Bryce Harper And Baseball's New Golden Age

In 2015, the prophecy came true.

Bryce Harper, the precocious prodigy whom since his mid-teenage years had been heralded as the game’s eventual foremost force of nature, delivered on his substantial promise. He won the National League’s Most Valuable Player in an overwhelming fashion, being one of the sole lights in the foggy waters of a lost Washington Nationals campaign.

Yet despite being an All-Star in more years than he has been able to legally drink, there was this notion of of Harper "finally" making his mark on the game. That indictment in and of itself shows the sizable expectations for the game’s most anticipated talent in its long-standing history.

Ironically enough, it was a year in which Harper entered the season as maligned by his contemporaries as he was by toe-tapping fans, awaiting the arrival of the heralded talent that had seemingly been passed by other players in his age bracket. In March, he was voted the “most overrated player in the game” in a poll conducted among MLB players. Yet that was more of an indictment of the unapologetic intensity and approach that Harper takes to the game, as well as a fair amount of jealously as well. He plays with the type of hard-nosed style that little league coaches implore their young players take on, yet he also backs it up with a certain level of bravado and flair that are often reserved for the front man of a rock band instead of the face of one of the most conservative of the big four leagues in American sports.

He ruffles feathers nearly as easily has he turns on fastballs in on his hands. Jonathan Papelbon can surely attest to this. Yet he has now firmly established himself as being past the days of potential and fully realized as a force of nature in the game.

Instead of making headlines in reply, he simply punished pitchers all summer at what ultimately become an historic rate. Harper became the third youngest MVP in baseball history, with only slightly earlier birth dates by Johnny Bench and Stan Musial allowing them to take home the honor earlier in their 22nd years, respectively.

Harper’s dominance over the game last season at such a young age was simply without precedence. Among his areas of statistical dominance last summer, he most chiefly led the National League with 42 home runs while hitting for a .330 average as well, the second best total in the NL.

To put how impressive that is for where Harper’s career is currently stationed, Albert Pujols first reached the feat of matching 40 home runs with a .330 average at age 23, which Harper turned shortly after the season ended. Mickey Mantle, meanwhile, was still two years away from his first year of the dual accomplishment when he was 22, and the same thing goes for Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth first reached the level at age 25. Miguel Cabrera met the measure at 29. Even the illustrious Ted Williams didn’t see such a season until he was 30, while Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Hank Aaron never did it.

Even the Magic Johnson to his Larry Bird, Mike Trout, is yet to pull in such a year.

All in all, Harper’s 2015 season made the players in history to perform the feat at such a young age become a robust club of two, with Bryce and the incomparable Joe DiMaggio being the only card-carrying members.

Yet despite such an exclusive output, patience is not something there is a stockpile of in today’s game, albeit for good reason. More than ever before, baseball’s youth is more empowered and impactful. Historically, top talents have spent years in the slow cooker of the minor leagues, destroying their overmatched peers whilst sifting themselves out in route to the Show. But there is a wider-spanning cloak of younger, vibrant talent in today’s game than has been seen before in Major League Baseball.

Simply put, the young talent in the game is astounding. At 24, Trout is neck and neck with Harper as the preeminent young talent in the game. Already an MVP winner in 2014, he has never finished outside of the top two in American League MVP voting in his career.

The Chicago Cubs' stockpile of young talent has positioned them as perhaps the best team in the National League headed into 2016, and the majority of the due should be paid to their under-25 collection of assets. Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and the NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant are all still awaiting their 25th birthdays.

In 2013, the Miami Marlins’ Jose Fernandez dominated the game unlike any 20-year-old ever had. Three years later, he has emerged untarnished on the other side of Tommy John surgery, owns the lowest active career ERA in the game and is still yet to lose a home game in his career.

A more recent Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa, should already be considered the top shortstop in his league (at least) and turned 21 in September amid the Houston Astros’ surge into the postseason.

Correa’s middle infield mate in Houston, Jose Altuve, is not doing too shabby for himself either. The 25-year-old has run up 425 hits over the past two seasons and was the 2014 AL batting champ as well.

And if Correa is not the top shortstop in the AL, then it surely is the 22-year-old Boston Red Sox Xander Bogaerts. His 196 hits were the second highest mark in the American League last year and earned him a Silver Slugger.

At only 23, Manny Machado hit 35 home runs for the Baltimore Orioles, while standing as arguably the most brilliant defensive third baseman of his era.

And if Machado does not deserve that specific accolade, surely the brilliant glove of the 24-year-old Nolan Arenado deserves the nod. As just a slight add-on, he also tied Harper atop the NL home run board this year and led the circuit with 130 RBI as well.

The St. Louis Cardinals are bidding their immediate success on the backs of their future, with a group that includes All-Star pitchers in Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, who are either just meeting or well removed from their 25th years of life.

What’s more is that this is only the extreme tip of the iceberg of relative youth that is guiding the hand of the game. Well-established stars such as Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Harvey, Madison Bumgarner, Jason Heyward, Sonny Gray and Anthony Rizzo are still just barely 26 themselves.

The days of Major League Baseball being considered a relic are officially gone, as this young cadre of talent is bringing the type of youthful energy to the game that has long been reserved for the NBA and NFL. Harper could be considered the leader of the new school as he fulfills the task ahead of him in becoming baseball’s LeBron James. It is a road full of peers who could very well usher in a new golden era of for pulling the "pastime" into the present — and well beyond.

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