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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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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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