If you’re a baseball fan, you have to be excited for the future of the game. I mean, just look at the wave of young superstars in the game. Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez, Anthony Rizzo, Billy Hamilton, Nolan Arenado, Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg (let’s not forget, he is still only 25), Taijuan Walker, and Wil Myers are just a couple of young superstars who are currently in the game. This doesn’t include the incoming Byron Buxton, Oscar Taveras, Javier Baez, Noah Syndergaard, Gregory Polanco, and Mark Appel. The list could go on and on. It’s all great news for baseball.
Yet, this group of players does not include arguably the two most polarizing, exciting, and highest ceiling players around, 21-year-old Washington Nationals’ outfielder Bryce Harper and 23-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Yasiel Puig. Both of these players bring so much to the field, and off of it as well. These five-tool athletes can do it all. They hit home runs, they hit for average, they get on base, they steal bases, they have killer arms, they roam the outfield, and they will run through a wall for their team (seriously, they’ve done it). It’s all speculation here, but if these two players were to ever reach their potential, they could be the best players of our generation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big IF. A lot of players have potential. Potential is such a fun word to throw around. We all love potential. With that being said, I think we can all agree that if these two can reach their highest potential, we could be in for something very special.
Now the question is, you’re the GM of your favorite team (exciting, huh?). Both Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig fall into your lap. But here is the fun part. You can only pick one. I know, right? You read this and you thought, “Oh yeah. Easy. I want….oh wait…”. Believe me, I’ve asked friends this question. No one has a straight answer here. What do you want? Steak or ribs? Cake or brownies? Manning or Brady? Can you go wrong? Probably not. But in this article, I will try to make the picture a little clearer.
Let’s start with a little background on the two. Do I need to tell you any more about Bryce Harper? We’ve only heard about him since he picked up a bat at the age of 3. He’s been a legend ever since. As I believe many of us know, Harper got his high school diploma two years early in 2009 so he could be eligible for the draft in June of 2010. Prior to the draft, he played baseball at the College of Southern Nevada, a junior college. In 66 games, he hit .443 with 31 HR, 98 RBI, and 20 SB. He was First-Team All American and Player of the Year.1 Unfortunately, Harper’s season was ended abruptly in the NJCAA Division I World Series semifinals. In Game 2 of the series, Harper was ejected for arguing balls and strikes as he drew a line in the batter’s box showing where he thought the pitch had crossed. The umpire did not take too kindly to that and threw him out.2 That was Harper’s second ejection of the season and according to NJCAA rules, that’s an automatic two-game suspension. Southern Nevada went on to lose their series to eventual champion Iowa Western, thus ending Harper’s amateur career. Luckily for Harper, he was soon drafted #1 overall by the Washington Nationals.
For Yasiel Puig, it was a much different and scarier story. Harper’s ‘Road to the Show’ was a cakewalk compared to what Puig endured. First off, Puig earned his reputation from playing in the World Baseball Classic and his 2010-2011 season in the Serie Nacional (Cuba’s top baseball league). He hit .330 with 18 HR in 327 AB’s during that season and made a name for himself in the States.3 The problem for Puig was he was only allowed to play outside of Cuba twice, due to the fact Cuba was scared he would defect, go figure. I’m not going to go into specifics here because it could devolve into a very different discussion, but his defection from Cuba was a nightmare. He tried defecting many times unsuccessfully, but eventually got to Mexico where he claimed citizenship. That was the easy part. While there, he was kidnapped, tortured, and watched his friends get murdered. He was lucky to make it out alive. He doesn’t want to talk about it. I don’t blame him. If you want to read a wonderful piece with the whole inside scoop on his defection, check out “No One Walks Off The Island” written by Scott Eden of ESPN.4 Eventually on June 28, 2012, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Puig to a seven-year, $42 million deal, the highest ever at the time for a player straight out of Cuba.
The Washington Nationals were not a good team. In the 2009 MLB Entry Draft, they took Stephen Strasburg. You honestly couldn’t find two more exciting players drafted in consecutive years than Strasburg and Harper. What a 1-2 punch. Harper was only 18 years old when he was drafted and the Nationals weren’t going to rush him. After Harper’s agent Scott Boras took his time and signed a deal only seconds before the deadline, Harper was inked to a five-year, $9.9 million deal with a $6.25 signing bonus. He played in the Arizona Fall League after signing his deal where he went onto hit .343. Harper was named the top prospect going into the 2011 season. He hit .389 in spring training, but the Nationals decided to send him down to Class-A to continue to develop.
That season between Class A and AA, he hit .297 with 17 HR and 58 RBI in 109 games. On June 6th, Harper hit a home run off Greensboro pitcher Zach Neal. He flipped his bat and blew a kiss at him while running the bases. This was blasted all over every sports network, and you can watch it here.5 He later told the media he didn’t care what others said or thought about him. In 2012, he felt like he had a shot at making the Opening Day roster but the Nationals once again thought otherwise. He was optioned to AAA Syracuse to work on his defense in centerfield, where the Nats wanted him to play in Washington. That stint didn’t last long though. Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse went down with injuries early in the season which prompted his major league call up. Harper made his MLB debut on April 29, 2012, where he 1-3 with a double and a sac fly.
Once again, it was a much different path for Yasiel Puig. He wasn’t drafted #1 overall, his agent wasn’t Scott Boras, and he wasn’t coveted and media-driven like Harper. He was a superstar coming from Cuba nonetheless, but with a little less media craziness. Once he finally got to the United States in August from Mexico (where he ended up after fleeing Cuba), he was able to play in some Arizona Fall League games and Class-A games. He hit .400 in nine Fall League games, and then hit .327 in 14 games with the Class-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (what an awesome team name). The next year, Puig got the invite to Spring Training; cue the media madness. Spring Training is usually dull, and boring, and only used to find out who the last 10 guys on your 40-man roster will be. This Spring Training was a little different. Puig went off. In 27 games, Puig hit .517 with 3 HR, 11 RBI, 5 doubles, 2 triples, and a .842 slugging percentage.6 ESPN and the MLB Network wouldn’t stop following the guy. He was being compared to Bo Jackson. Yes, it was Spring Training but the man couldn’t be stopped.
Unfortunately for Dodger fans, and many baseball fans, Puig was sent to the AA Chattanooga Lookouts. The media firestorm didn’t stop there though. On April 28th, 2013, Puig was arrested for reckless driving, speeding, and driving without proof of insurance. He was driving 97 MPH in a 50 MPH zone.7 Positives? He wasn’t drunk. Whew. He was actually the DD for a couple of buddies. Yeah, stupid move but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Anyway, Puig was hitting .313 in 40 games with his team and Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford went down with injuries. Puig was called up and made his MLB Debut on June 3rd, where he got a hit in his first AB and eventually went 2-4. Even better, he gunned down Chris Denorfia at 1B to end the game after catching a line drive.
Bryce Harper had a pretty awesome rookie campaign. In 139 games, he hit .270 with 22 HR, 59 RBI, 26 doubles, 9 triples, 18 stolen bases, 98 runs scored, and a .340 OBP. Talk about five-tool player. He went on to win AL Rookie of the Year. Of course, he brought some adversity with him. On May 6th, Cole Hamels intentionally hit Harper because of his cocky attitude. Hamels’ admission to this got him a nice little five-game suspension. Just five days later, Harper threw his bat at the dugout wall after a groundout. The bat ricocheted off the wall and hit him right above the eye. A ton of blood resulted, and so did 10 stitches. He almost lost his eye as well.8 The next month, Harper responded to a question in an interview by telling the reporter, “That’s a clown question, bro.” Many t-shirts went online with this phrase and his picture and Harper quickly copyrighted it.9 Lastly, on July 15th when the Nationals were playing the Marlins, then-manager Ozzie Guillen asked the home plate umpire to check Harper’s bat for too much pine tar. Harper didn’t take too kind to that and the two got into a shouting match.10 To be honest, I think a lot of it had to do with Ozzie going out of his way to stir it up. What’s new? I’ll wrap up the madness there.
In 2013, Harper was able to avoid a lot of these little run-ins. He put up great numbers early, but later ran into injury issues after running into a wall trying to make a catch. Harper hurt his knee on the play and this injury lingered most of the year, causing him a month-long stint on the DL. His knee also plagued him the rest of the season. In only 118 games, he hit .274 with a .368 OBP, both higher numbers than the previous year. He still managed to hit 20 HR, 58 RBI, 24 doubles, 3 triples, and stole 11 bases. If it wasn’t for his knee injury, his numbers would have likely been even better. This season, Harper was off to a very nice start before tearing a ligament in his thumb, sidelining him until July.
Yasiel Puig also had a monster rookie campaign. In only 104 games, Puig hit .319 with 19 HR, 42 RBI, 21 doubles, 2 triples, 11 stolen bases, and a .391 OBP. If it wasn’t for the brilliant season Jose Fernandez had for Miami, Puig would have easily won Rookie of the Year. But just like Harper, Puig brought a lot of “baggage” with him. Last year, Puig didn’t have too many on-the-field incidents like Harper, but he did have many boneheaded plays, especially in right field. He would sometimes jog to the ball, make silly errors, and airmail his cutoff men. He was often criticized for not having his head in the game. Manager Don Mattingly and veteran players on the team often had to pull him aside to tell him to stay focused. After the season on December 28th, Puig was arrested again for reckless driving, after he was caught going 110 MPH in a 70 MPH zone. Puig pledged he would give up driving for the time being, claiming he would have his cousin to drive him around.
This season, Puig has been red hot. He is currently batting .333 with 10 HR, 37 RBI, and a .427 OBP. His numbers should get him into his 2nd All-Star game in July. But on April 4th, Puig was scratched from the lineup after not showing up to the ballpark on time. Big deal? Not really. If it wasn’t for Puig’s previous run-ins, it wouldn’t have been much of an issue. But with his track record, the media was all over it.
Tale of the Tape
In the previous couple of paragraphs, I really just touched on these players’ “issues”. Their numbers speak for themselves. Some people want to say Harper is overrated. I don’t see why anyone would want to claim that. He put up a monster season his rookie year, and if it wasn’t for his knee injury last year and his thumb injury this year, his numbers would probably be even better. Is he injury-prone? Absolutely not. Harper got hurt trying to run through a wall catching a baseball and sliding into 3rd, hustling out a bases-clearing triple. Those injuries came from Harper almost trying too hard, dare I say. In the future, Harper will probably have to tone it back a little bit. I hate to say it because he brings so much heart to the field. He is a real joy to watch.
On the other hand you have Puig, who may even have a higher ceiling than Harper. Harper has been raised with the best coaches and training since the day he was born. Puig has played in Cuba his entire life and didn’t have anywhere near the same resources Harper had at his disposal. You put Puig on a Dodgers team with a wonderful hitting coach in Mark McGwire and a ton of veteran help, especially from Adrian Gonzalez, Puig can only get better. He is blowing the numbers he put up last year out of the water. As I write this article, Puig just made an incredible diving catch in New York.11 Mets fans had to give the man a standing ovation. It was that awesome.
They both still have very small sample sizes, even after a couple of seasons. I would take Harper over Puig in stealing, but both run very well on the bases. Harper has always been known for his huge power but Puig has been no slouch. I still give Harper the slight edge there. Pure hitting? I would have to go with Puig here. In 279 games, Harper is a .273 hitter with a .353 OBP. In 145, Puig is a .323 hitter with a .402 OBP. I remember when Puig entered the league and everyone was worried about his plate discipline. With numbers like that, I’m pretty sure he’s just fine.
One factor I haven’t included yet is defense. For outfielders, the league range factor12 is 2.12. Bryce Harper has a 2.16 ranger factor (a notch above average) while Yasiel Puig only has a 1.86 range factor (well below average). Am I nitpicking? They both have equal numbers when it comes to Total Fielding Runs Above Average, which is the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of fielding plays. Statistically, Harper has much better fielding numbers in center and right field than he does in left. Last year, Harper was tied for 5th in the league in assists with 13. This season, so far, Puig is tied for 2nd with 5. Really, I am trying to find some major differences between the two but I can’t. I will have to say I give Puig the edge in arm strength and accuracy. The man has a cannon.
All of this nonsense the media creates with Harper and Puig on and off the field is ridiculous. Have these players made stupid mistakes? Yes. Have they killed anyone? No. Have they beat their wives? No. Have they gotten busted for drugs? No. They actually both give quite a bit back to the community. Harper used his “Quit Clownin’ Bro” t-shirts to raise money for charity. He also does a lot in the local communities with kids. If you follow anything Puig related on social media, the man is always willing to take pictures with kids. He also does a ton in the LA community with kids in the off-season. Let’s cut them some slack. Harper was only allowed to legally drink about seven months ago. These two players bring so much fire and passion to the game, you either love them or hate them. I prefer to love them both.
Now, the answer I know you all have been looking for. Who ya got? As you can see, I think these players both will become superstars, if they aren’t already. Puig is putting up mammoth numbers right now, and I believe if Harper was healthy he would be doing the same. But if I needed to put one player on my team, it would be… Bryce Harper. By an eyelash. And I only have one reason for you. Age. Bryce Harper is 21 years old. That’s it. He doesn’t turn 22 till AFTER the season. I’d lock this guy up to a 15-year deal right now. He won’t hit his prime for another four seasons. Are you kidding me? Puig is “23 years old”. I say it like that because do we really know how old any Cuban baseball player is? Shoot, we might not even know his real name (kidding… kind of).
In the end, I don’t care who is on my team. I really would take either. But my pick, after I flipped my coin, was Bryce Harper. Who YOU got?
9 x (Putouts + Assists) / Innings Played ↩