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May 7, 2012

Overthinking It

Bryce Harper Takes the High Road

by Ben Lindbergh

We thought we knew Bryce Harper pretty well even before he arrived in the big leagues. We saw him on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16. We watched him dominate against older amateur competition, get drafted first overall, and hold his own against professional players several years his senior. Presented with Harper’s on-field exploits and the testimony of talent evaluators, we never questioned his skills, except to wonder whether he was merely great or the most promising prospect ever.

Our only serious questions concerned his makeup, and Baseball Prospectus was the source of some of the most concerning quotes. Two years ago, Kevin Goldstein wrote, “It’s impossible to find any talent evaluator who isn’t blown away by Harper’s ability on the field, but it’s equally difficult to find one who doesn’t genuinely dislike the kid.” Kevin repeated a scout’s assessment that Harper had “top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents.” He quoted one front-office official who said, “He’s just a bad, bad guy. He’s basically the anti-Joe Mauer.”

When Harper was called up at the end of April, we expected to see signs of the star player he was supposed to become. But at 19 years old, his character reportedly hadn’t caught up to his body: judging by how often the adjective was applied, his nickname might as well have been "Brash." (Seriously. Google it.) With the warning words of that scout and official in mind, we expected him to do something stupid that would piss people off and trample all over the unwritten rules. Maybe he still will. On Sunday afternoon, though, the allegedly immature Harper faced off against a seven-year veteran and came away looking like the more mature man.

With two outs in the first inning of the Phillies’ win 9-3 win over the Nationals, Cole Hamels hit Harper in the lower back with a first-pitch, 93-mph fastball. “Fastball in, gets away from Cole. We’re not going to say there was any intention,” said Orel Hershiser on ESPN's broadcast of the game. He was trying to throw “up and in,” said Charlie Manuel. “I was trying to hit him,” said Cole Hamels.

Hamels’ post-game statement—half confession, half self-righteous boast—didn’t end there.

I’m not going to deny it. That’s just—you know what, it’s something that I grew up watching, that’s what happened, so I’m just trying to continue the old baseball [tradition]. I think some people kind of get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything just because that’s the way baseball is. Sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.

Given what we’d heard of Harper, we might have expected an intentional beaning* to bring out the worst in him. But instead of staring or jawing at Hamels or taking a step toward the mound, Harper avoided even looking at the lefty. He went to first, advanced to third on a Jayson Werth single, then stole home on a Hamels pickoff throw to first. (Of course Harper’s first steal would be of home). It was the perfect revenge, the perfect way to handle a plunking. It was the sort of sequence we might still be talking about in 20 years, one that combined Harper’s hustle, competitiveness, and incredible talent. And it was exactly the sort of reaction we wouldn’t have seen coming from someone who supposedly struggled with letting his play on the field speak for him.

*If you click on one link in this article, make it the one that leads to this video of the pitch that hit Harper. Not for the pitch that hit Harper, but for the camera guy’s work at the 15-second mark, where he swings the camera around and zooms in dramatically on a motionless man wearing a Phillies hoodie, as if to ask “WHAT DOES THIS ONE PHILLIES FAN IN THE STANDS THINK?” I half expected the Phillies fan to do a dramatic chipmunk.

Harper is no stranger to controversy caused by being hit by a pitch. After being hit by an A-ball pitcher last season, Harper took out his frustration by admiring a homer he’d hit off one of the offending pitcher’s teammates, then blowing a kiss toward the mound after crossing home plate. The earlier beaning explained—but didn’t excuse—his actions. The home run was the appropriate response. The kiss was overkill.

Over at HardballTalk, Craig Calcaterra posted a video of that incident under the headline, “Bryce Harper is going to get himself hurt.” Later, he added more thoughts under the headline, “Bryce Harper needs to grow up.” Less than a year later, it appears that Harper has. Not only has he advanced to the majors, but there were no kisses blown after the steal of home.

I don’t want to make too much of a single incident, but that’s what Harper’s bad reputation has been based on: a series of single incidents. If we can use one instance of Harper behaving badly to paint him in a negative light, maybe we can use one instance of Harper taking the high road to help rehabilitate his image.

If anything, Harper has been a model citizen since his promotion. He’s avoided any controversy, and his mlb.com video highlights section already extends three pages. It’s like looking at a Hall of Famer’s baby book. The video titles summarize one success after another. Harper’s incredible throw. Harper’s leaping catch. Harper’s barehanded catch. Harper’s diving grab. Harper’s go-ahead double. Harper steals home. Harper boosts attendance at Nationals Park.*

*Okay, maybe not that last one.

After eight games and 33 plate appearances, Harper is hitting .308/.424/.500. He’s walked more than he’s struck out. He hasn’t looked the least bit overmatched. And he’s likely here to stay, since Werth’s fractured wrist leaves a Harper-sized hole in right field and in a lineup that’s already short Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam LaRoche.

In attempting to teach Harper a lesson about how to behave in the big leagues, Hamels was the one who seemed most in need of a refresher. Even aside from the non-zero risk that Hamels would miss his target and hit Harper in a place where a bone could break, there were plenty of reasons not to take the action he did. First, there was the inadvisability of putting a man on base in order to deliver a message. Harper came around to score, and while that didn’t come back to bite the Phillies, it could have, given their struggles to score this season. Second, there was the inadvisability of admitting to having thrown at Harper, which will almost certainly lead to a five- or six-game suspension where one could have been easily avoided. The Phillies are in last place in the NL East, and with one fewer start from Hamels, they’ll have a slightly steeper hill to climb to a comeback.

Of course, the John Wayne act wouldn’t have worked if Hamels had left any doubt as to his intentions. The question is where those intentions came from. If Harper had looked too long at a home run or committed some other etiquette infraction, the game’s peculiar moral code might have called for a brushback or a bruising. But Hamels didn’t give Harper a chance to commit some offense. He drilled him the first chance he got.

“It’s just, ‘Welcome to the big leagues,’” Hamels said. But Hamels didn’t hit Harper because he’s a rookie. He hasn’t hit any of the other rookies he’s faced this season—not Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Tyler Pastornicky or Yonder Alonso or Andy Parrino or A.J. Pollock. He hit Bryce Harper because he’s talented and because he has a reputation for needing to be put in his place. Never mind that Harper, who always runs hard and whose work ethic has never been doubted, has thus far in his major-league career embodied the best of the old-school values that Hamels claims to uphold.

What drives every generation of players (and people) to lament the loss of the way things were in their youth and to make things more difficult for those who follow them? It’s the same spirit that inspires a picked-upon high school freshman to make the next year’s incoming class just as unhappy once he’s attained the exalted status of a sophomore. It’s the desire to make sure everyone else conforms to the same standards and has it as hard as you did. Today, it’s Bryce Harper. When Harper was still in diapers, it was Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. From the July 15th, 1994 New York Times:

And so the baseball etiquette debate rages on.

It's not Mariners versus Yankees in Seattle this weekend so much as Griffey versus Showalter, perhaps the game's premier player against one of its brightest young managers in a lively discourse on the merits of respecting the game.

"I shouldn't say this publicly," Showalter was quoted as saying in the magazine story, "but a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game's boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat's on backward, and his shirttail's hanging out."

He also made pointed comments about San Francisco's Barry Bonds, saying that at last year's All-Star Game Bonds failed to tuck in his shirt until game time.

"To me, that's a lack of respect for the game," Showalter said. "Maybe I'm being too picky on these guys. I'm starting to say things like, 'Back when I played.' I thought I'd never say those words."

Before Harper was born, it was Deion Sanders. From the November 9, 2003 Times, recounting an anecdote from a 1990 Yankees-White Sox game:

[Carlton] Fisk, then the 42-year-old White Sox catcher, took umbrage because the 22-year-old Sanders, who etched a dollar sign in the dirt before batting, had not run hard to first on an infield popout. Before Sanders's next at-bat, Fisk said he told the rookie Sanders, ''Run.'' Fisk said Sanders told him that slavery had ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, so Fisk told Sanders that playing the game properly had nothing to do with skin color.

The players wound up going nose-to-nose and both dugouts emptied, but the situation was quickly defused.

Go back to the beginning of the game’s recorded history, and you could probably find a veteran waxing nostalgic about the high standards of his day and condemning the upstarts who’d abandoned them. Unlike Showalter and Fisk, Hamels is a little young to be policing rookies and anointing himself the guardian of baseball’s behavioral standards. Maybe the beaning was meant as a reminder—not just to Harper, but to the Nationals—that the Phillies haven’t missed the playoffs since 2006 and don’t intend to now. If so, it smacks of desperation more than anything else. At the time, the Phillies had lost their last seven games against the Nats, including the first two games of the series. They’re desperately in need of a good hitter besides Hunter Pence who’s under 30 (let alone under 20). They’re a last-place team whose time seems to be drawing to an end, while the first-place Nats’ time seems just to be starting. A hit-by-pitch won’t help them, and any rivalry hitting Harper creates will last only as long as both teams are competitive.

In accordance with the ancient retaliatory rituals, Jordan Zimmermann hit Hamels in his next at-bat. Once the pain wore off, he must have felt like applauding. For his part, Harper fought back any temptation to snipe at Hamels after the game, calling him “a great pitcher and a great guy” who “threw a great game.” (Nineteen-year-olds know only so many adjectives.)

If abandoning Hamels’ “old baseball” means leaving senseless acts of aggression behind, just as it once meant moving past segregation, the reserve clause, and underhand pitching, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Yes, Harper looks like he got called up in the middle of a haircut and hasn’t had time to finish it. (In that sense, at least, he is the anti-Mauer.) Yes, he wears enough eye black to dull the glare on Tattooine. But unlike Hamels and the Dodgers fans who booed Harper during his debut, let’s wait and see what the Nats have in Harper—the person, as well as the player—before we label him a villain. One half-inning was enough to make me I think a little less of Hamels and a little more highly of Harper. Imagine what the next 130 games can do.

Thanks to Steven Goldman for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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