payroll has always been competitive under owner Arte Moreno, but now he’s exploring a sale of the team, which brings more uncertainty for the franchise.
“I trust Perry to bring a winning team in here,” Trout said. “He harps on it every day, ever since we were knocked out (of the playoffs), bringing in a great group here to compete.”
The good news for Trout is postseason fortune can change quickly. Harper went through his own four-year playoff drought from 2018-21 before leading the Phillies to the World Series this season.
For their part, Harper and Trout share a mutual respect. Even when Trout was struggling — he was 0 for 11 in the three games when the two teams met in June — Harper said it wouldn’t last forever.
“I think everybody kind of goes through stretches like that,” Harper said about Trout, talking to the L.A. Times in June. “I’ve done it in my career. He’s one of the best of all time. Everybody knows how good he is.
“He’ll get out of it, and by the end of the year, nobody will even think about this stretch that he’s on. He’ll be the same Mike Trout and hit .300 with 40 homers.”
Harper was pretty much correct. Trout finished with a .283 batting average and clubbed 40 homers despite the back problems, continuing a stellar career that rivals some of the all-time greats.
Here’s hoping that baseball fans get to see it in the postseason some day.
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