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Hustle Is Overrated

Should Nats’ manager Matt Williams have benched Bryce Harper?

3:40 PM, Apr 23, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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The Bryce Harper-Mike Trout showdown is underway and the outcome is, well, inconclusive. In round one Monday night, the Nationals leftfielder walked and went hitless in three at bats while the Anaheim Angels centerfielder went 2 for 5. On Tuesday, Harper took another collar going 0 for 4 as Trout singled once in five trips. Maybe one of them or both will break out tonight in the final game of the series, but it hardly matters. No sane baseball fan would dream of wandering away from the TV screen with either of them at the plate because these are two of the most exciting hitters in the game and whose every at bat is an event.

Nationals fans may be forgiven for imagining what might have been with the two of them in the same outfield. After the Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg with the first pick of the 2009 amateur draft, the Washington club used their second pick on Drew Storen, passing over Trout who the Angels got later in the first round with the 25th selection. Both Trout and Harper, the first pick in the 2010 draft, won the 2012 rookie of the year honors in their respective leagues. To date, the 22 year-old Trout has put up bigger numbers than Harper, a year younger. Trout has a career .314 batting average with 67 home runs, 209 RBI, 88 stolen bases and a .952 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) in 353 games. Harper has a career .273 batting average with 43 home runs, 122 RBI, 29 stolen bases and an .830 OPS in 273 games.

Harper’s power totals suffer from the fact he only played in 118 games last year due to a knee injury exacerbated after he chased a fly ball into a wall at Dodger Stadium and then did it again the same week in San Diego. With more at-bats, he’ll put up better numbers, and the more pitches he sees the better a hitter he’ll become. In short, the most important thing for Bryce Harper right now is to learn how to channel his energy and stay healthy so that his talent may flourish.

Nats’ rookie manager Matt Williams, a five-time all-star during his seventeen-year major league career, is presumably just the man to teach Harper how. It’s bizarre then that Williams benched his star outfielder on Saturday for failing to run out a groundball back to the pitcher. The Nationals skipper faulted him for a “lack of hustle” and “the inability to run 90 feet.” However, after the Cardinals pitcher fielded the easy one-hopper and tossed the ball lazily to first, he still had Harper by half the distance. Arguably, jogging the last 45 feet instead of peeling off for the dugout as Harper did would’ve been superfluous; “hustling,” or sprinting through the bag, would’ve looked like Harper was parodying Pete Rose.

After the game, Williams piled it on. Harper’s replacement, Williams noted, was in position to win the game in the bottom of the 9th, a situation in which the Nationals and their fans would like to see Harper at the plate rather than watching from the dugout. “That’s a shame for his teammates,” said Williams.  

It’s hard not to conclude that shaming Harper was the whole point. At least that’s the impression left by Washington Post baseball writer Thomas Boswell in his account Sunday. According to Boswell, “there is plenty of backstory” to Harper’s benching, and an “understanding within the organization that” his “lack of hustle when he’s sulking” “needs to be addressed.”

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