The Future of Harper and Strasburg

As I continue to work on a large, unannounced project I continue to write about how Zimmerman is currently the face of the franchise, but that 2013 may be his last season with that title. Younger pieces with higher upside have arrived on the team and 2013 could be the first of many seasons in which their greatness not only outshines their veteran teammates, but all of baseball. Don't believe me. Take a look at the ZiPS projections[1] for the Washington Nationals.    

It is noted in the body of the article that one of Bryce Harper's top comps is Barry Bonds, and if you cruise further down to the charts Strasburg's top comp is Roger Clemens. Let that just soak in for a second. The best pitcher and the best hitter of the last generation are good comps for two players on the Washington Nationals. For his career Barry Bonds hit .298/.444/.607, and as otherworldly as those numbers are in his best season he hit .362/.609/.812. That happened to be at the age of 39 and in the midst of the steroid scandal, but still. His SLG that season was a good OPS. Roger Clemens finished his career with a 3.12 ERA, but beyond that he had the lowest ERA in baseball for seven seasons and three of those times his ERA was 2.05 or less.

The point is that two of the Nats best players are compared to two of the best players of all time. Two players that are arguably the best hitter and the best pitcher of the last generation. It is hard to even think of how many times it has lined up where the best hitter and the best pitcher of a generation were on the same team. There have been some very good hitters on teams with very good pitchers and even Hall of Fame hitters and Hall of Fame pitchers on the same team. Teams that win do tend to have very good pitching and very good hitting.

A couple of the prime examples have to be Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, and Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Those are a few examples and I am sure there are more of great hitters and great pitchers playing together but for whatever reason all of those can be eliminated. Mickey Mantle happened to play at the same time as Willie Mays, Pedro and Manny were at the same time as Bonds and Clemens, and as good as Miguel Cabrera has been his career bridges from the Pujols generation to what may now become the Mike Trout/Bryce Harper generation. The fact that Cabrera has been the second best player in baseball for so many years is a testament itself to how good and undervalued his career has been, but second best isn't the best. 

That really is the thing about Bonds and Clemens. It is hard to argue against them. For Bonds there really is no argument against him. He was that good. When you talk about Barry Bonds you are talking about a player so head and shoulders above the rest of baseball at that time that one season he was intentionally walked 120 times. He was such a frightening presence at the plate that opposing managers would rather give the Giants a free base than have to deal with the near certainty that he would hit it out.    

Clemens greatness is much more nuanced, but it will always come back to the fact that he led the majors in ERA seven times. Pedro Martinez did it five times, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson did it four, and along with Clemens those are the four best pitchers of that generation. Nobody at that time was as good at pitching as Roger Clemens.  

Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg have a long way to go before they can even be considered in that class and as interesting and fun as comps and projections are they have one glaring weakness. As close as Strasburg and Harper resemble those players at the start of their careers there is no guarantee that they will develop the same. There is also nothing that says either shouldn't reach their full potential, as both have strong work ethics and strive to be the best. All this tells us is that if these two reach their potential then Nationals fans are in for a lot of fun, perhaps even historic fun, over the next several years.

[1] As much as I like advanced stats I can sometimes see how others can find them goofy. Think about just the letters in ZiPS and nothing about what it means. That one lower case letter makes it look fancy, but if someone liked the overall concept of ZiPS but not the results they could change the formula and create a new stat called zIPS or ZiPS+ or ZiPS-. Even with a simple stat like ERA there is ERA, ERA+, ERA-, tERA, and on and on. To an outsider that doesn't know what all this means and doesn't want to take the time to look it all up it can look quite weird.

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