Yesterday, as you’ve heard (and probably seen), Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon had a scuffle in the dugout after a Harper popout in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game that, at the time, was a 4-4 tie between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals.
Today, the Nationals announced two separate moves that were clearly not separate at all: Papelbon has dropped his appeal of a three-game suspension handed down by MLB after Papelbon committed attempted murder on Manny Machado last week in the form of a 93-MPH fastball aimed directly at Machado’s head; and the Nationals have suspended Papelbon for four games for his attack on Harper. With seven games left in the season — coincidentally, the same exact number as the two suspensions combined! — Papelbon’s season is over, and his future in Washington is in doubt.
A lot has been written today about the Papelbon/Harper dustup, but I have not (yet) read a single article. All I have seen is a bunch of 140-character tidbits on Twitter. I assume most of the articles are very good, because most of the people who wrote them are very good writers and very intelligent thinkers. I also assume that I will end up disagreeing pretty strongly with quite a few of them.
I’d like to start by saying that everyone acknowledges that Papelbon was in the wrong for physically attacking Harper and trying to choke him. I say I’d like to start that way, but I really can’t, because it appears that the physical assault is at best secondary in people’s minds. It seems like victim-blaming of the highest order to say, “Well, if Harper would just hustle, he wouldn’t have to worry about his insane teammate trying to kill him.” He was asking for it, you know.
Really, we are dealing with two different issues here: 1) Harper’s lack of hustle; and 2) Papelbon’s physical attack. Any analysis that fails to consider both aspects separately is only a partial analysis.
In its simplest form, there is no question that the Nationals were correct to suspend Papelbon for the rest of the season. It would be interesting to see the response if this had happened two weeks ago, when the Nats had 20 games left and were still, at least theoretically, in the hunt for the National League East title. We will never know, but at least we know that the Nats shut down Papelbon as soon as Matt Williams noticed what had happened, which was barely an hour too late.
Yes, sometimes ballplayers fight. Yes, Papelbon may have just been employing some old-school “play the right way” self-policing that MLB players value so much. (Although, as some pointed out on Twitter, it is mighty coincidental that this happened just days after Harper called out Papelbon for his “tired” act of throwing at Machado.) But publicly attacking your teammate — whether he is the best player in the league or not — must be met with swift and severe consequences, so kudos to the Nationals for not dropping that ball.
In short, I strongly disagree with anyone who thinks Papelbon should not have been suspended. Even if you think he was 100 percent correct in his interpretation of “playing the right way” and his role as a team leader and that violence was the best way to handle the situation, the time and place of the attack cannot be overlooked and discipline must be meted out.
Which brings us back to the first issue: Harper’s lack of hustle. Watch the video, if you haven’t seen it yet:
Harper hit a lazy popup to shallow left field, where Jeff Francoeur made a routine play on the ball. The number of times that ball is dropped for an error or falls in for a hit can be counted on one hand over the course of the 2,430 games played in a Major League season. Mathematically speaking, that is an out 100 percent of the time unless your calculator has room for a whole bunch of decimal points.
But what if the ball drops? Well, Francoeur does not have much going for him these days, but he still has one of the best arms in baseball. The ball was in the air for 5.86 seconds, which means that if Harper is sprinting out of the box, he is about one-third of the way to second base when the ball drops, which means that Francoeur most likely picks up the ball and throws him out by ten feet at second base. More likely, though, would be that Harper stops at first base — the same base he would have easily reached if he jogged like he did and then picked up the pace a little bit when Francoeur dropped the ball.
So let’s review: Harper hit a ball that is an out roughly 100 percent of the time. He doesn’t hustle, and he was out. If he had hustled, he still would have been out. If he had hustled and Francoeur had dropped the ball, he would have been on first base. If he doesn’t hustle and Francoeur drops the ball, he is on first base.
So our egregious sin, the one that literally has people willing to forgive a 230-pound man for trying to injure his teammate, boils down to “he didn’t do a useless thing for the sake of appearances.”
This is not the first time Harper has drawn fire for a lack of hustle. He was once pulled from a game by his manager, Matt Williams, for failing to touch first base after he was already out. Clearly, Harper is a lightning rod for the “play the game the right way” crowd.
What’s baffling to me is that this is Bryce Harper we’re talking about. He has had two serious injuries in his career. Once, he hurt his shoulder crashing into a wall trying to make a catch. Another time, he tore ligaments in his thumb going into third base on a three-run triple. By the time he was 21 years old, he had had two serious injuries caused by hustling, and yet he is the poster boy for young kids who don’t hustle. Or, as some players and former players said, the “entitlement generation”:
CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) September 28, 2015
Isn’t it likely that, at some point after Harper ran into the wall and/or hurt himself hustling for a triple, someone pulled Bryce aside and talked to him about playing smart? Maybe mentioned to him that he does the team more good on the field than in the clubhouse, so he needs to take care of his body or he’s going to be done before he even hits his prime? And isn’t it possible that, in Bryce Harper’s mind, sprinting to first on a ball that is an out 100 percent of the time might not be the best thing to do if we’re weighing the potential costs (injury) versus the potential benefits (don’t make Papelbon mad)?
Does that make Harper entitled, or does it make him enlightened?
Look, I’m not saying we should stop teaching kids to hustle in Little League, just like we shouldn’t stop teaching kids not to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” But once a player is experienced enough to understand the difference between hustle that has potential benefit and hustle for the sake of hustle, I don’t have any issue with him exercising his discretion any more than I have an issue with an experienced writer starting a sentence with “but” once he knows how to do it correctly. And Harper clearly understands the difference between real hustle and fake hustle.
The next time Harper doesn’t hustle down the line on a grounder that the shortstop has to backhand in the hole, he is ripe for criticism. But the next time that happens will be the first time. Until then, let’s go ahead and acknowledge that physically attacking your teammate for not engaging in futile hustle is a slightly more serious offense than failing to sprint down the line for absolutely zero benefit to himself or his team.