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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.”

However, Boswell doesn’t provide much “backstory.” What we get instead is a catalogue of complaints about Harper’s vanity—he owns an eye-black company, a fact that Boswell finds “ridiculous”; he gets emotional when he flies out with his team down 8-0; he packs his favorite bats in a gigantic case, “shining like so many Stradivarius violins”; and then there’s Harper’s  “fabu-deluxe hairdo.” Making fun of a 21-year-old’s haircut is unworthy of one of the best baseball writers around, but apparently Boswell’s mockery serves a higher purpose. “Williams,” he writes, “with the Nats’ front office fully behind him, is folding Harper into the context of the team, not letting him be mistaken as its leader or superstar savior.”

You have to love the Post—what other sports section would think it’s perfectly natural to publish leaks on behalf of one part of an institution to send a message to another part of the same institution? The function David Ignatius performs for the Obama White House and Walter Pincus for the intelligence community, Boswell executes for the Nats’ front office. The difference of course is that Harper is likely to outlast the baseball bureaucrats, like Williams, General Manager Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nats’ staff, with the result that if Boswell continues in this fashion he may eventually find himself with limited access to a player likely to be the club’s marquee talent for at least the next decade.

The baseball blogs are split on Boswell’s column, taking particular notice of his claim that Harper is the Nats’ 7th best player. And some of the baseball professionals, including former Nats’ general manager Jim Bowden, take issue with Williams’ decision. There are other ways to discipline Harper, said Bowden, “without costing the Nationals that baseball game, which that move did.”

The episode, and Boswell’s leak, paints an unpleasant picture of what seems to be a schizophrenic organization: If the club really has a problem with Harper’s emotional makeup, then it’s their fault for spending a first-round pick and a huge signing bonus on a player they now indicate they can’t manage except by showing him up on the field and in print. In fact it seems that Harper is a good kid. After the benching, he told reporters he “absolutely” understood Williams’s decision. “I respect what he did,” said Harper. “It’s part of the game.” Not every big-league ballplayer would’ve swallowed their medicine as gracefully as Harper did.

Maybe that’s why Williams went after him—it’s easier to treat a 21-year-old like a child than it is a 10-year veteran in his 30s. Williams sure could have laid into Adam LaRoche on Sunday after the first baseman swung at the first pitch after two consecutive walks and wound up stranding three men on base. That’s the kind of boneheaded baseball that’s got to be driving Williams crazy. He’s a rookie manager in the middle of a shaky first month in which the club has been throttled by the Braves, its key divisional rival, and he wants to stop the bleeding before the season spirals out of control as it did last year. So who knows, maybe Williams will prove himself to be a wily motivator of men: perhaps he scapegoated Harper because he knows that before the star can carry the club on his shoulders, he’s got to earn it first by bearing its myriad transgressions.

Hustle just isn’t an issue for a guy who runs into walls. No, Harper’s problem is that in making the jump to the big leagues two years after he left amateur ball, it seems he has yet to understand that you can’t go full speed for 162 games. A single play is not going to change the course of a season—unless of course it results in a season-ending injury.

Fans love hustle, and so it seems do sportswriters. We’ve seen this before with Mariners’ second baseman Robinson Cano, also faulted for not running out every ground ball to first. But in marshaling his energy and pacing himself, Cano averages 159 games a year and is on course for the Hall of Fame. Fans like to see ballplayers go all out all the time because it’s the game’s most public manifestation of the work ethic. But there are very few lazy ballplayers who get to the big leagues, and it’s not just the money that motivates them. All of these guys have been the best on any athletic field they’ve stepped on since the age of 8, and they’re not in the habit of rolling over when things get tough. All the real work in baseball is done before the fans ever get to the ballpark. If you’re a big leaguer in your late twenties, you’ve swung at thousands of batting practice pitches, fielded thousands of groundballs or flyballs, every year for a decade of your professional career, in winter league, spring training, the regular season and maybe the post-season. Sure, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is a fan favorite because he’s gritty and never finishes a game with his uniform clean, but he’s an all star because of how he hits and picks up the baseball.

No, it isn’t hustle that got Thor into Valhalla—it’s how he swings that hammer.

What wins baseball games is hitting, throwing, and catching the ball and the Nats’ have done only a so-so job of it so far. The pitching staff has a 3.55 ERA, almost a full run and a half more than the Braves’ staff league-leading 2.16. Nats’ hitters are doing a little better, but thanks largely to feasting on Mets and Marlins pitching. Better staffs like the Braves, Cardinals and now Angels have stymied Washington bats.

And then there are injuries, with both number one catcher Wilson Ramos and number four pitcher Doug Fister sidelined. Star third Ryan Zimmerman baseman may never recover from a shoulder injury that has prevented him for two years from throwing accurately to first base. His replacement Anthony Rendon has proven himself a major league hitter but is next to last in fielding percentage. Shortstop Ian Desmond leads the league in errors with 8, and the Nats’ are last in the big leagues in fielding with 23 errors.

In a word, the problem with the Nats’ isn’t hustle but baseball. They’re not playing good baseball. For that they need Bryce Harper—not to sprint through the bag on easy outs, but to launch rockets into the gaps all summer long, and on occasion run through a wall. 

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