Monday, April 21, 2014 10:33am
The Annoying-Story-Of-The-Weekend award goes to Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams for his benching of 3rd year, sorta-wunderkind outfielder Bryce Harper after Harper did not run out a groundout to the pitcher Saturday against the Cardinals. It’s the kind of story that gets the crusty, old, “play the game the right way!” crowd all fired up. “Good move, Matt Williams! Rusty Staub woulda run that out!” they bellow from their recliners before taking 27 seconds to stand up out of their La-Z-Boy to reconfigure their tucked shirt-slacks-belt-belly algorithm in order to achieve maximum comfort.
On the surface, Williams move seems commendable. As a first-year manager, he wants to establish an identity for his team as an all-out hustle group of try-hards that play the game “the right way.” I get that. It’s a nice sentiment. "Lack of hustle. That's why he came out of the game," Williams said. "He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when we play the game, that we hustle at all times." Unfortunately, it’s a losing mentality. Let me explain…
By pulling Harper out of the game in the 6th, the Nationals miss an opportunity the next time Harper’s spot comes up in the lineup. On Saturday, it just so happened to be in the 9th, when Kevin Frandsen stepped to the dish with one out, runners on 2nd & 3rd and the Nats trailing by 2. Frandsen, a lifetime .260 hitting journeyman, the prototypical replacement-level player if there ever was one, grounded out to 3rd. One run would score on the play, Trevor Rosenthal would strike out Jayson Werth, and the game was over. Nats lose 4-3.
Now, would Harper have driven in both runs in that AB? We’ll never know. I can tell you that in his 3rd season, Harper has 27 more career RBIs than Frandsen currently does in his 8th season. Does Bryce Harper give the Nationals a much better chance to win that game than Kevin Frandsen? Of course he does.
But, the beer-gutted, gray-mustachioed crowd hollers, “He’s not playing the game the right way!” Can we stop with this nonsense? Harper hit a come-backer directly at Lance Lynn with nobody on and jogged out of the box, peeling off toward the dugout after Lynn lobbed it over to Matt Adams at first for the out. Now, what’s the chance Harper is going to reach in this scenario? I have no clue what the actual math is, but I have to guess it’s less than 1 percent. So if you’re busting it down the line in that scenario, I have to wonder why the hell you’re doing that?
In addition, Harper had been nursing a tight quad in recent days. Maybe a player (smartly) wants to save his energy bursts for moments in the game that could potentially have an impact. That is what I call smart baseball.
And oh year, Harper is notorious for being one of the most false-hustle players in the game. His crashes into the wall for no good reason at all have become almost as synonymous with Harper as his “clown question, bro” response to a reporter. Harper typically does some pretty dumb stuff in the name of hustle that does nothing more than jeopardize his ability to stay in the lineup and injury-free.
All that being said, Harper is a very good, potentially great player that makes his team better every time he is in the lineup. His rookie manager took him out of the lineup simply to make a point. Give me a break. Williams pulled a high school manager stunt at the highest level and greatly increased his team’s chances of losing (and yes, they lost). If you’re really that bothered by it, Matt Williams, then pull Harper aside and give him your lecture about running out guaranteed outs because that’s the “right way to play the game.” As silly and antiquated as that thinking is, I’d be fine with it. Every manager has to have his lines drawn in the sand, and this one is Williams’ sticking point. I get that. But don’t let your ego and outdated thinking cost your team a game, like it did on Saturday. That’s just dumb.
When notorious injury cases like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez (and for that matter, Bryce Harper) hit a groundball straight back to the pitcher, I’m much happier watching them take an easy jog down the line and saving themselves for their next inning out at their demanding defensive positions and their next at-bat. If and when that player gets injured in the name of hustle-for-no-good-reason, I’m not going to be celebrating their play-the-right-way mentality. I’m going to be lamenting their production that is no longer in the lineup every day and thus costing their team wins. Smart baseball is winning baseball. Get a clue, Matt Williams.