NPF: MANTLE & MAYS REDUX

Sometimes fate conspires to create natural rivalries between athletes. When two players begin their careers simultaneously (i.e., Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) and share similar roles it is obvious that their careers will be measured against one another. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the 1951 baseball season when two brilliant rookies – 20 year old Willie Mays and 19 year old Mickey Mantle – began their careers within weeks of one another. Over the next two decades they were inextricably linked as they smashed records, won awards, and on two occasions (1951, 1962) squared off in the World Series. Mantle enjoyed more success, winning an astounding seven World Series titles to Mays' one, while Mays racked up better numbers and was arguably the more complete player.

Obviously I was not alive in 1951, but most accounts of their rookie season indicate that the career path of both players was apparent the moment they reached the majors. That is, everyone knew as soon as they laid eyes on these guys that they would be superstars (although note that Mays' first great season didn't come until age 23, after a year of military service. Anyone else surprised to see that he missed a year for Korea? I certainly never knew that.) They both passed the eyeball test. Now certainly there is a hindsight bias in effect here; it is easy to look back on a superstar and say "Ah, I knew it all along!" Nonetheless, the near-immediate success of both players – Mantle led the league in OPS in his second season – suggests that it did not take a ton of prescience to recognize that these guys were both going to be incredible.

I feel like baseball fans are experiencing the same thing this season, a rare opportunity to see two young players who are quite obviously generational talents entering the league together. I'm referring to 19 year old Bryce Harper and 20 year old Mike Trout. Simply put, I've never seen two players enter the league at such a young age with such obviously elite talent (with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who was similarly impressive at 20). Everyone knows about Harper, a #1 overall draft pick who has made headlines since he was 14, but if not for a baseball obsessed friend mentioning some of his mind-boggling minor league numbers I would not have been familiar with Trout before this season. Lots of young baseball players show the potential to be great, but not many of them are already great. Especially with Trout, it is so obvious to even the most casual fan that he has an astonishing level of talent that it would be more surprising if he wasn't a Hall of Fame caliber player 15-20 years from now.

Harper is playing a good CF – a position, mind you, that he never played in his life twelve months ago – and has more natural power than anyone this side of Josh Hamilton. His speed is above average but not elite, but he is likely to put up .300-35-100 seasons for the next dozen-plus years with the potential for 40-50 homer seasons. Trout, conversely, might top out power-wise at ~25 HR but he has ~.350 plate discipline and is probably the fastest player in the majors right now. There are some batting titles and 50+ SB seasons in his future, and probably a lot of them. More importantly, his talent looks completely effortless, whether he's leading the league in steals, winning the batting title by 20 points, or making over-the-wall catches he has no business making in center. He missed the first 20 games of the season languishing in the minors and yet he leads the league in three counting stats – runs, steals, and WAR – while putting up a ridiculous .356/.414/.606 at the moment. If he doesn't falter, he's likely to be just the third player to win RoY and MVP awards in the same season.

To make the comparisons more compelling, Harper and Trout have personality differences similar to Mays and Mantle. Mays was flashy, a big talker, and an anomaly in an era when black athletes were expected to Know Their Place. Harper is similarly brash – the words "arrogant" and "asshole" have been bandied about over the years – reflecting his healthy ego. Mantle, on the other hand, was seen as the quieter, all-American (read: white) boy with almost unbelievable five-tool talent, similar to Trout. Let's hope Trout doesn't turn out to be a surly closet alcoholic too.

There are only two previous times that I saw a player and immediately thought, "This guy is going to be in Cooperstown if he doesn't get hurt" – A-Rod and Frank Thomas, the latter of whom clearly lacked the all-around skill sets of guys like Trout and Harper. Even Ken Griffey Jr. didn't strike me as great immediately, and the numbers reflect that it took him several years to build up to superstar-level numbers. No one can predict the future, of course, and Harper/Trout might blow out a knee tomorrow and never be the same player again. It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that this is just a fluke and they will revert to being average players soon enough. Caveats aside, if I had to bet my life savings ($57) on one or both of these guys modeling for a bust in Cooperstown 25 years from now, I would do it with confidence.

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21 Responses to “NPF: MANTLE & MAYS REDUX”

  1. Z Says:

    "Even Ken Griffey Jr. didn't strike me as great immediately, and the numbers reflect that it took him several years to build up to superstar-level numbers."

    Well, that and he put on about 40 pounds between his major league debut and age 23. Whether they were put on honestly no one will ever know.

    I'm totally with you on Harper and Trout, especially Trout, who I went out to see play where I am just so I could say I saw him as a rookie. The last time I felt that way about a baseball player was Josh Hamilton… I can't decide whether to claim that I was right about that one.

  2. Ed W. Says:

    I have to argue with your characterization of Harper, who has been nothing but sweetness and light (or perhaps grit and hustle) since he got called up. He's gotten into a couple of tussles (getting hit by Cole Hamels and Ozzie Guillen being a crazy person), but those were mainly the fault of older people who should have behaved better. As far as the minor league stuff, you might have heard that he blew kisses at a pitcher he homered off of. What most people *don't* know is that the pitcher had been blowing kisses at Harper's teammates after strikeouts, so Harper was paying the guy back for showing them up. Sports blowhards will tell you that he should have just run the bases with his head down, blah say blah, but a lot of people would probably do the same thing if they were in his shoes.

    In the interest of not being a blind homer, I will concede that when he came to DC, his haircut was awful. Just god-awful. So it's not like he's perfect or anything.

    TL:DR–Bryce Harper is really not such a bad guy after all . . .

    "Harper is similarly brash – the words "arrogant" and "asshole" have been bandied about over the years – reflecting his healthy ego."

  3. Daniel Says:

    The interesting thing about the Mays/Mantle debate is that Duke Snider always gets left out. Snider, Mays, Mantle all playing in NYC at the same time. Could you imagine today's sports media covering that 24/7?

  4. Bentpine Says:

    So, G&T thinks they're an expert on the subject of Baseball? Interesting. I like it!

  5. c u n d gulag Says:

    "Mays was flashy, a big talker,…"

    Er… uhm… how do I put this gently? NO!
    Not really.
    Not at all, in fact.
    Willie was flashy in the FIELD.
    But he was NEVER a big talker. Not then, and not now. He was, unlike Mantle, supremely confident in his athletic abilities – but don't mistake confidence for braggadocio.
    Mantle kept waiting for the day when his Fairy Godmother would turn him back into a Okie mine worker.

    For the first few years, the only player who was probably more shy than Willie, was Mickey, who didn't really come out of his shell until 1956 – his year for the ages.
    And even then, he didn't really become an idol who was comfortable in his own skin until 1961, when Roger Maris and he tried to best "The Babe." Mantle became the hero, while poor Roger, another shy man thrust into the spotlight, became the villain – thanks to the sportswriters, who were used to Mantle's hungover churlishness, and made Maris make Mantle look like a sober Prince Charming, and a graduate of the Emily Post School of Manners.

    I do agree that right now, Harper and Trout look like sure-fire HOFers.
    And I love watching both of them, when I've seen them on TV.

    But MLB's emerald green fields are littered with the carcasses of sure-fire HOFers.
    Guys like Tony Conigliaro, who got beaned by a pitch, and tragically was never the same.
    Ditto, "Ducky" Medwick, hit in the head in his first AB against his former team, the Cardinals – though he actually DID make the HOF – but not for anything he did after he got hit.
    And how about Tony Oliva? A man who was sure to waltz into the HOF – until his knees turned into guacamole (which should make people appreciate Mantle all the more, since his knees were about as solid as the ice-cubes he used in his drinks).
    And I could go on and on, about guys who got hit, got hurt, or just were brilliant shooting stars who graced our skies for a few moments – and then were gone. Their talent or confidence gone as quickly as the morning fog on a warm summer morning.

    Btw – Mantle was the better hitter. Mays, the better all-around player – though Mantle was no slouch there either. Both were among the greatest 5-tool players of all time, until Mantle blew-out his throwing shoulder in 1958.

    And I'll take Mantle for a ten year period – but Mays for a career.

    Mantle shined brighter. But Mays was built to be better over the long haul.
    Mays almost never got hurt – and Mickey played in horrible pain from that day when Mays popped the ball up into Right-Center in a World Series game, and the great DiMaggio called Mantle off the ball, and Mickey's knee blew-out when he stepped on drain cover making way for Joe, his knee exploding, making a racket that people in the crowd described as sounding like a rifle shot. THAT was how bad Mantle's injury was! And still, he was better playing on that one remaining good leg, in the years that he played, than anyone but Mays, and maybe Aaron.

    I don't know if either Harper or Trout will be as good as Mantle or Mays or Aaron – or, Frank Robinson or Roberto Clemente or Al Kalin, for that matter.
    But I'll sure enjoy watching them try!

  6. Number Three Says:

    I also want to push back on the "Harper as jerk" meme. As a DC resident and Nats season ticket holder, what I've seen is a man-child who is amazingly talented and enjoys what he does–enjoys it so much that it's infectious. Seriously. I think that Harper (and actually a few other (mostly young) players on the team) have brought something like "the joy of playing baseball" to the clubhouse. I can see how that attitude can be characterized in a certain way, b/c haters are going to hate. But if you were watching him on a day-to-day basis, he wouldn't come off the way the haters say he is.

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    Oh, and also too – Mantle, known to be as asshole to fans a lot of times. was absolutely and unequivocally REVERED by his teammates!

    One quick example – when Elston Howard, the Yankees first black player, got a hit, it was Mantle who gave him "The Red-carpet Treatment," laying down towels from the entryway of the clubhouse to the rookies locker, when Ellie came in after the game.

  8. sluggo Says:

    I hope Harper and Trout are great players for a long time, but I don't know if the HOF will be around in 25 years.

    The baseball Hall of Fame is completely irrelevant. The voting is done by beat writers, disallows TV and Radio reporters and there are games and agendas played by the voters all day long. In fact I believe no one, including Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth (and Mays and Mantle) ever got 100% of the vote.

    Furthermore, this bunch of vindictive prick assholes waited for Ron Santo to pass away before putting him into the HOF.

  9. Vinny Says:

    Yeah, but did you see Matt Harvey last night? Let's go Mets!

  10. bb in GA Says:

    NPF my ass. You have managed to racialize the damn conversation again.

    Willie Mays was a quiet confident gentleman. He mostly let his performance do the talking. I saw him many times over the years carry himself with confidence and dignity. He was funny as hell too.

    I think you were talking about Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali…

    //bb

  11. Major Kong Says:

    As a young boy in New York in the mid 1960s I can recall my friends and I all idolizing Mickey Mantle, with Joe Pepitone a close second.

  12. JK Says:

    How did Mantle lead the league in OPS? We all know it did not exist until nerds and Billy Beane invented it in the year 2000.

  13. tommytimp Says:

    Is Trout faster than Tony Campana?

  14. c u n d gulag Says:

    PEPI!

    One of the smoothest fielding 1st Basemen ever!
    And not a bad hitter – but a mobster, and a Major League whacko!

    The Yankees wanted their scout to go sign Carl Yaztremski out on his daddies (potato?) farm on Long Island.
    But the night before, their scout got drunk, and was too hungover to drive, so he watched some local kid, told the owners he was as good as Yaz, or better, and they signed him: Pepi.
    Who proceeded to go and get shot, right after HS, if I remember right, and almost died.

    Pepi is most famous for being the first guy to bring a hair-dryer into a Major League clubhouse.

    My favorite Pepi story involves Mickey Mantle.
    Pepi liked his weed, and would often get stoned – but not right before a game.
    And he knew Mickey loved his booze, so he kept pestering Mantle to try smoking some pot with him.
    Well, one morning, on the way to Yankee Stadium, Mantle, hung-over as usual, ad he figures, "Hey, why not? I can't feel any worse.", and asks Pepi if he's got some pot on him?

    Pepi was driving Mickey in his own car, so of course he had some!

    But he wasn't too thrilled about smoking right before a game. But he also didn't want to look un-hip in front of his, and everyone's, idol.
    So he pulls out a joint, and they proceed to smoke it on the way to the ballpark.

    When they get there, they're both stoned. REALLY STONED! Hey, an All Star baseball player's salary gets you some mighty righteous sh*t.

    Pepi tries to beg out of the game, and also tries to excuse Mantle – but the Yankee manager, Ralph Houk, won't let him or Mantle sit. The Yankees suck, and they needed both to play, because that's who the fans had paid to see. They sure as Hell weren't paying to see Horace Clark and Dooley Womack.
    Pepi suspected Houk knew they were stoned, and wanted to teach them both a lesson – but in particular – Pepi.

    Well, Pepi's in Center Field by this time, since Mantle's legs are shot, and he's playing 1st Base.
    Mantle won't even look at Pepi during the game – not even when they're in the dugout. He's so stoned, he just prays he doesn't either embarrass himself, or get hurt.

    During the game, Pepi strikes out something like three times, and hits a weak grounder, and makes a couple of errors out in the field.

    Mantle, playing 1st, hits a couple of doubles and just misses a HR – and, with the sh*tty Yankee infielders, he had to scoop more than a few throws out of the dirt.

    The game over, Mantle goes over to Pepi and says to him, with his Oakie twang, "Pep, if you ever give me that sh*t again, I'll f*ckin' kill ya!"

    Pepi thinks to himself, 'Jeez, here I am, I smoke this sh*t all of the time, and I had a really sh*tty game. And there's Mantle, never tried the stuff before, and he has a typical Mantle game. He really IS the greatest player ever!"

    At least that's the story as I remember it from my long-lost copy of Pepitone's "autobiography."

  15. JBerardi Says:

    "I'm referring to 19 year old Bryce Harper and 20 year old Mike Trout. Simply put, I've never seen two players enter the league at such a young age with such obviously elite talent (with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who was similarly impressive at 20). Everyone knows about Harper, a #1 overall draft pick who has made headlines since he was 14, but if not for a baseball obsessed friend mentioning some of his mind-boggling minor league numbers I would not have been familiar with Trout before this season. "

    That's what's really interesting about Trout. It's exceedingly rare for a player to perform at an all-star level at age 20. But what's entirely unprecedented about Trout is that he's doing it without having been in the A-Rod/GriffyJr/Harper class of guys who projected as a #1 overall draft pick since their mid-teens. Everyone in the industry knew those guys had historic talent before they even entered pro ball. Hell, everyone outside the industry knew it. It's basically impossible to be talented enough to be a bad-ass major leaguer at the age of 20 without scouts flipping their shit over you– except that's what happened with Trout. Here's everyone that got picked prior to Trout in the '09 draft:

    Stephen Strasburg
    Dustin Ackley
    Donavan Tate
    Tony Sanchez
    Matthew Hobgood
    Zack Wheeler
    Mike Minor
    Mike Leake
    Jacob Turner
    Drew Storen
    Tyler Matzek
    Aaron Crow
    Grant Green
    Matt Purke
    Alex White
    Bobby Borchering
    A.J. Pollock
    Chad James
    Shelby Miller
    Chad Jenkins
    Jiovanni Mier
    Kyle Gibson
    Jared Mitchell
    Randal Grichuk

    Strasburg is arguably the best pitcher on the planat right now, and there's plenty of good players on the list, but… wow. Trout is probably the best-kept secret in the history of the draft.

  16. Chicagojon Says:

    Glad to see Frank Thomas make it into this post. I already had him up in baseball-reference not knowing what my comment would be but that he'd be in it. (I was going to compare him to Edgar Martinez (too old ~5 years older), Jim Thome (slow start his first few years), or another big basher (the rest were all on roids by the mid-90's and/or burned out)) but it turns out I couldn't find a good comparison to him.

    I remember watching a Sox game as a ~14 year old and seeing their 'Down on the Farm' report (complete with corn stalk 1990 graphics – classic!) about their minor league prospect that was hitting in the .330's and leading the league in OBP, SLG, OPS (obviously), & walks. Oh, and he's 6'5" and used to play tight end for Alabama. That got me hooked on the Sox and I've been a huge supporter ever since.

  17. bpasinko Says:

    Great post, love when g & t gets a baseball discussion going. Well, I love any baseball discussion.

    Harper's carried himself well since entering the majors but he does have a history of being quite an ass in the minors that's longer than his time at the major league level. If he keeps doing his thing it certainly won't be long until he sheds that reputation.

    What Harper is doing at 19 isn't necessarily unparalleled but every other major leaguer that was this successful at 19 in the majors is in the Hall or was on their way to Cooperstown. Of course anything can happen but Harper is an above average hitter at 19. Ridiculous. To compare, although it was a smaller sample, when Trout was 19 he played pretty poorly – 88 OPS+ to Harper's current 110. That would lead me to choose Harper's next 10 years over Trout but Trout is the best player in baseball right now — at age 20. More ridiculous.

    Trout's calling card is his speed and defense and he currently 5th in the league in slugging. Sure, he's been on the right side of some good fortune this year (BABIP, HR/FB%) but his floor is a solid every day regular and you have to figure his peak would be better than he's performing at age 20. Which is actually hard to believe since he leads the league in WAR after missing the first month.

    Given how much the game and it's coverage has changed since the 1950s it's impossible to completely mimic a Mantle/Mays rivalry, but this might be the closest facsimile we will ever see to that. Duke Snider is largely forgotten in this discussion as someone pointed out, but he also came up several years earlier than Mays and Mantle. I suppose we can say Andrew McCutchen is Duke Snider in this example which is fitting considering he hasn't gotten the same press as Harper/Trout and all he's done is bat .368 with 22 homers for the first place Pirates.

    Side point: Has anyone noticed a lack of football talk this summer? Granted it's still July and in a couple of weeks I may regret that statement, but I feel it's been talked about less than normal. A solid NBA season and the summer olympics/92 vs 2012 conversation is certainly part of the reason, but baseball is looking pretty good right now contrary to what some people might say and Trout/Harper are a big part of that.

  18. Jim Says:

    Believe me, due to the travails of our Carmine Hose, football talk has started in earnest here in New England.

  19. JoyfulA Says:

    Probably somewhere in my parents' basement, maybe near my prom gown, is the 45 I bought at Sears long ago, "Say, hey, the Willie Mays Song," which I believe was a best seller that year.

  20. Daniel Says:

    What made Big Hurt so great was his astounding batter's eye. He would take so many close pitches for balls and rack up walks that way. His primary goal as a hitter were to hit frozen ropes or get on base. Frank's homers tended to be line drives rather than "moonshots."

  21. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    This is pure gut instinct, with no analysis to back it up, but I suspect that Trout is going to end up with a much more illustrious career than Harper.