Monday, August 11, 2014

Better Long-Term Gamble: Puig vs. Harper

Two years ago, Bryce Harper was the biggest news in baseball, a straight-out-of-high-school slugger who couldn't miss. Last year, the sport was abuzz with talk about Yasiel Puig, both his baseball skills and colorful character. Now that we've seen both of them play some baseball, it's a fair question to ask, which of these phenoms is more likely to evolve into an all-time great?

I was going to split the post into two sections, one about fantasy baseball and the other about real life baseball, but the results should be pretty much the same, really. So it's just one big discussion, split up into the various facets of their respective games.

Demographics
Bryce Harper is 2 years younger than Yasiel Puig, which is important to keep in mind. While Puig may not have spent that time facing major league pitching, he has had two more years to grow into his body and ply his trade. It's often stated (and sometimes overstated) that many hitters don't hit their power prime until about 26-27, so both players could offer even more power in the future. Which brings us to our first non-actuarial skill...
Advantage: Harper

Power
Today's baseball world is power-starved. We've had a couple of big seasons in recent years (Jose Bautista's 54 in 2010, Chris Davis' 53 last season), but it might surprise you to know that those are the only two times a player has hit 45 or more home runs since 2010. It's not likely that anyone will break that mark this season either. The baseball world needs more mashers. Initially, I expected Harper to win this category easily, but it turns out, the numbers had something else in mind.

Harper has averaged 28.7 plate appearances per home run, while Puig has averaged 28.0 per dinger. Part of that has to do with Harper's mostly disappointing 2014 so far at the plate, but consider this: Harper's highest slugging percentage in a given season is .486. Puig's lowest season (of 1+ so far) would be .528. Harper has more total home runs (46 to 32), but he's also played 100 more games. Again, Harper's got two fewer years of growth under his belt, but based strictly on the data we've got, Puig's got more pop.
Advantage: Puig

Hitting/Plate Approach
I don't think there's any fantasy baseball player out there who couldn't tell you that Puig is a beast when it comes to batting average. He hit .319 last year, and is rolling along at .311 this season. Harper averaged .272 over his first two seasons, and is down to .254 in his injury-riddled 2014. I don't hold too much of that against Harper, but Puig beats him easily either way.

Plate approach is a somewhat different story. He gains 78 points between his BA and OBP, to Puig's...78 points. They both strike out in about 21 percent of their at-bats, which is a little high, but is definitely something that can be refined with age and experience.
Advantage: Puig

Base-Stealing/Baserunning
Get ready for another surprise: Bryce Harper is a considerably better base-stealer than Yasiel Puig. Harper has stolen 30 bases to Puig's 18, which I had to re-check because I really thought Puig was more prolific than that. But there's more. Puig has been caught stealing 15 times. His base-stealing rate is a non-profit, because the Dodgers are losing runners half the time he decides to run. Harper meanwhile has been caught stealing only 12 times.

As far as baserunning, the two players both perform fairly well. Harper and Puig take extra bases on 56% and 57% of opportunities, respectively. Puig's been thrown out at home three times to Harper's one, but you can judge that to be favorable towards either player, whether you put more value on aggressive baserunning or responsible baserunning. Overall, though, there's no doubt that Harper's got a better track record on the basepaths.
Advantage: Harper

Fielding
I still have a hard time judging individual fielding statistics, so I'll rely on the most basic: defensive WAR. According to baseball-reference.com (obviously), Harper's career dWAR is 1.1, while Puig's is -0.1. I'll give a slight edge to Harper, and we'll move on.
Advantage: Harper

Final Analysis and Forecast
This will be the more subjective portion of this post, because a lot of it comes down to the types of things that Billy Beane hates: gut feelings, eyeball tests, etc. There's no question Puig and Harper are both impressive physical specimens, and they'd probably succeed at whatever sport they chose to focus on. I still believe that Harper's power potential is exceptional, and the fact that he has as solid an approach at his age as he does is mind-boggling.

While both players' futures look immensely bright, my selection is going to be for Harper. I think his body will catch up with what is already a considerable head and knack for baseball, and he'll leave a considerable impact on the sport. I wasn't one of the earlier people to adopt a positive outlook for Harper, but at this point, I'm a believer.

Final Verdict: Harper
 

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