In what might be the most surprising bit of news so far this season, first-year Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams benched outfielder Bryce Harper for a "lack of hustle" on Saturday after he failed to run ground ball, the manager told reporters after the game.
What's clear is that Harper definitely didn't "hustle", to use Williams' word, on the play. However, given his reputation as one of the highest energy players in the game, the decision to punish him -- especially when taking into account that Harper is nursing an injured quad -- seems to speak to a larger issue.
But considering how public Williams has been about his feelings towards Harper from the moment he joined the team, there being a serious issue between Harper and Williams seems odd. In one of his first interviews after joining the team, Williams told the Washington Post, "I love the way he plays the game. He plays the game the way it should be played. He is all-out, every day, all the time, every game."
If that wasn't enough of a glowing review, the idea that Williams was punishing Harper directly for "not hustling" despite an injured quad becomes even more confusing when you consider that the next idea that came into his head during that Post interview was this: "He's paid for it by getting injured and running into walls. Everybody loves that about him. Now can we be a little smarter sometimes? Sure. And not necessarily run into that wall? Of course."
Given his stance on Harper, as well as his feelings on Harper trying to keep healthy, the notion that he was attempting to ignite a spark under his team by benching Bryce has some serious traction. With his team already two games behind the Atlanta Braves, last year's disappointments, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman out, it's entirely possible that Williams was simply attempting to make sure that his team didn't dig themselves an early-season hole that they would have to spend the rest of the year frantically shoveling out of.
By choosing to call out his best player, Williams could also have been attempting to establish a tone for how he plans on managing the team in his first year, and going forward. It lets him create a precedent for everyone to be held accountable to "the team", and more importantly, the other 24 players on the roster. And since Harper wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, it was a calculated risk Williams was willing to take.
This was made clear in his statements after the game, telling reporters:
"We made an agreement," Williams continued. "He and I made an agreement. This team made an agreement. That when we play the game, we hustle at all times. That we play the game with intensity and the willingness to win and as it turned out, his spot came up, Kevin Frandsen put on a nice AB against [Cards' closer Trevor] Rosenthal, but his spot came up with the ability to win the game and that's a shame for his teammates."
Williams did say Harper will play Sunday, per Bill Ladson of MLB.com.
With Williams' decidedly old school approach, along with the fact that he's willing to act so publicly and deliberately, setting a consistent atmosphere in the clubhouse this way may be necessary. While we may never know exactly why Williams chose to bench Harper, it'll be interesting to see whether the outfielder thinks it was a clown move or not going forward.