There was a time, and not so terribly long ago, that if you were talking about the biggest and brightest young stars in baseball, it was supposed to be Michael Trout and Bryce Harper, and then everybody else. Just not so much lately. Oh, Harper is still very much here, currently leading the National League with 19 home runs, and he's still set up to make money as big as his hair when he is eligible for free agency after this season.
Harper has still gotten passed lately by other young guys, starting with the pair that finished first and second in the American League MVP Award voting last year, Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. At least for the time being, Trout has created the kind of separation between himself and Harper that he and Harper were once supposed to have created with the rest of a field of gifted young guys -- a group that gets deeper all the time. Harper can see that clearly in his own outfield these days because of a teenager named Juan Soto. The line keeps moving.
It doesn't change the fact that Harper continues to play out the most compelling -- and what could turn out to be the most lucrative -- walk year in baseball history. As he does, he makes you wonder: at this time in baseball, when we're told that wins for starting pitchers don't matter nearly as much as they once did, if the team that signs Harper for a long time (maybe even his current team), will give a rip about his batting average.
After Monday's games, Harper's average was .217.
It has to go up, and by a lot and soon, because Harper is too good for it not to, no matter how much he gets pitched around. It's still .217. If you make up an arbitrary list of the dozen best and most notable hitters in the game this season, Harper's average is 50 points lower than the next lowest average, which belongs to Giancarlo Stanton, who you better believe is notable because he is a Yankee now, hit 59 homers last season and has started to hit lately.
In no particular order, and knowing that I've probably left somebody off this list you think should be on it (Nelson Cruz, who has 20 homers, Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto, because of what they've done lately), here is a small sample of players having the best years as we move near the All-Star break:
• Trout: 23 homers, 48 RBIs, .325 batting average, 62 runs, 1.118 OPS.
• Manny Machado (also 25), also a free-agent-in-waiting: 19 homers, 55 RBIs, 37 runs, .305 average, .935 OPS.
• Judge: 20 homers, 52 RBIs, .277 average, 52 runs, .954 OPS.
• Stanton: 19 homers, 46 RBIs, .266 average, 46 runs, .859 OPS.
• Altuve: seven homers, 41 RBIs, .343 average, 53 runs, .892 OPS.
• Mookie Betts (perhaps Trout's only peer when healthy): 19 homers, 40 RBIs, .338 average, 58 runs, 1.101 OPS.
• J.D. Martinez: 23 homers, 60 RBIs, .325 average, 53 runs, 1.029 OPS.
• Jose Ramirez: 23 homers, 52 RBIs, .296 average, 55 runs, 1.106 OPS.
• Nolan Arenado: 18 homers, 55 RBIs, .318 average, 52 runs, .997 OPS.
And here are Harper's numbers, to go with his .217 batting average: 19 homers, 46 RBIs, 44 runs, .832 OPS.
Harper also has the same number of walks as hits (58).
"That number sort of tells you what everybody else thinks of him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said on Tuesday.
Showalter also said this of Harper: "He will never be afraid of the moment."
Do we love to watch Harper hit and watch him play? We do. Do we want him in Washington for the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard and the T-Mobile Home Run Derby? Come on. Harper is that city's sports star, more than Alex Ovechkin, who just delivered the Stanley Cup, and more than John Wall of the Wizards. Harper is their star in Washington even if he might be leaving. Sometimes you get the sense that they built Nationals Park around him.
Harper is still hitting what he's hitting in his walk year. Here's what my pal Brian Kenny of the MLB Network has to say about batting averages, by the way:
"Batting average, while vastly overrated for a century, doesn't mean nothing. A very low batting average does matter. If Bryce was 'selling out' for power and was still walking a ton, then a low average is passable. A .440 on-base and .600 slugging is still great even with a .220 average. But a .280 batting average as opposed to .200 -- I think -- would make him more, and max, money."
And that speaks to some of the issue for Harper, who is slugging just .476, down from .595 last year and .649 in 2015, the year he won the NL MVP Award. All that said, Harper will get huge money, even if he's hitting .250. He is going to get the kind of contract that Jose Pujols, Jose Cabrera and Robinson Cano got. Each were older than 30 when they signed their 10-year deals with the Angels, Tigers and Mariners, respectively.
It's why the biggest number of all with Bryce Harper is this one: 25.
It's how old he is. You know what's a more significant number than .217? That.