In the Nationals' final game of the 2012 regular season, Bryce Harper -- sitting on 22 home runs and 18 steals -- began the day on the bench. The then-19-year-old entered the contest in the bottom of the eighth as a pinch-runner, and it looked, for just a few moments, like he might have a chance to swipe a pair of bags and become the first teenager in baseball history to post a 20-homer, 20-steal campaign.
Instead, Harper -- still stuck at first -- would score his 98th run when Michael Morse homered. It was the final data point into an offensive line that leaves Harper with one of the most impressive resumes offered by a player who concluded a season before turning 20 years old.
In gross terms, Harper's historic year can be partitioned into three panels. Through the first 40 games of his career, he was sitting on a .307/.390/.553 slash line that had some (or many) wondering if perhaps all of the hype was indeed justified.
Then, in his next 55 contests, the Nationals outfielder plummeted with a line of .204/.273/.290, serving as a bleak afterimage of the fireworks that had begun the long season.
Harper rebounded in sensational fashion, posting a .327/.384/.660 line in his final 44 contests. With the superb final act, Harper finished out with a .270/.340/.477 slash line, 144 hits (57 for extra bases), 254 total bases, 56 walks, those 22 home runs, 18 stolen bases and 98 runs and a 119 OPS+ in 597 plate appearances.
Since the pitching distance was lengthened to 60 feet, six inches prior to the 1893 season, Harper is one of only 17 players younger than 20 to qualify for the batting title, so his simple identity as an everyday player already makes his 2012 notable. And through an interpretation of his work that combines a focus on his raw counting numbers with a second analysis that compares his rate stats and adjusts for run-scoring environment and ballpark, his notoriety becomes more solid and celebratory.
Here's how Harper's rookie campaign stacks up against the seasons all players under the age of 20 since 1893.
Harper's 144 hits are the fifth most, with Buddy Lewis' 175 in 1936 the most.
His 57 extra-base hits are the most, nine more than the respective totals produced by Mel Ott in 1928 and Phil Cavarretta in 1935.
His 254 total bases are the most, 14 more than the previous high by Lewis;
His 56 walks are the second most, behind Rusty Staub's 59 in 1963.
His 22 home runs are the second most, with Tony Conigliaro's 24 in 1964 the top mark.
His 18 stolen bases are the second most, five behind Ty Cobb's total in 1906.
His 98 runs are the second most, two behind Lewis' total.
His 119 OPS+ ties him with Johnny Lush in 1904 for the fourth highest among qualifiers for the batting title, surpassed by Mel Ott's 139 in 1928, Cobb's 132 in 1906 and Sherry Magee's 122 in 1904.
Rolling these numbers and ranks into a general opinion, it's fairly easy to regard Bryce Harper's teenage season as one of the very best ever seen. Throw in a wins over replacement (WAR) that estimates Harper to be more valuable than any other teenage position player in history and his starring role on the ballclub with the most wins in the Majors in 2012, and one begins to sense that comparing Harper to Ty Cobb in 1906, for example, makes for a legitimate exercise.
Ty Cobb vs. the rest of the batting title qualifiers in the Majors in 1906
Cobb's 1906 season for the sixth place, 71-78 Detroit Tigers represented his second year in the big leagues. After a 41-game stint encompassing 150 at-bats as an 18-year-old in 1905, Cobb posted a .316/.355/.394 line in '06, finishing in the top 10 in the AL in batting, on-base percentage, OPS and OPS+.
In each of the next 13 seasons, The Georgia Peach would lead the AL in at least one major offensive category, with most seasons seeing him have the top mark in many. The very next year, for example, Cobb would top the circuit in hits, RBIs, steals, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and total bases, and capture his first batting title.
Perhaps the most interesting element with Cobb's final season as a teenager lies within those top 10 finishes in batting, on-base and OPS. As mentioned, only 17 players since 1893 have qualified for the batting title in their age-19 or younger season; among them, only Cobb finished in the top 10 in his league in batting and on-base percentage; only Cobb and Ott finished in the top 10 in OPS; and only Ott and Magee finished in the top 10 in their league in slugging percentage.
Of course, it's relevant to acknowledge that Cobb -- as well as Magee and Ott -- were performing their teenage tricks in a league that was represented by only eight teams, while Harper's work came in a 16-team league. Expanding the sample size to incorporate both the NL and AL, in 1906, Cobb was one of 118 players in the Majors to qualify for the batting title; in contrast, 2012 saw Harper among 144 players collecting the necessary number of plate appearances.
Bryce Harper vs. the rest of the batting title qualifiers in the Majors in 2012
Not surprisingly, Cobb -- a player who would go on to claim 12 batting titles and lead his league in on-base percentage seven times -- far outpaced the average numbers by all Major League qualifiers in those two categories in 1906; it is also in these two categories where his work looks much more impressive than Harper's. But in the slugging categories (slugging percentage and extra-base-hit percentage) and strikeout percentage, the Tigers outfielder from 1906 and the Nationals outfielder in 2012 are fairly similar in their relationship to other batting-title qualifiers. And in walk percentage, Harper's work against the league is much more impressive than Cobb's.
Among all of the memorable and sure-to-be-recalled storylines of the 2012 season -- the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, three perfect games, the rise of Mike Trout -- Harper's final season numbers and the narrative behind that line's construction seem destined to occupy a premier spot.
Sometimes a brilliant teenage season serves as exhibit A in a "what could have been" scenario; in other circumstances, like Cobb's, it forever sparkles as a glimmer of what was to come. And while Bryce Harper is still a few months away from commencing his sophomore campaign, it seems appropriate to cast back more than 100 years to revel in the possibilities of what might come next.