The Nationals Week in WAR: Danny on the Move

Danny Espinosa, with regular playing time was the biggest mover gaining WAR this week: he gained in batting, base running and fielding.  Also, both catchers are now playing at replacement level.  Anthony Rendon continues his solid season gaining value with his bat.  Interestingly, Ryan Zimmerman picked up a .1 by the 3B defensive field coming back to him.

Biggest dropper this week was Jayson Werth, who lost considerable value through poor defense.

Name 14-Apr 21-Mar Last Week
Danny Espinosa 0 0.4 0.4
Sandy Leon -0.2 0 0.2
Jose Lobaton -0.1 0 0.1
Anthony Rendon 0.6 0.7 0.1
Ryan Zimmerman 0.4 0.5 0.1
Bryce Harper 0 0 0
Adam LaRoche 0.4 0.4 0
Denard Span 0.1 0.1 0
Nate McLouth 0 -0.1 -0.1
Ian Desmond 0 -0.1 -0.1
Kevin Frandsen 0 -0.2 -0.2
Jayson Werth 0.5 0.2 -0.3

Bryce Harper’s benching had nothing to do with “Hustle”–it was all about the Unwritten “Rules” of Baseball

I really didn’t want to write about this again. To be honest, I’m a little exhausted thinking, talking, and writing about Matt Williams’ reckless decision to bench Bryce Harper on Saturday for “lack of hustle.”

But just when I was ready to move on, I finally figured it out. Bryce Harper’s benching wasn’t about hustle. It was about the unwritten “rules” of baseball, and how the Nationals have a manager hell bent on enforcing them.

One of the more frustrating things about baseball lately is the fact that a few players in the league seem bizarrely dedicated to enforcing an unwritten “code” of baseball behavior that neither increases the competitiveness nor the enjoyment of the sport. For example, remember Brian McCann last season standing in front of home plate blocking Jose Fernandez after he celebrated “a little too much” after hitting a home run against the Braves? Forget about the fact that Fernandez is the one of the most exciting players of his generation, and his home run was a genuinely exciting moment.  In spite of that, Gosh Darnit, baseball players don’t celebrate home runs, and Brian McCann is here is enforce that. (Of the many contradictions in baseball’s unwritten code, pitchers routinely celebrate after getting a big strikeout—think Jose Valverde on Opening Day).

I was wrong about Matt Williams. He didn’t want Harper to hustle; he wanted Harper to “run through the base.” He didn’t care if Harper sprinted; baseball players rarely sprint their hardest on comebackers to the pitcher. Williams wanted Harper to jog the full 90 feet, because Gosh Darnit, those are the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, and it’s just what baseball players do.

Ignore the fact Bryce Harper was out by 45 feet and there was no logical reason for him to run all the way to first base. Williams expected him to do it anyway, not because it would help the team win, but because Matt Williams thinks that’s the way baseball is “supposed” to be played. Please also forget about the fact that Bryce Harper is the type of player who—if there was even a .001% chance of him being safe—would have torn every muscle in legs sprinting to first base.

On Sunday morning, I was watching a replay of the Nationals’ Friday night win against the Cardinals. At some point in the game–I believe the 6th inning—Ian Desmond hit into a double play with Adam LaRoche on first base. I couldn’t help but notice that LaRoche–who was out by a good 30 feet–never fully ran to second base. Instead, he smartly got out of the way of the throw from the shortstop to the first baseman, like runners usually do in that situation. Yet LaRoche wasn’t benched. Williams didn’t call him out in the press conference and media members didn’t write sanctimonious hot takes about LaRoche’s “lack of hustle.”  Any conceivable argument for Harper running through first base, you can make for LaRoche running through second—preserving the ability to win on replay, showing “hustle”, etc. Yet LaRoche isn’t expected to run the “full 90 feet” between first and second like he’s expected to run between home and first. In both the cases of LaRoche on Friday and Harper on Saturday, it was illogical to “finish” the play after the runner is clearly out. But the Unwritten Rules of Baseball aren’t about logic. Matt Williams doesn’t care if they’re logical. He only cares that you follow them, or you get benched, especially if you’re the youngest player on the team.

As I’ve previously written, a manager’s job to maximize his team’s chance of scoring runs and winning baseball games. At the moment, however, it appears Matt Williams’ priorities are elsewhere—enforcing an unwritten baseball code that in no way helps the Nationals score runs and secure wins.

You can approve of Matt Williams’ decision this weekend, but be aware it won’t help this team win any baseball games this season, and future decisions of a similar nature may actually accomplish the complete opposite.

A simple suggestion for speeding up Major League Baseball games

Baseball games are getting longer and longer.  Baseball games have increased in length an average of .7 minutes per year since 2002. And lately, the problem has gotten worse. The average baseball game took 2 hours and 56 minutes in 2011. In 2012, it was 3 hours flat. In 2013, it was 3 hours and 4 minutes. With replay, baseball games are even longer this year.

There are plenty of ideas to speed up baseball games, some common sense, some crazy. Here’s a simple idea we can all get behind.

On Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox made 3 pitching changes in 2 innings in the middle of the inning. Each of these pitching changes stopped the game in its tracks while ESPN went to commercial. One Red Sox pitcher threw one pitch. Commercial break. One pitch. Another commercial break.

Here’s a simple idea: when a manager makes a pitching change in the middle of an inning, the reliever gets zero warm up pitches. Why does a reliever need warm up pitches? He’s coming in from the bullpen where he should already be warmed up.

It’s possible some relievers want a warm up pitch or two to adjust to the mound or the catcher. If that’s the case, that reliever should start the inning, where he gets his full allotment of warm up pitches. If a manager makes a mid-inning pitching change, sorry, his pitcher needs to come into the game ready to go.

This would easily shave 5 minutes off the average baseball game and get the trend of longer and longer baseball games headed back in the right direction.

It’s Obviously Time For the Nationals To Trade Bryce Harper

If we have learned nothing from the last few years, it is that winners in MLB are built through hustle.  Despite common thought that championships are built through a talented roster, or great pitching, or talent and pitching.  No, championships are built through hustle.  Not from the type of hustle you might assume: Going from first to third on a fielders choice or going full speed to pick up and throw a base hit grounder to 2nd base from left field. No, the type of hustle that builds championships is running out a tapper to the pitcher where you are out by 45 feet.  Bryce Harper is really good at the first type of hustle, so much so that Nationals built an advertising campaign around it: “Nothing but Hustle.”” It’s that 2nd type of important hustle, the kind that demonstrates you care, but doesn’t actually help the team at all that Harper no longer has the heart for.

It is not without precedent to trade a number one overall pick; Matt Williams’ Arizona Diamondbacks did it just last year.  Justin Upton was a significantly more accomplished player than Harper when he was traded.  Upton fininishd 4th in the MVP race and won  a Silver Slugger in 2011, but he was traded after the 2012 season.

Right now is a good time to make the trade before Harper proves himself to be an incurable lollygagger.  I would recommend the Red Sox as the ideal trade partner.  They have the deepest farm system in baseball and they have a history of dealing with strong personality players.  They were able to win multiple World Series with Manny Ramirez–dealing with Bryce Harper would be kids play.  On an additional note, Bryce would get to play his games in a division that matters enough to have games on ESPN and he has always wanted to play in Yankee Stadium.  He might actually get to play in a few World Series games and the Nats won’t feel obliged to play such an overrated* bum.  The sooner the Nats get rid of the Harper scourge the better.

*as voted by his peers

Examining Matt Williams’ bizarre explanation for benching Bryce Harper

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 11.59.39 PM

Matt Williams made an error in judgment when he pulled Bryce Harper from a 2-run baseball game on Saturday. Taking your best hitter out of the lineup, obviously, rarely helps a team score more runs, and scoring runs is how you win baseball games.

Earlier I explained my objection to Matt Williams’ reckless and emotional decision. You can read that here. But to summarize: it’s insane to expect a player recovering from a leg injury to sprint out a play where he has zero chance of being safe. (You can see a video of the play here).

But in the interest of fairness, let’s look at Matt Williams’ explanation for his actions. From the Washington Post:

“regardless of how the ball comes off the bat or regardless of how he’s 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.

“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? If he doesn’t touch the base, he’s out. If he’s in the dugout, he’s automatically out. Beyond all the just-run-90-feet stuff, there’s a real, tangible rule behind it now. So we must do that. And he understands that.”

Well. Let’s look at a video of the play that got Harper pulled from the game. (Something Matt Williams clearly didn’t have time to do, by the way, before he made his emotional decision to rip his best hitter from the lineup of a winnable game).

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This is right after Lynn caught Harper’s comebacker. Harper didn’t even have time to take two full steps before the ball was in the glove of a Cardinals defender. Harper is a full 85 feet away from first base right now. Lance Lynn could have walked the ball to first base and Harper would have been out. Seriously, MLB players are out 999,999 out of a million in situations like this.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 12.00.55 AM

This is the ball mid-air. The moment the ball is caught by the first baseman, Harper is out. He’s still a full 50 feet away from the base, and he’s a split-second away from being out.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 12.01.10 AM

This the moment Harper is out. The ball is securely in the glove of the first baseman, whose foot is on the base. Out. Completely, 100% out. The play is over, and Harper is 45 feet away from the base.

Notice, please, that at this moment, Harper is still in the baseline. He’s still headed towards first base. He is NOT–repeat NOT–headed back to the dugout as has been incorrectly reported since the game ended.

Harper is out. The play is over and it’s time to return to the dugout, because those are the rules of baseball.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 12.04.31 AM

This is the point Harper starts heading back to the dugout. This is also the point Matt Williams apparently expects his injured outfield to sprint past the base. Please bear in mind had Harper done this, it would have looked ridiculous, since the ball would have been halfway around the horn by then.

Folks, this one is simple. Matt Williams made an impulsive emotional decision that hurt his team’s chance of winning. People want to fit the today’s events into a neat “tough-talking old-school manager teaching a young punk kid a lesson” narrative, but I’m afraid those facts just don’t fit.

Matt Williams made mistake. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves.

There is no defense for Matt Williams’ benching of Bryce Harper


This is what happens when baseball players are reckless

A manager has one job: put his team in the best position to win the game. On Saturday, Matt Williams failed.

Bryce Harper was pulled from the game today for “lack of hustle” after not sprinting to first base on a comebacker to the pitcher in the sixth inning.  This was a very ill-advised decision by manager Matt Williams, and to be honest, it’s shocking to see the number of people actually defending the move. In the ninth inning with the game on the line, the Nationals’ most dangerous hitter was sitting on the bench.

Bryce Harper didn’t “sprint out” his sixth inning comebacker to the pitcher because it was the smart thing to do. Bryce Harper is hurt. He injured his quad last week. He missed a game last Wednesday because of it. He is back in the lineup now because he’s healthy enough to swing a bat and frankly, Harper with a tweaked quad is still better than every other Nationals player. But playing while recovering from an injury comes at a cost. You can’t run out every play, especially plays where you have no chance of being safe. Here is the play that got Harper benched. You be the judge. Harper would have been out at first base even if he had a rocket pack tied to his jersey. Is this the type of play you want your star player sprinting out with a leg injury?

Don’t believe me? Here is a video of Bryce Harper sprinting out a groundball in Friday night’s game. He is clearly uncomfortable. If Harper knows he’s going to be out, there is no reason for him to risk pushing his body.

Bryce Harper did what 99% of players would have done in that situation. It’s smart baseball. Smart players don’t sprint when they don’t have to. Smart players don’t slide head first when they don’t have to. It’s a long baseball season. Great players need to preserve their health. Even the smallest injury can put a player on the disabled list. Josh Hamilton slid into first base last week and tore his UCL. A smarter player would have avoided that injury.

Late in his career, Barry Bonds stopped diving for balls in the outfield. His reasoning was simple. His bat is so valuable in the lineup, what’s the point of risking an injury to prevent one base hit? Barry Bonds was being smart and he largely avoided injury for most of his career. The Giants won more baseball games because of it.

I am not suggesting Bryce Harper stop diving for baseballs. But I am suggesting he stop risking his health when it’s unnecessary to do so. Bryce Harper was being a smart baseball player–for once–when he didn’t sprint out a groundball where he had zero chance of being safe.

But Matt Williams punished him for it under a misguided “old-school” philosophy. Matt Williams needs to wise up and realize Harper was playing smart baseball by not risking his health when he didn’t have to.

Matt Williams should be putting his players in the best position to win the game. Until he starts using a little more common sense, he’s not doing his job.

Steven Souza’s first Major League hit leads to lots and lots of Bro Hugs

There was almost nothing good about last night’s shellacking in Miami. Stephen Strasburg couldn’t locate his fastball. His curve didn’t curve. His slider didn’t slide. And the Nats couldn’t put any runs on the board until the 8th inning.

But fans who hung in there were rewarded when newly recalled outfielder Steven Souza Jr. got his first Major League hit, which eventually scored Bryce Harper for the Nats first run of the night.

Souza’s return to the dugout led to a mild celebration and lots and lots of bro hugs. For viewers looking for something positive on the night, this was all we were going to get.

Note: moments later, infielder Zach Walters hit his first Major League home run. While MASN didn’t show it, we can assume this also led to copious bro hugging on the Nationals bench.