The Future of Bryce Harper

Matt Williams insists Bryce Harper run out every ball, but will it really help the Nationals? (USA TOSAY Sports)

Matt Williams insists Bryce Harper run out every ball, but will it really help the Nationals? (USA TOSAY Sports)

On Saturday, Nationals manager Matt Williams benched starting leftfielder Bryce Harper, a player who has previously hurt himself by hustling, for not hustling. That’s some Grade A irony, right there. The fact that the Nationals’ game program on that day featured Bryce Harper on the cover and the words “Nothing But Hustle” should add an extra A to the grade. But moving beyond the chuckling, delicious though it is, one has to wonder about the long-term consequences of Harper’s benching. Harper has been benched by Williams for lack of hustle. OK, fine. What happens now?

A few things spring to mind.

Harper’s Immediate Future

Harper started Sunday’s game and went 1-for-4, so seemingly all is right with the world again. After the “incident” both Harper and GM Mike Rizzo said they supported Williams’ decision. Harper likely did so because he wants to be perceived as a team player and, possibly, because he feels he really did screw up. Rizzo had to, because whether he agrees or not, he has to support his rookie manager in the press. For now, all parties involved seem to want to push this back under the rug from whence it came. Harper won’t lose his starting job over this, Williams’ authority isn’t in question, and the team’s clubhouse seems accepting of the decision, the manager and the player. With the caveat that we can’t know everything about what is going on in his or Williams’ mind, or in Washington’s clubhouse, Harper’s immediate future seems unaffected. This, if you like Bryce Harper and/or the Nationals, is good news.

Harper’s Development as a Player

This has zero impact on Harper’s development as a player. The incident will not alter what Harper will become later this season or years down the road. Harper’s prodigious talent will develop (or not) whether (or not) he runs hard to first base. Getting benched may teach Harper a lesson — Williams clearly thinks so — but it’s a lesson Harper has demonstrated time and again he’s already learned.

There is a distinction that needs to be drawn here. There is a difference between Harper working hard to be the best player he can be and Harper sprinting to first base. Working hard involves countless hours in the batting cage, video study, discussions with coaches, practicing, learning in game situations and applying all that knowledge to future at-bats. Sprinting to first base on a play where the outcome has already been decided plays no part in any of that.

What’s more, while sprinting to first base is generally a laudable act from a hitter, in this case it’s entirely an act of vanity. The pitcher had the ball in his hand as Harper exited the box. There was nobody else on base. There was nothing Harper could do. Sprinting would have made him look better, but he was going to be out and out by a lot whether he sprinted, lollygagged or crab-walked to first. Further, there was no knowledge or advantage to be gleaned by running hard. The upside was being out. That was the best-case scenario.

If this incident has any impact on Harper’s development as a player, it will likely be because of its impact on…

Harper’s Health

Baseball Prospectus keeps track of player injuries on its player pages. Keep in mind that Bryce Harper is 21 years old when I tell you that, so far, there are 30 different injuries listed on his player page. Some are as simple as getting sick, but of those, 16 have caused him to miss at least one major league baseball game. While this is hardly a death knell, it doesn’t bode well for his future health. The biggest indicator of future injury is past injury, which doesn’t mean Harper will be an invalid by the age of 26. What it does mean is he may be more prone to injury than other players his age.

Part of that is luck, but part of it is his chosen style of play. Of those 30 entries, nine are either contusion or laceration. This guy is constantly slamming his body into things, most famously the rightfield wall at Dodger Stadium. Baseball people are fond of saying the only way to get better is to play, and if Harper is not healthy, he can’t play. The Nationals need him on the field, both for his development as a player as well as for the team’s chances of winning more games.

Part of staying on the field is a reduction in reckless play. That means playing smart. Harper has been nursing a quadriceps strain that forced him from the lineup on Wednesday. The play in question was a weak grounder back to the pitcher, so by the time Harper exited the batters box, the pitcher had the ball in his hand. Resistance was futile.

Not so, argues Williams! He told The Washington Post, “…regardless of how the ball comes off the bat or regardless of how [Harper is] feeling about an at-bat, he must maintain that intensity and that aggressiveness. And that means running all the way to first base and touching the base.” Why? “There’s a million reasons why. The transfer rules that we’ve seen lately. What if that guy bobbles the ball as he’s throwing it around?” That was the end of Williams’ list of a million reasons. The truth is probably far simpler than Williams would like us to believe. The truth is that Harper didn’t run hard to first base because he was out. How often does the pitcher mess up a weakly hit ball back to them with nobody else on base? “Never” is the answer. He never messes it up. Harper could have sprinted at full speed and he’d have been out by 30 feet instead of 45.

When asked why he benched Harper, Williams said, “This team made an agreement that when we play the game, that we hustle at all times, that we play the game with intensity and the willingness to win.” There’s a scene in A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise asks Jack Nicholson if a soldier can be trusted to know the difference between orders that must be followed and regular, run-of-the-mill orders. The implication is a soldier in a war zone can’t make that distinction. As Nicholson put it, “We follow orders or people die. It’s that simple.” In war that might be true. Baseball isn’t that serious. People make their living through the sport, and that’s not a joke, but the stakes aren’t anywhere near as high. Nobody is going to die if Bryce Harper doesn’t follow Matt Williams’ order a few times because he independently deems it to be a time that the order doesn’t merit following.

Williams wants his players to hustle all the time. That’s fine, I guess, but if his players hustle just when it’s important to hustle, it won’t cut down on the number of baseball games they win.

Harper has slammed into walls chasing fly balls. He steals bases and he dives head-first. He can fairly be accused of over-hustling to the detriment of his own health and thus the health of the team. Not running out a futile play in the middle innings of a game in April when coming off an injury isn’t just forgivable, it should be encouraged.

Harper in Washington

Harper won’t be a free-agent until after the 2018 season, almost five full seasons from now. I’m probably not going out on a limb to say that this incident will have no impact on whether or not Harper signs a long-term contract to remain in Washington. Between agent Scott Boras and his preference for his players to reach the free-agent market, Harper’s talent and the development of that talent, and the five years before a decision has to be reached, so much can happen as to render this incident irrelevant.

In truth, in two months we’ll all have forgotten that this happened at all. That is, unless Harper unnecessarily sprints to first base and tears a muscle, but that’s probably obvious to everyone, except maybe Williams.

5 thoughts on “The Future of Bryce Harper

  1. I’m with you on this. No one has questioned Harper’s intensity or desire before – quite the opposite, in fact.

    It seems to me like a rookie manager just wanted to pick a fight with his star player just to establish his authority. Never mind that no one else in baseball – Matt Williams included – sprints full-bore to first on this play. And they shouldn’t. Like you said, Harper is out by a mile regardless, and he’s already nursing a bad quad.

    If Williams wants to risk alienating his best player by “showing him up” (to use a baseball term) for no good reason, well, good luck with that. But I won’t be surprised if it comes back to bite him.

  2. Read Boswell’s column in the WaPo today – Bryce, for all the hype and purported potential, has had a few flashes of excellence, but overall has been injured and inconsistent. Mentally he is not ready for gameday, everyday…good job Matt Williams!

    • Geez, I’d love to have the kind of “inconsistency” that produced an OPS+ of 135 at age 20. And the solution to Harper’s injury problems is to make him do something pointless that will increase his risk of injury?

  3. I think Williams was sending a message to the whole team, and Harper was the guy to use. If he’s going to bench his best player, all of them are on notice–play hard all the time, no matter the circumstances. Don’t start assuming some plays are important and some aren’t. Williams knows Harper hustles; he wants the rest of his players to play as hard as Harper.

    • That’s exactly what Williams was doing. But it’s a polarising situation and one that could easily lose him the support of his players.

      If he wants the team to hustle, he should be praising and acknowledging every time Harper hustles so that the rest of the team come to realise that this is what is valued around the organisation.

      I doubt you’ll find one person who genuinely believes Williams was right in this situation. If Harper had been close to 1st base then people could debate it, but this was never close.

      For some reason, I keep thinking of Greg Schiano …