SweetSpot: Bryce Harper
You'd have to be a hard-core baseball romantic -- or a product of the pre-Marvin Miller era -- to think Bryce Harper's new two-year, $7.5 million agreement with the Washington Nationals will make a smidge of difference when he hits free agency in 2018. There'll be no room for sentiment when agent Scott Boras holds court with reporters and hails Harper as an "iconic player" with "pristine power" and an Aaron Rodgers-caliber magnetism and work ethic. Or maybe Andrew Luck will be Boras' comparison du jour three or four years from now.
The only two words that never make it into Boras' lexicon are "hometown" and "discount." If Harper lives up to his billing as a 35-to-40-homer, middle-of-the order slugger, Boras will be looking to break a record on the open market.
So don't expect any feel-good, carryover impact from Monday's agreement when it comes to Harper's long-term future in Washington. But in the here and now, the Nationals, Boras and Harper did the prudent thing by coming to terms on a new deal and avoiding a grievance hearing Tuesday in New York. They skirted a fight they didn't need and a distraction no one relished.
Sometimes big problems spring from seemingly small details. When Harper signed a major league deal out of the draft in 2010, it did not include a clause that would allow him to opt out of his predetermined annual pay and go to salary arbitration. Was the resultant dispute between Harper and the Nationals the product of an oversight committed in haste or a misunderstanding between agent and team? Does it really matter? The relatively small salary hit that Harper would have incurred by not going to arbitration in 2015 could have had a compounding effect over time and affected his pay in subsequent years in a more substantial way.
The disagreement threatened to become a sideshow when Harper failed to appear at the team's NatsFest event Saturday and clearly ticked off general manager Mike Rizzo. Amid news reports of Jayson Werth clocking somewhere between 90 and 100 mph while driving his Porsche, the last thing the Nationals needed was Harper looking like a spoiled brat while issuing a statement that he couldn't make it because of "matters out of my control."
With Harper's new contract in place, that giant pothole has been paved over and the two sides can return to their regularly scheduled programming. Harper can focus on his offseason workout program and his upcoming wedding in January, and Rizzo is free to address Washington's second base void and figure out where the team stands with Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann as they enter their free-agent "walk" years. The Nationals have work to do if they plan to graduate from a team that wows everyone from April through September to a club that's capable of more than cameo appearances in October.
The big question, if you're a Nationals fan, is which Bryce Harper will take the field in 2015? Is it the former teenage prodigy who elicited Mickey Mantle comparisons or the banged-up version who spends too much time running into things and then tweeting medical updates from his hospital bed?
Harper remains a polarizing figure among fans who think he's overrated and scouts who roll their eyes when he antagonizes umpires with his body language. He's always going to have a target on his back, in part because of the whole "Chosen One" narrative that began during his sophomore year of high school in Nevada.
The numbers say that Harper was very good in his first two major league seasons with the Nationals, even as he suffered in comparison with fellow phenom Mike Trout. Last season, Harper hit a so-so .273 with a .767 OPS and 13 homers in 100 regular-season games and seemed bereft of the old swagger. Manager Matt Williams benched him for failing to run out a ground ball in April, and Harper struggled to regain his confidence and his thump after undergoing knee and thumb surgery in a span of five months.
But it's time for a little perspective here. Harper just turned 22 in October, and when the National League Division Series ended, his fellow Nationals were on the top step of the dugout hoping he could hit the ball out and save them from a dispiriting first-round loss to San Francisco. With the possible exception of Anthony Rendon, no Washington player seemed more capable of doing something special under pressure than Harper did.
One of Harper's most ardent fans is none other than Mike Rizzo, who has consistently defended him throughout his growing pains. I received a glimpse of that steadfast support while writing an account of Harper's trying 2014 season in August. While interviewing Rizzo for the story, I took note that Harper’s first two years in Washington were significantly better than most people realized.
Rizzo quickly demurred.
"I would call them historic seasons," he said.
Harper's early ups and downs notwithstanding, Rizzo and the Nationals remain convinced that he's capable of doing some memorable things in baseball. They'd rather have him make his mark as a hitter than as a labor relations pioneer.
Some ways of winning you find yourself liking better than you expected. Five and a half months ago, most of us anticipated the Nationals would win the NL East, so now that Washington is on the cusp of clinching, there isn’t any drama. It’s done. For weeks, it’s been a matter of math and shrinking odds.
Admittedly, the Braves made a better-than-expected showing with a cobbled-together rotation, but the Nationals should clinch at some point this week, which provides time to reflect on how and why they did it. This is why I’d argue it has been more fun to actually see them do it than you might've expected from a slam-dunk preseason favorite.
So set aside the guys such as Strasburg and Harper who get the most headlines. If you had to peg the “worst” player in the Nats lineup, whom would you peg? Wilson Ramos? Catchers with an OPS north of .700 don't grow on trees -- not these days. Ian Desmond? Asdrubal Cabrera? Those are both useful players with whom you can win, as the Nats have.
Take Desmond at shortstop, one of the last legacies from the franchise’s Expos incarnation, a third-round pick out of high school in 2004. His prospect status languished as he spent the better part of four years bouncing between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before he finally broke through with a reminder that, in time, youth will be served. If you look at what he doesn’t do -- generate positive numbers in advanced defensive metrics or walk -- you might underrate him. He’s durable and has already notched his third straight 20-homer season while playing a solid shortstop.
Instead, the Nats are an interesting success story because of their depth and because of the number of guys who put them over the top. It’s even more interesting when you consider how many analysts have been critical of the decisions to sign Werth and LaRoche. Some might still lament getting three years of control of center fielder Denard Span in a deal with the Twins for hotshot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. But in the end, this is a concentration of talent that has used financial muscle via free agency and accumulated value from more than a decade of scouting.
That isn’t the only thing that has worked out well, even if the current management regime can’t claim all the credit. Whether getting Doug Fister from the Tigers or stealing Wilson Ramos from the Twins, there’s plenty to brag about. Betting the upside on Werth in his 30s has worked out well for the Nationals, as David Schoenfield noted recently. Reviewing his seven-year, $126 million deal at the midpoint, it certainly looks much better than the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75 million), a deal many celebrated and a lot of smart folks liked at the time and a deal that has almost no chance of working out, now that Upton’s on the short list of worst regulars in baseball. LaRoche? It used to be fashionable to bash him as a mediocrity; these days he's a solid sure thing the Nats can bet on.
That is not to say the Nationals will have it easy from here on out. They still have important questions to ask and answer -- and two weeks to find answers before they head into October.
Perhaps the biggest question involves their former starting third baseman. As Ryan Zimmerman tries to work his way back from the DL, he went through a full workout Monday at instructional league and will play a simulated game Tuesday. If he can come back in time to get a week or so of everyday play in the majors, the Nats might be able to determine if they can move Anthony Rendon back to second base and start Zimmerman at third or if they’ll have to settle for Zimmerman spot-starting at first, left and -- should they make it -- DH in the World Series. It’s a nice problem to have.
Less enjoyable will be sorting out what they’re going to do with former closer Rafael Soriano. Handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday, he brought the Braves back into the game by allowing two runs to score. Since his latest save Sept. 1, Soriano has allowed six runs and blown two saves in his past 4 1/3 IP across five games. He’s allowed 10 baserunners. He’s giving Nationals fans the willies, and if Matt Williams had any hair left, it would have long since gone grey. Drew Storen came in to clean up the mess, notched his fifth save in five appearances and demonstrated there is no “committee” solution to Soriano’s struggles as a closer -- the job is Storen’s.
The question now might be whether Soriano is worth a postseason roster spot. That might sound extreme, but if he doesn’t show anything in the next two weeks, would you invest the space in keeping him around? They’ll be adding someone from the rotation -- probably Tanner Roark -- to the pen, and with Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett around, it isn’t like they’re short of quality right-handed arms for setup work. It might come down to a choice between Soriano and third lefty Jerry Blevins.
The Nationals will be better off if Soriano can put people’s minds at ease in the meantime. He didn’t Monday night, but thanks to the margin they’ve built to clinch shortly, they’ll be able to afford him the time to get back in gear. Those are the benefits you win for yourself when you deliver on the expectation that you’d win going away -- and then you do.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Do the Nationals have the NL East won? It's worth asking now, because with a six-game lead over the Braves after their latest victory over the Mets on Thursday night, we might end up with the Nats walking away. That would no doubt be especially sweet for Matt Williams in what has already been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a season, but as the season nears the three-quarter mark, I would suggest it's remarkable that we've been able to talk about the Braves as a plausible rival this far into the season.
The number of things that people get hung up on about the Nationals is legion, especially as a traditionally sports-crazy town warms to theme of a team that gives it something to talk about day after day. Williams and Bryce Harper, mixing it up with the press and saying stuff that both of them probably shouldn’t? That’s just Fourth Estate hijinks at their best, the stuff of easy headlines and team media relations staff nightmares. They don't add up to much in terms of the things that have been telling us the Nats are going to win all along.
Take the way in which we can fidget over how star players aren't performing up to an ideal. As David Schoenfield wrote last week, Stephen Strasburg has failed to dominate the way you'd expect according to metrics like FIP, but as he pointed out, that's in part because of some easily identifiable problems, like how he’s pitched with men on base. That’s not only something you can diagnose, ideally, it's something you can fix. And, if not, heck, he wouldn't be the first guy with plus stuff and some fly in his statistical ointment. Nolan Ryan had an annoying tendency to have a worse real-world ERA than FIP for some of the same reasons.
Or take Harper's homering a second time this week on Thursday, leading Williams to say his swing looked more free than it has at any previous point this season. It's easy to fret over the performance this season as Harper has struggled through injuries, as my old Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri did for Grantland on Wednesday. And here again, that's diagnosable because of the expanding spread of statistical resources we have at our disposal, and, as Jonah noted, against something like what you can suss out of this year's hard-hit average from Harper, you have the rest of Harper’s career to look back on, which generated big projections, big expectations and a lot to look forward to. That didn't go away just because the kid got hurt and played through it, not if the underlying talent is still there. It just means his final season line won't be pretty.
And then there's Ryan Zimmerman's injuries, availability and his eventual position, and Gio Gonzalez doing less well this year, or Jordan Zimmermann's stack of frustrating non-decisions, or the bullpen having a bad week or two since the All-Star break, highlighted by Rafael Soriano blowing a couple of save opportunities. Put all of that together and you have no end of reasons to get worked up and start talking about why this team won't win except when I look at all of those guys, all of that talent and so many of them parked in the middle of their peak seasons, and I think those are all things they can iron out by October because, once there, nobody's going to remember or worry about what Harper's May looked like if he's right by then, starting now.
All of that talent adds up to a run differential that is pushing plus-100 (at plus-89 so far) and an expected record of 71-48, five games better than they are. That's a pole position, not just a poll position, a level of performance that you might think is pulling them toward where they ought to be. Yet nobody on the Nats is having what I think any of us would call a career year. But they won't need it to win the NL East going away.
In contrast, without getting into the Braves in any depth, by run differential alone -- having allowed four more runs than they've scored -- they're essentially a team that you should expect to play .500 ball (60-61), and they are playing .500 ball (61-60). Is that about what we might have expected after they had to cobble together a rotation on the fly during the spring? Yes, I suspect it was. Is that about where they'll wind up? If they do, I'd consider it a moral victory.
But the Nats? They won't have to settle for that. They'll be winning the victories that count in the standings and living up to what so many of us predicted for them back on Opening Day.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
From @JoshLumley: Bruce Harper could make better lineups than Matt Williams.
Answer: True. Hey, Harper shouldn't have essentially thrown Denard Span under the bus like he did with his comments about wanting to play center field, but isn't it time Matt Williams at least gives up on the idea of hitting his worst regular in the leadoff spot? Span isn't terrible but his .312 OBP is hardly what you want from a leadoff guy. Meanwhile, Harper hit sixth in his return to the lineup. I'm seeing a lot of grumbling from Nationals fans that Williams is in over his head.
From @neal_kendrick: Jake Arrieta is the best pitcher on the Cubs roster.
Answer: I'm going false for now, if only because one great month (Arrieta finished with a 0.92 ERA in June after taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Monday) isn't yet enough to leap Arrieta ahead of Jeff Samardzija. But I do believe Arrieta is the real deal, with improved command and a nasty cutter that dives down like a slider. After the game on Monday, he told MLB Network that a big key has been "just being confident and comfortable with my routine throughout the week." I have to think getting away from Camden Yards has probably helped that confidence -- he doesn't have to worry about every mistake leaving the ballpark. Eric Karabell says "Put Arrieta on the All-Star team!" (Here's more of Eric and Tristan Cockcroft discussing Arrieta on the Fantasy Focus podcast.)
From @Venturecaps: Raul Ibanez gets a start for the Royals this week.
Answer: True. Ned Yost said he'd use Ibanez in the outfield, at first base and DH. Plus he called him a "professional hitter." I love Ned Yost. Look, Ibanez is probably done and in the end he won't do much more than pinch-hit, but it's at least worth a look to see if he has anything left.
From @Papa_Clarke: Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson will be the manager and general manager of the Mets on Opening Day 2015.
Answer: True. Eric agrees. No need here to clean house. The Mets' problems begin with ownership, not the front office and manager.
From @Orioles_Fever: The Orioles will trade for a second baseman.
Answer: False. I think they're more likely to go for pitching and hope for offensive improvement from Chris Davis and Manny Machado in the second half. Eric has another idea: Give Dan Uggla a shot. The Orioles do love power and you can get him for an order of crab cakes. Aaron Hill would also fit nicely if Arizona picks up some of his salary.
From @TheDeliMan1: Dee Gordon will have a career as a starting second baseman.
Answer: True. He slumped in May after his hot April but rebounded with a solid June (.303/.358/.475). With his speed and average-ish defense, he's good enough to start on a championship team.
From @darinself: The current division leaders will still be there at the end of September.
Answer: False. Eric and I agree on the two most vulnerable teams: the Braves (0.5-game lead over the Nationals) and Blue Jays (one game over the Orioles, 2.5 over the Yankees). I like the Nationals in the NL East and the Orioles in the AL East.
Here's the collective line for the rotation over those 11 games:
77 IP, 55 H, 14 R, 10 ER, 73 SO, 6 BB, 3 HR, 1.17 ERA
Focus on that walk column. When Doug Fister walked Brandon Hicks leading off the seventh inning on Tuesday, it snapped a streak of 51 consecutive innings Nationals starters had pitched without issuing a walk. Sure, the first part of this stretch came against the Phillies and Padres, but they also just beat the Giants 9-2 and 2-1 with two games left in the series (followed by another big series in St. Louis).
Fister has quietly been effective. After allowing seven runs in his first start returning from the DL on May 9, he's gone 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA. Strasburg has a 2.04 ERA since April 20 (although that's helped by seven unearned runs). Jordan Zimmermann scuffled early but is coming off back-to-back dominant, scoreless outings, including a 12-strikeout shutout against the Padres in which he registered nine of the K's with his fastball.
Oh ... and the bullpen leads the majors with a 2.20 ERA.
Remember that the Nationals have suffered through their share of injuries to position players. On Opening Day, the lineup featured Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. That's the only time all four have played. Three of the four have played together just 15 times ... and Ramos left Tuesday's game with tightness in his right hamstring.
Injuries certainly aren't an excuse, especially considering Ramos, Zimmerman and Harper also battled injury issues last season, but it's fair to point out that Nationals haven't been operating on all cylinders yet. The bench hasn't been the disaster it was last season, but backup outfielder Nate McLouth, signed to a $5 million contract to provide depth has hit .179 with one home in 106 at-bats and Jose Lobaton and Kevin Frandsen have given sub-.300 on-base percentages.
Bryce Harper -- who may play center field when he returns from his handy injury with Zimmerman in left -- is expected back in late June or early June. He told the Washington Post a few days ago that he'd like to play center when he returns:
I really have no idea what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it. I think everyone knows I love center field. That’s where I like to be. My numbers are a lot better in center field. I feel good there. But you know, of course we have Denard Span, who’s one of the best center fielders in the game, if not the best.
As that article points out, Harper's defensive metrics were actually very good in center when he played there as a rookie in 2012, while being below-average in left. Span rates about average in center over the past two seasons. Considering the uncertainty of Zimmerman's ability to play third due to his shoulder, I would say the Nationals' best team features Zimmerman in left and Harper in center. Span can rotate in as needed, with Zimmerman also playing some first base for LaRoche against lefties.
Getting Harper back shouldn't be viewed as a problem. Have more flexibility will be a good thing for manager Matt Williams. I don't view the switch from Harper to Span as hurting the defense and, if anything, it allows the Nationals to be stronger defensively at three positions (Danny Espinosa at second over Anthony Rendon; Rendon over Zimmerman at third; and Harper over Span).
And a better defense could make the starters even better.
Not good news for the rest of the NL East.
After badly underachieving for the first four months a year ago and playing themselves out of postseason contention, the Washington Nationals were looking forward to a fresh start and some more positive karma under new manager Matt Williams.
Other than leading the major leagues in errors and devastating thumb injuries, they have yet to distinguish themselves in a way they might have hoped.
The Nats suffered a blow two weeks ago when All-Star Ryan Zimmerman fractured his right thumb diving into second base on a pickoff play against Atlanta. Zimmerman’s thumb is in a splint, and the Nationals say the original four- to six-week prognosis still applies, which means he’ll probably be back sometime in mid- to late May.
He’ll return to a lineup without Bryce Harper, who will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and is expected to be out until at least early July.
All the Nationals need now is for Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond or Adam LaRoche to hurt a thumb sliding into first base, and they’ll be three-fourths of the way to a cycle.
The injury is yet more fodder for critics who say Harper is “all hype” and doesn’t belong on the same planet with Mike Trout. That’s unfair, of course, but it’s still been a strangely off-kilter spring for Harper. After looking ready in the Grapefruit League, he struck out 10 times in his first 21 regular-season at-bats and pronounced himself “pretty lost right now.” Then Williams benched him for jogging out a ground ball, of all things. And there was that surreal moment last week when Harper smoked the ball in his first two at-bats only to gift-wrap an out for the Angels by trying to bunt for a hit in a big spot with a man on base.
Regardless of Harper’s meager power numbers at the time of his injury, his absence will hurt a Washington lineup that’s off to a strong start. The Nats rank second to Colorado in the National League with 115 runs scored and a .731 OPS, and Harper looked as if he might be poised to go on a roll with a season-high four RBIs Friday against San Diego. Now he’ll be replaced by Nate McLouth, a handy guy and a solid defender who won’t provide much thump.
The injuries will test the Nationals' fortitude and resilience, but any team with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation is going to win its share of 2-1 and 3-2 games. Tanner Roark has been a revelation, and Doug Fister will complete his rehab assignment shortly and make it an even stronger contingent.
But this season clearly isn’t going to be the joyride that everyone expected when the Nationals were anointed as the clear NL East front-runner in spring training. For starters, the division is stronger than a lot of people expected. The Braves are off to a terrific start, and they’re about to get a boost from the return of Mike Minor to the rotation. They’re also 18-7 against Washington since the start of the 2013 season, and some people think they’re in the Nationals’ heads.
The Phillies just returned from a 6-4 West Coast trip, and Chase Utley is looking awfully spry. Terry Collins always gets the best out of the Mets, who have a solid rotation from the first through fifth slots. And the Marlins have a chance to be trouble, as well, if they can figure out a way to improve upon that 2-10 road record.
In late March, when ESPN released its “expert” predictions, 40 of the 44 folks surveyed picked Washington to win the NL East (with only four prognosticators going with Atlanta). Twelve of those 44 picked the Nationals to win the World Series.
Suddenly, Williams has to deal with the absence of Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and Harper and the potential for some flagging morale in the clubhouse. It might be time for him to deliver a pep talk to ensure the Nats don't fall victim to a case of “here we go again”-itis.
And while Williams is at it, he might want to mix in some remedial sliding lessons.
Another week, another bit of Bryce Harper drama. If anyone out there has Harper fatigue, I guess one way to look at it is that you won’t have to hear much about him for a couple of weeks at the very least.
But if that’s your sentiment, shame on you. For me, it’s always going to be better to get to see Harper play. If that invites an element of “what’s going to happen to him next?” hyperfocus that has been associated with his career from the outset, so what? Sports has loved and will always love its enfant terribles, generation after generation. Nothing Harper has done puts him on the level of, say, John McEnroe or Deion Sanders, but your mileage may vary.
Consider this my taking common cause with a lot of Nationals fans: I’d rather see Harper’s name in the lineup, not just because of what he has done and can do but because of what he might do. That’s the other function of rooting for or against a player you watch grow up in the major leagues. No matter how talented they are, most players aren’t Dwight Gooden or Mike Trout, almost perfect at the outset.
Admittedly, there’s an element of irony that Harper landed on the disabled list for a hustle play, motoring into third base Friday night, just a few days after being benched for not hustling by manager Matt Williams. I’m sure we can start up another long list of complaints about poor fundamentals because he slid headfirst and that’s why he’s on the DL with an injured thumb. None of this is quite as epic as Mickey Mantle’s early-career squabbles with Casey Stengel.
No, dialing back from the entire concept of Harper drama, for the Nationals this is a problem. Even if Harper misses just the two weeks, that’s two weeks without three men from the Nats’ ideal eight-man lineup available, because this is the latest injury to add to a lineup litany that already includes the losses of Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos until mid-May. Even with Adam LaRoche and Anthony Rendon off to good starts, even with Jayson Werth getting on base, even with fallen former prospect Danny Espinosa redeeming himself in the playing time created in the infield by Zimmerman’s absence, that’s a lot to have to go without. They also lost Denard Span for a week after he suffered a concussion. If there’s good news, it’s that while Doug Fister is on the DL instead of in the rotation, he is ideally due back around the same time as Harper and due to make his first rehab start today.
Meanwhile, for the immediate future, this looks like an opportunity for Nate McLouth to finally start hitting as the Nationals’ initial choice to fill Harper’s shoes in left, although the measure of Williams’ confidence is that he’s penciled McLouth into the eighth slot in Sunday’s lineup. I wouldn’t count on seeing much of Steven Souza, the farmhand called up in Harper’s absence. He’s a toolsy, slow-developing prospect taken in the third round in 2007 who didn’t break out at the plate until 2012 (after going back down to the low-Class A Sally League for a fourth stint), but he put an exclamation point on that breakout last year with a .953 OPS in Double-A and has been hitting in Triple-A this year around his shuttling back and forth between Syracuse.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
San Diego Padres at Washington Nationals, a sleepy game on a 62-degree night in the national's capital. Let's fast-forward to the 11th inning. Padres left fielder Seth Smith grounds out to start the inning, but injures his groin and is unable to remain in the game for the bottom of the 11th. Padres manager Bud Black is down to two bench players: Tommy Medica, a first baseman/left fielder, although really a first baseman; and backup catcher Rene Rivera. Like most teams, the Padres don't have many reserves because 12 of the 25 guys on the roster are pitchers. That's another story.
So Black obviously has to put Medica into the game in left (and he has started four games there, so it's not like you're putting David Ortiz out there), but this puts the Padres in a bad spot. The pitcher's spot would be due up third for the Padres in the 12th, a spot Medica would have been used as a pinch-hitter. Black could use Rivera there but you hate to burn your final bench player, especially your backup catcher, unless absolutely necessary.
Black could double-switch, taking out reliever Tim Stauffer and putting in Alex Torres in Smith's spot, but he wanted Stauffer to remain in the game to face righty-hitting Jayson Werth. The light bulb goes on in Black's head: Put starting pitcher Andrew Cashner in left field for one batter, so Stauffer can stay in to face Werth, and hope the ball isn't hit to him.
It wasn't. Werth lined out back to the mound. Then Black made the double-switch, bringing in the lefty Torres to face lefty-swinging Adam LaRoche, and putting Medica in left field in Stauffer's spot in the batting order.
Torres gets out of the 11th. The Padres score in the 12th (Medica struck out but Xavier Nady singled in Jedd Gyorko with two outs).
We go to the bottom of the 12th and Harper leads off with a routine fly ball to left against Padres closer Huston Street. Except Medica, who was playing on the warning track, slips and the ball drops in and Harper hustles in for a double. Padres fans start screaming about some kind of curse of Ray Kroc or the San Diego Chicken or whatever reason it is the Padres have never won a World Series.
Tyler Moore strikes out. Then Jose Lobatan smashes a liner in the hole toward shortstop, Harper breaks for third looking to score the tying run ... and shortstop Everth Cabrera snares the ball and doubles off Harper. Game over. Padres happy, Matt Williams sends Harper to his room without dinner.
The Nationals went 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position and left 14 runners on base, but I'll take a wild guess that young Mr. Harper will be blamed for the loss.
Weird ending, strange game, but Bud Black: I praise you for your creativity and making our Thursday evening a little more interesting.
Baseball is a different animal than other sports, so those of us in the media who keep playing the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird card regarding Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are overlooking an inconvenient truth: The pitcher is the guy with the baseball in his hand, so he controls the vast majority of what takes place on a given night.
The first big league meeting ever between Trout and Harper featured two starting pitchers who aren’t going to adorn a season-ticket brochure anytime soon. The Los Angeles Angels’ Garrett Richards, a former Oklahoma Sooner with a 98-mph fastball and occasionally wandering control, stifled the Washington Nationals on one hit through six innings Monday night. His Washington counterpart, Tanner Roark, countered with 6 2/3 shutout innings before leaving to some well-deserved applause in the seventh.
The attendance at Nationals Park was 24,371, or 58.7 percent of capacity, which goes to show that even the novelty of two wunderkinds in the same venue can fill only so many seats on a clear April night in the nation’s capital.
Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk in four plate appearances. Trout contributed two singles in five at-bats, and a pair of double-play takeout slides that were hard enough to leave a mark. But at the end of the night, they both stepped aside as their elders put their stamp on the proceedings. Albert Pujols started an eighth-inning rally with an infield squibber and a stolen base, and old war horse Raul Ibanez came off the bench and lined a three-run double into the gap to propel the Angels to a 4-2 win in the opener of a three-game series.
On a night that revolved around baseball’s long-term future, the winning rally could have been sponsored by Lipitor. But the game was still a ringing endorsement for interleague play, and the notion that MLB does right by customers by giving them snippets of something they really want between the inevitable filler in the schedule.
Heaven knows, that quirky 15-15 configuration has left us with some early matchups that are less than riveting. That rain-induced day-night doubleheader between Cleveland and San Diego at Progressive Field in early April comes to mind. And the recent Seattle-Miami matchup certainly didn’t look like much on paper, although Giancarlo Stanton gave it an injection of oomph with a game-winning grand slam.
Washington and Los Angeles, in contrast, provided some “must see” April interleague viewing because it’s the first time Harper and Trout have taken the field together since they were teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. The double-bill was sufficiently hype-worthy that Nationals broadcast team Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo devoted almost their entire pregame setup to the occasion. They changed course only at the end, when Carpenter offered up the “footnote” that Pujols has 498 career homers and could be making history any day now.
Seeing Trout and Harper on the same field together lent context to their respective paths and the attributes that link and distinguish them. Harper has been the designated golden boy since age 16, while Trout somehow lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009. Trout, who turns 23 in August, is 14 months older than Harper. But they arrived from the minors together on April 28, 2012, instantly looking as if they belonged.
Their disparate styles have helped fuel the “rivalry” narrative, even though they’re friends who enjoy texting one another. Harper burns with an intensity that scouts love and fans either embrace or find off-putting. Trout leaps fences and comes away with the ball in his glove and a disarming smile on his face. Harper has more raw power and a better arm, while Trout runs faster, controls the strike zone better and plays superior defense in the outfield. They’re also in different financial neighborhoods now that Trout has agreed to a six-year, $144.5 million extension and Harper has to muddle along with that measly $6.25 million signing bonus as the first pick in 2010.
All uber-prospects, no matter how highly acclaimed, have to proceed at their own pace. Ken Griffey Jr. hit .264 in his first season with Seattle, while Barry Bonds batted .223 and .261 in his first two years with Pittsburgh. Harper won a Rookie of the Year award at age 19, but he hasn’t had much margin for error breaking in alongside Trout, whose idea of “struggling” is finishing second to Miguel Cabrera twice in the American League MVP balloting.
In some ways, Harper’s occasional travails and missteps make him the more compelling human story. He has gone from the cocky, eyeblack-smeared junior college Bryce to the wall-banging, bull-in-a-china-shop rookie to the Bryce who’s ready to take on a more expansive leadership role in Washington. One day he’s in a 3-for-21 funk with 10 strikeouts and proclaiming himself “pretty lost right now.” A week later, you look up and he has raised his average from .192 to .412.
Over the weekend, Harper became the poster boy for new manager Matt Williams’ quest to put a stamp on the team when he jogged out a ground ball, peeled off toward the dugout and received an instant benching. Oddly enough, the Nationals’ TV feed still features a promotional spot for Harper with the caption “Nothing But Hustle.”
A National League scout who was in town for the weekend series with St. Louis, and the infamous jog, thinks Harper could stand to relax a little. After a slow start last season, the Nationals were hoping to bust out with authority this year. But they lead the majors in errors, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos are on the disabled list, and they’re muddling along at 11-9.
“It’s almost like he’s trying to do too much right now,” the scout said. “He started the year and his timing was horrible. Then he got real hot. Now I think he’s trying to throw that whole team on his shoulders because they didn’t win last year and Zimmerman is out. He doesn’t have to do that.”
If one player secretly burns to outdo the other in the Trout-Harper “rivalry,” the conventional wisdom is that it’s Harper -- no matter how much they both downplay any semblance of competition with their public comments.
“I’m sure he’s like a caged lion,” the scout said of Harper before Monday’s game. “I’d probably throw him a changeup the first pitch, and bounce a breaking ball the second pitch and see if I can feed off all the energy he has going.”
Richards strayed from that script, pumping five straight fastballs on his way to striking Harper out swinging. It was that kind of night.
The good news is that the Angels and Nationals will meet again Tuesday, with Tyler Skaggs on the mound for Los Angeles and Taylor Jordan pitching for Washington in the second of three installments of April appointment baseball. If you’re a Mickey Mantle fan, you’re probably partial to Trout. If you prefer something more edgy -- say, in the Pete Rose mold -- you probably like Harper.
And if you love baseball, you just relish the thought of them sharing the same field, as the quintessential endorsement for interleague play.
Koufax is one of the most difficult players to rank in a list like this due to his short career. His case raises the problems of factoring in peak value versus career value, not to mention postseason performance. Even Koufax's peak -- five great seasons, three of which were pantheon-level seasons -- is relatively short. Plus, he benefited from his time and place: A pitcher's era in a pitcher's park.
At Dodger Stadium, on that Everest of a mound, Koufax was both literally and figuratively on an even higher level.
– in 1963, at Dodger Stadium, he went 11-1 with a 1.38 ERA and batters hit .164 against him.
– In 1964, the one year he did not manage 300 innings, he went 12-2 with an 0.85 ERA at home.
– In 1965, the league hit .152 against Koufax in LA, and he went 14-3 with a 1.38 ERA. On the road that year, he was a much more human 12-5 with a 2.72 ERA.
– In 1966, he was was more or less the same dominant pitcher at home and on the road. His 1.52 ERA at home was not very different from his 1.96 ERA on the road.
So what do all these advantages mean for Koufax’s legacy? Well, I’m a numbers guy at heart but I have to say … it doesn’t mean much to me. Koufax, like all of us, was a man of his time and place. He was given a big strike zone and a high mound and, with the wind at his back, he became indelible, unforgettable, the greatest and most thrilling pitcher many would ever see in their lifetime. No, of course the numbers do not compare fairly with pitchers of other eras — you can’t say Koufax was better than Lefty Grove or Roger Clemens just because his ERA was lower — but those numbers offer a nice display of his dominance and, more, the way people looked at him. He still had a 1.86 ERA over four seasons. He still struck out 382 batters in a season.
Overall, in his three monster seasons in 1963, 1965 and 1966 Koufax went 25-5, 1.88; 26-8, 2.04; and 27-9, 1.73.
Now, in retrospect we know Koufax gained a big advantage from Dodger Stadium. They probably knew that on some level at the time, but nobody really kept track of the numbers. What I always found interesting is that other pitchers were putting up big numbers in the same era, and yet it's Koufax whose legacy grew the largest. For example:
- Juan Marichal went 25-8 in 1963, 25-6 in 1966 and 26-9 in 1968.
- Bob Gibson had his 1.12 ERA in 1968.
- Dean Chance went 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA in 1964.
- Tom Seaver went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA in 1969 (after the mound was lowered) and 20-10 with a 1.76 ERA in 1971.
- Koufax struck out 300 batters three times; Sam McDowell did it twice and even had a season with a 1.81 ERA.
- Denny McLain won 55 games in 1968-69, two more than Koufax won in 1965-66.
The point: Other guys were doing Koufax-like things at the same time. So why Koufax? (Not that Seaver, Gibson and Marichal are disrespected but I'm guessing more casual fans would be inclined to call Koufax the greatest pitcher ever over those three.) Maybe it's the two World Series titles in 1963 and 1965, including a Game 7 shutout in 1965, when the World Series still meant everything. Maybe it was pitching in Los Angeles. Maybe retiring early added to his aura; nobody saw Koufax grow old.
A recent article by Bill James on Bill James Online titled "Climbing the Stairway to Sandy Koufax" finally made my understand why. Bill wrote:
Since 1900 there have been only three seasons by a pitcher in which the pitcher had 25 wins, 300 strikeouts, an ERA under 2.50 and a winning percentage of .750. Those three seasons were by Sandy Koufax, 1963, Sandy Koufax, 1965, and Sandy Koufax, 1966.
So there you go. Those other guys came close and maybe did two of those things, but only Koufax has had a Koufax season. Vida Blue came close in 1971; if he'd gone 25-8 instead of 24-8, he would have had a Koufax season. If Steve Carlton goes 27-9 instead of 27-10 in 1972, it's a Koufax season. Randy Johnson came close.
The rest of the article is a fun look at isolating the best pitching seasons ever, or as Bill wrote, "trying to develop a protocol to make a list of the seasons worthy of the Sandy Koufax label."
A few other things to check out:
- John Dewan writes that shifts are still on the rise. Teams are on pace for more than 12,000, more than 4,000 more than last season. The Astros lead the majors with 176 shifts; the Yankees are second with 98. The White Sox are fourth with 61 -- just 12 fewer than they had all of last season.
- Be sure to check out the ESPN The Magazine story by Scott Eden on Yasiel Puig's defection from Cuba if you missed it last week.
- Via Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, the respected Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post drops a few hints as to why Matt Williams may have pulled Bryce Harper from Saturday's game after Harper failed to run out a little tapper to the mound.
- Harper Gordek of Nationals Baseball writes about Bryce and Boswell.
- On the same subject, in his newsletter, Joe Sheehan writes, "The problem isn't that Matt Williams benched Bryce Harper for some perceived lack of effort. The problem is the antediluvian mindset that even makes that an option. Modern baseball players aren't wide-eyed farm boys being herded from the saloons to the ballyard and back, they're highly-trained professionals recruited, trained and deployed in a nine-billion-dollar industry. You do nothing for the Washington Nationals by treating them, collectively or individually, like something less."
- Adam Wieser of Disciplines of Uecker writes about Carlos Gomez -- and his "crazy" swing. (That's his bat, not his jab.)
- Michael Eder of It's About the Money on who will replace Ivan Nova for the Yankees.
- The Twins are actually scoring some runs this year, but they're still looking for some offense at shortstop and center field, writes Nick Nelson of Twins Daily.
- Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the curious case of J.P. Arencibia and his play so far with the Rangers.
- The Mets are calling up Bobby Abreu. Must need some veteran leadership.
- Domonic Brown is still struggling, writes Bill Baer.
While Trout's star ascended in 2013 with another MVP runner-up finish, Harper got off to a hot start in April before injuries took their toll and he finished with similar numbers to his rookie season. It's easy to forget that Harper may have been the best player in baseball last April, when he hit .344/.430/.720 with nine home runs, six doubles, 18 RBIs and nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (16). A year ago, the Trout-versus-Harper debate was still legitimately raging.
On May 13, however, Harper crashed chin-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium. He missed one game and listed what was sore the day after the collision: "Both legs, [left] shoulder, ribs, hand, wrist, chin of course."
Whether that collision was the direct cause or not, Harper wasn't the same player the rest of the season and would undergo knee surgery in the offseason. Check out his hit chart last year through May 13 and how it looks since:
Of those 10 early home runs, he had pulled seven of them to right field, and six of the 10 came on inside pitches. Since the collision, he's hit 11 home runs -- and only pulled two to right field (the one home run he's hit in 2014 doesn't show up on the hit chart above, but it was yanked over the right-field foul pole).
Again, it's hard to say how much the knee bothered him last year, and his opposite-field home runs showcased his raw power, but home run hitters still make a living pulling the majority of their home runs. During that hot start, Harper hit .344/.417/.938 on inside pitches; since then he's .265/.452/.426 on inside pitches.
Through May 13 last year, 25.7 percent of pitches Harper saw were classified as inside -- the inner third of the plate or in and off the plate. Since then, that number is 23.6 percent, although it's only 19.3 percent in 2014. Pitchers are certainly challenging Harper less often inside, but when he does get inside pitches he's not doing much damage.
Some of this frustration may have reached a boiling point Saturday -- for Harper and manager Matt Williams, when Harper was removed from the game after not running out a tapper back to the pitcher's mound. When factoring in that Williams batted Harper as low as seventh earlier in the season (he's been moved back up to second in the past five games), it's clear that the Nationals' skipper is trying to teach his young star some lessons. To me, it seems the biggest lesson is one Williams can't help: Harper is still learning to adjust to major league pitching.
Trout has had no issues adjusting to whatever adjustments pitchers have tried to make to him, although he did go 0-for-4 on Saturday with four strikeouts. But he enters Monday's game hitting .307 and leading the American League with a .613 slugging percentage, and already atop the AL leaderboard for WAR.
As I've touched upon here before, back in spring training Trout said he wanted to be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when ahead in the count. His overall swing rate is up 3 percent over 2013, but his chase percentage -- the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he's swung at -- is up from 21 percent to 27 percent. Perhaps as a result, his strikeouts are up and his walks are down so far from 2013; he's on pace for 198 strikeouts and 63 walks after going 136 and 110 a year ago. That hasn't hurt his productivity yet, and I suspect those walk and strikeout numbers will eventually fall back closer to a 1-1 ratio, in part because Trout has killed fastballs so far (.378, four of his five home runs). If he gets fed more off-speed pitches, expect the walk rate to go back up.
While we'll all be watching the Trout-Harper showdown, this is a big road trip for the Angels -- six games against the Nationals and then six against the Yankees. Despite the strong start from Trout (and Albert Pujols, who has six home runs to give him 498 for his career), the Angels are 8-10, hoping to avoid a third straight awful April.
It’s times like these that you have to remember that, while it might seem as if Harper has already been around a while, he’s nevertheless just 21 years old, yet in his third season in the majors already. I think we all remember what we were like at 21, and whether or not you were ready to be a perfect employee in any workplace, let alone one with few days off and the rigors of a grinding travel schedule. Which is why, even for a player as good as Harper, even for a player who has been relentlessly conditioned and prepared to be a big league ballplayer, as he was, you can extend some small measure of understanding for him. On the other hand, as the son of an ironworker, he has lauded his father’s example as the inspiration for his work ethic.
The microscope that Harper has to work under is no easy thing for anybody, with or without the clown questions. Less than two weeks ago, he was talking about how lost he was at the plate and taking a day off. Then he rattled off an eight-game hitting streak while hitting .483/.545/.759, so I guess you can say he found himself.
That’s what is worth the headaches, even as you accept that, third-year pro or no, Harper is still a very young man. Which is why you can simultaneously respect Williams for exercising his responsibility to his team so quickly. Williams may be a rookie skipper, but he’s also a guy who had his share of huge touts back in the day as the third overall pick of the 1986 draft for the San Francisco Giants. He was in the majors nine months later, just 21 years old with even fewer games as a pro under his belt in the minors than Harper had when he was called up (less than 80, to 134 for Harper).
So Williams knows more than a little about these kinds of pressures, as well as his own experience as a singular talent. Maybe that means he’s less inclined to spare the rod, so to speak. We’ll have to see how Harper, having been chastened, responds to the message in the days to come.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Remember 2012, when a Nationals-Braves series was a baseball jamboree to be highlighted in yellow weeks in advance? When the teams combined for 192 wins? When each went to the playoffs? The future was bright then, and full of stars. You’d see Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel suit up for Atlanta, or see Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann for the Nationals.
The bright future past gave way to a somewhat mediocre 2013. Zimmermann and Gonzalez experienced slight regression while Strasburg and Harper were merely excellent rather than otherworldly -- with Harper missing 40-plus games to boot -- leading to a disappointing 86 Nats wins, four games back of even the second wild-card slot. The Braves did everything right and ran away with the division by 10 games, but it wasn't the same, at least for nonpartisans, as a fully competitive, hard-fought division.
Then, before 2014 really got going, the baseball gods found some excuse to punish the Braves, sending Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery while afflicting Mike Minor with shoulder tendinitis. Suddenly, with a back end of their rotation made up of Alex Wood, David Hale, and Aaron Harang, the team was going to have to overcome the free-agency loss of Brian McCann through the sheer force of will of Justin Upton and Heyward. Good as they are, neither guy is Barry Bonds, capable of bearing alone the burden of elevating mediocrity to respectability.
So the hoped-for two-team division race was down, realistically, to just the Nats ... except for those pesky baseball gods, who apparently want to see the Marlins make the playoffs with 82 wins and therefore decided to strike down the Nationals’ big winter trade acquisition, Doug Fister, and snakebit catcher Wilson Ramos, each of whom has star-level talent and mediocre backups (Tanner Roark/Taylor Jordan and Jose Lobaton, respectively).
Worse yet, Saturday's pregame announcements featured the news that Denard Span had to head to the disabled list with a concussion suffered in a weird collision with Dan Uggla. Concussions being what they are, Span could be back in a week or a month or not at all. This leaves Nate McLouth in the Nationals’ outfield, which is something other than a disaster, McLouth having experienced an unpredictable renaissance over the last two years, hitting .252/.324/.393. That line plays fine in this low-offense era, but the likely two-position defensive drop, from Span to Harper in center and from Harper to McLouth in left, won't make many Nationals hurlers happy. Strasburg and Gonzalez don't have much to worry about, both being strikeout pitchers with solid-to-good ground-ball rates, but pitchers less apt to miss bats may find themselves frustrated by doubles in the gap that Span would have run down.
All of this, bad as it is, could be overcome, except that suddenly, as of the fifth inning of Saturday's loss to the Braves, Washington finds itself without Zimmerman for the next four to six weeks after the third baseman broke his thumb diving back into second base on a pickoff. (He was out, adding insult to literal injury.) The Nats' depth was sorely tested last year, with “tested” serving as a euphemism for the fact that the non-regulars were completely awful. Danny Espinosa, a handy example because he will have to cover second base in Zimmerman's absence while Anthony Rendon shifts back over to his original position at third, somehow hit .158/.193/.272 in 2013. Sure, Espinosa probably isn’t that bad, as he broke his wrist early in 2013 after managing a low-contact, high-power .242/.319/.408 line from 2011 to 2012. Combine that with good defense and Espinosa was once and might still be a nice above-average player. The possibility remains, however, that he is exactly as bad as he looked last season.
If the 2011-12 Espinosa is who the Nationals get in their lineup now, and if Zimmerman returns in the time expected, and if Fister recovers in good order from his lat strain, and if Ramos can come back at full strength after hamate bone surgery, and if Span makes a complete recovery from his concussion, and, as long as we're here, if Harper's wall-smashing approach to the sport doesn't result in his missing any time, then the Nationals should be fine. Indeed, given the maladies faced by their competition, Washington should still be the favorite in the NL East even if only half of that list works out.
But that's a lot of ifs, ones that this team isn't built to deal with, ones that, should the Nats wend their way through the darkness and despair of an injury-riddled season, could before we know it lead to the Dinger Machine in Miami lighting up the October skies after a series-winning 480-foot walk-off homer by newly minted playoff hero Giancarlo Stanton. The prudent fan will begin preparing mentally and emotionally for this possibility posthaste.
Jason Wojciechowski blogs for Beaneball, the SweetSpot network's affiliate dedicated to covering the Oakland Athletics.