Bryce Harper Is Making History

The fact that Bryce Harper got to the Major Leagues at age 19 is pretty remarkable, as not many players are talented enough to earn the call to the bigs before they turn 20. The ones that do stick around usually don’t perform all that well, showing flashes of ability but getting overmatched on a more regular basis. Harper, though, is not only holding his own against big league pitchers, he’s threatening to put up the best offensive season by a 19-year-old in the history of baseball.

In his first 121 plate appearances of his career, Harper is hitting .286/.372/.514, good for a .376 wOBA and a 138 wRC+. Here’s where those numbers rank on the all-time top 10 for 19-year-olds:

Season Name Team PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
1884 Oyster Burns – – – 149 0.290 0.342 0.536 0.389 156
1884 Fred Carroll Buckeyes 270 0.278 0.326 0.440 0.347 139
1928 Mel Ott Giants 499 0.322 0.397 0.524 0.419 138
2012 Bryce Harper Nationals 121 0.286 0.372 0.514 0.376 138
1964 Tony Conigliaro Red Sox 444 0.290 0.354 0.530 0.385 137
1871 Cap Anson Forest Citys 122 0.325 0.336 0.467 0.348 135
1906 Ty Cobb Tigers 394 0.316 0.355 0.394 0.369 134
1927 Jimmie Foxx Athletics 146 0.323 0.393 0.515 0.412 132
1884 Jack Clements – – – 220 0.275 0.318 0.401 0.328 128
1878 Buttercup Dickerson Reds 123 0.309 0.309 0.366 0.312 121

There are exactly two players in the game’s history who have racked up 100+ plate appearances and posted a better wRC+ in their age 19 season than what Harper has right now, and those two guys played when Chester A. Arthur was president. To put it another way, Oyster Burns and Fred Carroll were both alive when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. These dudes played a really long time ago.

If we narrow our focus to the slightly more modern era, Harper’s 138 wRC+ ties him at the top of the chart with Mel Ott’s 1928 season, which has generally stood as the gold standard for teenage performances in baseball. Ott was a beast, posting the 12th highest wRC+ of any player during the ’28 season, coming in behind a list of guys headlined by players named Ruth, Hornsby, and Gehring. While he’s 378 plate appearances shy of Ott’s 1928 total, Harper is matching his performance on a rate basis.

And, let’s not forget, Ott wasn’t a rookie in 1928. He actually debuted at age 17 in 1926, then got another 180 plate appearances as an 18-year-old in 1927. Before he put up his monster season at age 19, Ott had already racked up 241 plate appearances, posting a 100 wRC+ in the process. Harper’s doing what Ott did at the same age without the benefit of any prior big league experience.

Now, the odds are that Harper won’t keep hitting this well all season. He wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball in Triple-A before his call-up, and even if he’s playing up to his level of competition, he’s probably not going to be able to keep this up all year. After all, as we’ve just established, only three guys in history has been able to keep this pace up at age 19. For reference, the Rest of Season ZIPS projections that we have here on the site project Harper for a .326 wOBA over the remainder of the season, which would leave him with a final line of .254/.337/.445 and a .338 wOBA.

Even if Harper regresses to the level that ZIPS expects – which would still be an above average hitter, given that the league wOBA is .314 this year – he would still end the year with a full season wRC+ of 114. That would tie him with Mickey Mantle for the 12th highest wRC+ posted by any teenager in baseball history, and if we narrow the focus to just seasons since 1900, he’d be in the top six. By even just sustaining an above average line this year, Harper will put himself in some exclusive company. Here’s the list of names of guys who were above average hitters at age 19 with at least 300 plate appearances:

Mel Ott, 138 wRC+
Tony Conigliaro, 137 wRC+
Ty Cobb, 134 wRC+
Sherry Magee, 118 wRC+
Cesar Cedeno, 115 wRC+
Mickey Mantle, 114 wRC+
Ken Griffey Jr, 106 wRC+

That’s it – that’s the whole list. In the last 112 years, seven guys have played more than a half season in the Majors while being above average hitters. Three of the seven are in the Hall of Fame, and Griffey will make it four once he’s on the ballot. You could easily make a case for Magee belonging in Cooperstown as well, and many think Conigliaro would have ended up there had his career not been cut short due to getting hit in the face with a pitch. The worst career of the bunch belongs to Cedeno, who racked up +50 WAR by age 30 before injuries and off the field issues brought a negative end to a career that was easily HOF worthy for the first 11 years.

The fact that Bryce Harper is good is not news. Everyone has been aware of him since he was 15 years old, and he’s widely accepted as one of the most exciting prospects in the history of the game. However, given what he’s done in the Majors in his first month in the big leagues, we may have actually been underrating him all along. Harper’s not just a great young player – he’s one of the very best teenagers anyone has ever seen.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

Oyster Burns and Buttercup Dickerson have to be the 2 greatest names in the history of baseball.

Oyster Burns — that’s what happens when they’re not cooked. I bet he went on the 15 day D.L. for that.

Well-Beered Englishman
10 years ago
Reply to  chuckb

No injury’s more painful for a man than when he burns his oysters.

10 years ago

So says Adrian Beltre!

10 years ago
Reply to  chuckb

It seems like the late 19th century was just the golden age of American names. Old Hoss Radbourn. Honus Wagner. All you have to do is look at the baseball reference Elo-rater and it seems like every other name is hall of fame worthy on its own.

Dave K
10 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Rocco Baldelli. Shame he couldn’t get it together.

10 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Don’t forget Nig Cuppy or Dummy Hoy.