Matt Williams made a managerial move today that made a lot of noise, and maybe that is what he was trying to do. Gauging by about an hour of conversation with fans on Twitter, some agreed with Williams call, some disagreed, and unsurprisingly, some just have no idea how the game of baseball works.
Here is my three point take on Williams’ decision to bench Bryce Harper today for lack of hustle on a ground ball to first base:
1. The move to bench Bryce Harper did NOT lose the Nationals the game - Yes, Harper would have been up in the ninth inning with runners on second and third and one out. In an ideal world would you want one of your hottest/best hitters up in this situation? With a favorable righty vs. lefty match-up? Of course. But there is no guarantee that Harper would have done better than Kevin Frandsen, who has been hitting pretty well lately himself.
The bottom line is the Nationals lost the game because bad defense put them in a 3-0 hole which they were not able to come back from. It’s not Harper’s fault, and it’s not Williams’ fault.
2. Matt Williams was not wrong, Bryce Harper should have ran that ball out - At the very least, he should have ran all the way to first base. Was it due to a sore quad? Maybe. It was more likely an immature reaction to recording his third out of the game and a sign of frustration. While Harper should not kill himself running to first base on a clear out, he should probably at least finish the run to first base.
3. Benching Bryce Harper for not hustling sends a potentially troublesome mixed message - Benching Bryce Harper for not hustling is like benching Anthony Rendon for not smiling.
This is the player who leaves so much on the field that the Nats built an entire 2014 marketing campaign around him and the term “nothing but hustle.”
The Nationals have also spent the past three seasons trying to get Harper to take it down a notch. In fact, it was a major narrative of 2013, as the immortal feeling 20-year-old was running into walls and fielders, and as a result was hitting the disabled list far too often. Even this season he opened the year by sliding into second too hard, nearly earning himself a concussion. He’s also been working with a tight quad, an injury he sustained legging out a triple earlier this year.
This is why benching Harper for not hustling is a mixed message, and one that is counter-productive to the Nationals’ long term goals. Yes, Harper did not give it as much as he should on that come-backer to the pitcher. Yes, Matt Williams probably should have told him so, potentially pulling him aside and reminding him that as the spark plug of the team, he needs to set an example for his teammates. But benching him is a punishment, and it’s encouraging reckless play from the very same player the Nats have been trying to cool off for both his own good, an the team’s own good.
I imagine in the long run this won’t even be a blip on the radar of the season. I think it was just a manager trying to make a point. The biggest qualm I have is that the target and the subject of the point may have not been the most thought out. Maybe Bryce Harper did need to be sent a message for some reason, or someone else on the Nats team, but Harper not hustling is just not one that resonates.