On Saturday, Matt Williams pulled Bryce Harper from the game due to (as he called it) a “lack of hustle.” Harper hit a “come backer” right to the Cardinals pitcher and made zero attempt to run for first base. He wasn’t even half way down the base path before the ball was thrown to the first baseman and he was out. Harper didn’t even try to run it through to first base, simply veering over towards the dugout.
Here is the play in question, via Federal Baseball.
To many, and perhaps to Harper, this was a lost play from the start. Why run? Why bother. To Matt Williams, it was a betrayal of the code by which the team had agreed to play. Harper went back into the dugout and didn’t come back, replaced by Kevin Frandsen.
After the game, when it was revealed it was a benching for disciplinary reasons, Natstown predictably lost its god-damned mind. I was about an hour late to this party (Hey, I had chores to do), I didn’t exactly step lightly into the fray:
D.C. is a town that has a complicated relationship with star players and head coaches. Whether football, hockey, basketball, hockey, football or hockey, the D.C. sports fan is preconditioned to expect trouble between a team’s star athlete and the head coach. Despite the fact that there is zero evidence that Matt Williams has some sort of long term problem with Bryce Harper, expect the fact that he benched him for this singular event to play out for weeks, or months, or at least be trotted out each time Harper has a bad game or a sloppy play. This is what columnists and radio hosts thrive on – something they can retrofit into a story they already know. While some in Natstown were concerned with the long term repercussions for their star young athlete and now hating Matt Williams and the Nationals (“Pinstripes” said one Phil Wood caller), most folks tweeting in and around me were questioning whether this was a good baseball move or not. (But, for those who are worrying about whether this would cause Bryce Harper to jump ship – I’ve seen nothing in Harper’s make up that would suggest he would pout, and certainly not for the three years or so before he’s no longer under Nationals control).
So was it the right move?
Half Street Heart Attack ruminates on several different reasons why the benching was indefensible, largely revolving around whether Harper was in pain or not. The argument for me doesn’t hold much water. Harper had an opportunity (and by some discussion in the presser confirmed) to say he was hurt. He didn’t. By the time you’re comparing Bryce Harper to what Barry Bonds did late in his career, I don’t know exactly what the point is supposed to be. (It would not, however, be the first time I was wrong).
A far more productive conversation (most of it is there) with a friend of the blog @ouij gets to the heart of the matter: Can you lose a battle to win a war? I’d have to agree with Ouij that, irrefutably, taking Harper off the field for the last 3 innings made the Washington Nationals a worse baseball team. Particularly given Frandsen’s throw home was offline, and he was up to bat in the ninth with runners on and one out. Those are places where you want Bryce Harper on the field.
I’m all for increasing leverage, putting the best team on the field and giving yourself the best chance to win. But Matt Williams is the manager of all the games the team plays, not just this one. You can rest a guy who’s not 100% physically because it might help the club overall. Why not a guy you think is failing to give 100%?
If baseball is about the process as much as the result, as any one who has ever uttered the phrase “small sample size” will tell you, then the lack of running down the base paths should be alarming. Is this a different conversation if Lynn does bobble the ball? If he inexplicably throws it poorly? Making good contact at the plate is important even if it doesn’t result in a hit because it prepares for the times you will make a hit. So too, running hard to first each time isn’t about getting base each time. It’s about committing to the process so you don’t have to think “holy smokes! He bobbled it! I better hustle!”
It’s about not having to wish you’d run harder if something happened. It’s about the next time if it isn’t about this time.
Matt Williams seems to believe this is necessary to the long term success of the ball club. There is a certain way he wants his players to play, and apparently that includes running every ball out. In a sport where the Yadier Molina can let a ball pass him and then throw it away, it is hard to argue that constant hustle is a bad thing. Bryce Harper, with the way he runs, might be just enough to spook Lance Lynn into bobbling, or throwing, the ball away. Probably not, but maybe.
The bigger question is something along the lines of discipline and being a team member. Whether a good thing or a bad thing, Matt Williams has chosen to create a particular culture in the clubhouse, and it is important to him to see that culture take hold. You may think it is a stupid culture, or the wrong culture, or that he could have found a different way to enforce the culture – but these are the easy things to say from outside the decision circle. In my limited turns at the helm in life, I’ve found it is a lot easier for people to question authority then to actually take up the responsibility for it.
Without being privy to the locker room, its dynamic, or how the club views the young skipper, I think it is hard to insist that this was the wrong move going forward. It may be impossible to catalog interpersonal relationships into a statistic, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t real, do not have an effect on the play of the club, or are not the responsibility of the manager to tend to. Williams may have run the risk of pissing off his star player, but he might have run the risk of pissing off the other 24 guys if he let Harper not run a ball out. Maybe that the other 24 guys might have been okay with it if nothing happened. Maybe, just maybe, Harper can take his benching the right way.
There are no easy answers to that question for Williams, let alone in my peanut gallery section 305. Heavy is the head that dons the managers cap, indeed.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child” seems to be what he has settled on. You may think you’d manage the team another way. That if Harper was doing what 99% of players do on a groundout it is not big deal. If so, you may be Davey “vacation time” Johnson. Unfortunately, whether you are Davey or not, you’re not in charge. Matt Williams is.
Less than 20 games into his first season of managing it is impossible to tell just what this move will do in the long term. You can guess the worst, or hope for the best, but those are just hopes and guesses. Only one man had to size up the situation and determine whether the immediate battle was as important as the on going war.
Despite the wishes of many, people still play this game and people are required to run it. You may be able to get a computer to make game decisions such as lefty vs. righty, when to bring in which reliever, and how to platoon a position, but so long as blood pumps through the bodies of those who play the game, it will be up to someone to get the most out of them.
If there is any art left to managing, this is it. Sheet music, instruments, the size of the concert hall: you can plug all of that into Garageband and get a sound. It takes a conductor to get a performance. Sometimes, the best instruments need to be tuned. The best musicians sometimes need to be coaxed into giving a little bit more or trying a little bit harder. How that is accomplished is where the artistry of managing happens. It is something the audience rarely sees and, I believe, understands even less.
What we remember is the performance, and this show is only getting started.