The Spotlight will Never Leave Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper currently has a .292/.352/.415 batting line and more than a few are saying it is disappointing. That Harper is once again under achieving. Forget for the fact that Harper has the third most home runs of any player before their 21st birthday or that Harper is one of the very few players in baseball to even play in the majors at that age. At 21 years old Bryce Harper would be an age appropriate prospect at low-A Hagerstown. Forget all that and think about the expectations. Think about them because Bryce Harper never put them on himself. All Harper has ever done is play baseball and play it at a very high level. He is one of the best young players in the game, and with that comes the spotlight. Bryce Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, he was being scouted in little league at the age of 14, Bryce Harper has lived in the spotlight for most of his baseball life, and when a spotlight is shined it sometimes picks up shadows. Before the 2010 draft there were reports of how Harper was a bad teammate, and just a bad guy. These things were being said about a 17 year old kid. No 17 year old has lived long enough on earth to be a bad guy, but the reputation came out and it stuck on Harper.
Then came Harper's time in the minors. People showed up, filmed the games, and waited for Harper to make a mistake. He was caught arguing with umps over balls and strikes, blowing a kiss at a pitcher on his home run trot after the pitcher had thrown at him earlier in the game, and several other minor incidents that happen every day in the minor leagues, but because it was Bryce Harper the spotlight was always on.
That brings us to this past weekend when Bryce Harper hit a come backer to the pitcher, jogged towards first base, and peeled off to the dugout after the ball was thrown to first and the umpire singled him out. In the days before this game Matt Williams had told the Nationals that the next player that did this would be removed from the game. It happened to be Bryce Harper and he was removed from the game. The question now is how many people would've noticed that Harper hadn't run all the way to first base had Matt Williams not removed him from the game. If Matt Williams simply reprimanded Harper privately and perhaps the Nationals fined him no one would be talking about Harper's lack of hustle. Hot takes columnists and internet trolls would have less ammo and Williams’ stated goal of getting the spotlight somewhat off Harper wouldn't have backfired.
Mike Trout is coming into town this week, and if you follow baseball you know what that means. This series isn't about the Angels vs. Nationals and it isn't about Pujols sitting on career home run 498 and possibly hitting number 500 in DC. No, this series is all about Bryce Harper vs. Mike Trout. Matt Williams benching of Harper didn't removed the spotlight, it didn't dim it, it only made it shine brighter.
Removing Harper from that game was a bad idea to begin with. It is like seeking revenge in a bean ball war by throwing at the batter leading off an inning in a one run game. The Nationals were playing a close game and needed Bryce Harper. Williams frames it as Harper letting his teammates down by not hustling, but there were other ways to handle it and still let the team know who is in charge and what will and won't be tolerated. Matt Williams’ job is to put his team in the best position to win ball games and while removing Harper from a close game isn't exactly the same as Davey Johnson pitching Henry Rodriguez or Yunesky Maya in a tie ball game in extra innings it is a move that hurts the team and makes winning that much more difficult.
Pulling Bryce Harper wasn't a good move in that game and so far the aftereffects have been the opposite of what Matt Williams stated as his desired outcome. The spotlight would have been on Bryce Harper one way or another with Mike Trout coming to town, but now it is even brighter and Bryce Harper now has to live with the reputation of a player that doesn't hustle. Bryce Harper has provided more than enough counter evidence to the pre-draft notion that he is a bad teammate with a bad work-ethic and only about himself, but that perception has stuck as will this one. Harper has provided more than enough counter evidence to the idea that he doesn't hustle, but none of that will ever matter. Bryce Harper is forever in the spotlight and forever tagged with the perception that he is a selfish, arrogant, jerk that only cares about himself and doesn't hustle. Nats fans know the truth, but Matt Williams didn't make it any easier for it to get out there.