Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Picking a battle over Bryce Harper’s lack of hustle

Demonstrations of authority like the one Nationals manager Matt Williams exerted on Saturday by benching Bryce Harper for not running out a groundball are why the team hired him. Williams was brought in to be a stricter disciplinarian — a hard-ass contrast to Davey Johnson, who was more of a players manager, content to let his veterans police the clubhouse.

That’s not to say Johnson was completely hands-off. He did provide guidance toward Harper when his aggressive, sometimes overzealous style of play resulted in mistakes or potential injury on the field. But Johnson didn’t pull the young phenom from a game, nor criticize him for a lack of hustle afterwards. He certainly didn’t go on to say that Harper had let down his teammates by not getting to bat in the ninth inning of an eventual 4-3 loss to the Cardinals.

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One person applauding Williams’ decision is Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, who wrote that Harper’s lack of effort on the play is an example of what’s keeping a good player from becoming a great one. Harper, in his view, has bought into the enormous hype that’s surrounded him since he was 16 years old and doesn’t realize he receives far more attention than his accomplishments deserve.

Is Boswell right? Many are likely going to dump on him for choosing to use RBI as his barometer for Harper’s greatness (or lack there of). He cites Harper driving in fewer than 60 runs in each of the past two seasons and only compiling five so far this year. It appears to be another example of Boswell spurning advanced statistics, which is somewhat surprising for a writer who was open-minded toward deeper views of the game earlier in his career.

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

But maybe Boswell has a point. Harper was third among Nationals regulars with a 3.8 WAR last season and ranked second at 4.5 in 2012, when he was a rookie. Should he have led the team in WAR in each of his past two seasons? At the very least, should he have improved from his rookie to sophomore year? If you’re of the belief that Harper was going to be an MVP candidate for a World Series contender this season, perhaps you agree with Boswell’s contention. Do MVPs lollygag to first base?

Well, maybe they do when they’re hurt. Harper has been battling tightness in his quad since last week. He sat out last Wednesday’s (April 16) game against the Marlins because of the injury. If Williams scratched Harper from the lineup because of the quad issue, wouldn’t he understand taking measures against reaggravating that injury? Apparently not.

But if it’s a dead issue for Williams — who put Harper right back into the lineup on Sunday — it isn’t for Boswell. Beyond criticizing Harper for his “disconnect” between perception and reality, the Post columnist went on to imply in a Monday Q&A with readers that the outfielder sat out last Wednesday’s game because he didn’t want to face Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez.

As to the quad, Harper missed a game on Weds that happened to be against Jose Fernandez. Other players always look for “coincidences.” The next game, he laid down a bunt against Wainwright, flew to first and looked fine. 

That is a damning accusation from Boswell. Is he making that connection on his own or is he recycling rumblings that he’s heard in the Nats clubhouse?

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It appears to be the latter, as Boswell went on to explain that teammates noticed Harper throwing his helmet after going 0-for-4 in the following game, which ended a nine-game hitting streak. According to Boswell, this feeds the suspicion among Nationals players and management that Harper cares more about his personal statistics than helping the team win.

By the way, the Nats lost that game to the Cards, 8-0. Is there any chance Harper was upset about that and his contribution to that losing effort as well? Based on what Boswell is apparently hearing, that’s not the case.

This isn’t the first time Harper has irritated coaches and teammates for not hustling to first base on a groundball. A similar situation actually occurred last August. Facing the Mets, Harper hit a grounder to second and didn’t run hard to first. Daniel Murphy bobbled the ball, but was able to easily make the out because Harper gave him plenty of time to recover. Shortstop Ian Desmond was among those taking issue with Harper afterwards.

“It takes guts also to run out the ones that you think are going to be outs,” Desmond said to CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman. “He does it 95, 99, whatever it is, almost 100 percent of the time. I think this one might’ve just got pointed out because the guy made a bobble, or whatever. I mean, he’s 20 years old and I think he’s still dealing with some emotions of the game. It’s hard to remember a lot of the time that he is 20. What most of us were doing at 20 wasn’t this.”

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over as manager in that game when Johnson became ill, was also critical.

“I don’t think [Harper] does it intentionally,” Knorr said, “but he’s gonna have to start picking it up a little bit, because we’ve got everybody else doing it. He gets frustrated at times and it just comes out of him. It’s something we’ve got to fix.

“I’m not 20 years old in the big leagues and all this stuff going on around me. Something that we’ve got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him, because eventually we’re just going to have to take him out of the game.”

Knorr is still the Nats’ bench coach on Williams’ staff. Is it possible he had any input into benching Harper on Saturday? Maybe not, since Williams already had a reputation of not letting things slide when he was a coach with the Diamondbacks. But it’s not a stretch to think this is something Knorr and Williams discussed previously, along with general manager Mike Rizzo.

Ultimately, the question is whether or not Williams is choosing the right battle at the right time with Harper. If the manager warned the entire team about lack of hustle resulting in getting benched, then perhaps he had to back that up by making a very public example of Harper. But if this is about trying to embarrass Harper by saying he let down his teammates — along with people in the organization grumbling to Boswell, who seems all too happy to air out that dirty laundry — then this is something that could backfire badly.

For now, Williams has the support of his clubhouse. But how far does this go? Maybe it’s no longer an issue. Williams made his point, Harper got the message, and the Nationals can go about the business at hand. However, singling players out in the media (thus enabling columnists with apparent vendettas), rather than addressing the matter privately, doesn’t often go well. And if Williams chooses to make small issues into potentially big ones throughout the season, that’s a fast ticket to Burnoutville.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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