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.