This past week, Bryce Harper ran full throttle (does he run any other way?) into the outfield wall at Dodgers Stadium, crashing face first into a chain link fence protecting the out-of-town scoreboard. Harper fell over into a heap on the warning track in what was, easily, the scariest moment of his young career thus far.
The defining characteristic of his style of play has been “hustle” – a never say die attitude that has, at times, both saved (and cost) the Nationals games. Harper is both an excellent young player and a lightning rod for attention – an excellent combination for a gossip heavy town like Washington. His injury was going to be big news no matter what (look, the London Telegraph picked it up!) – but in the Nation’s Capital (a place built on soapbox comments dissecting something they do not fully understand), it was the stuff of water -cooler wet dreams. The fact that many Washingtonians are still only partially engaged in baseball at this point of the year isn’t going to stop them from heaping mounds of “tsk tsks” and “told you sos” onto the crumpled body of Bryce Harper at Dodgers Stadium.
Sometimes I think the only thing this city likes more than winning is picking apart just how someone screwed up.
The collective finger wagging produced a steady breeze across the Washington sports landscape. Op-eds and hour long radio segments rushed to get on Harper’s case to slow down and be more careful – I’m sure at least one columnist in this city looked up from the typewriter to find that they too (somehow) were about to run smack into a wall.
The theme is an easy one: Harper only had himself to blame and needed to learn to change how he plays. His aggression was the key point of every article. Human beings are suckers for a good narrative – especially when it coincides with our shorthand notes on a person or thing already. It feeds the pattern recognition part of our caveman brains that kept us alive for millennia. So “Bryce is the best dinosaur hunter because he’s relentless and aggressive” easily turns into “Bryce is going to get eaten by a dinosaur if he doesn’t knock this crap off.”
And for all the space wasted on telling the young man to slow down, it’s actually a matter of inexperience-not exuberance-that pushed Bryce Harper head first into a wall.
Thomas Boswell turns to the history of the game (at great length, I might add) to give Mr. Harper the stern talking too he’s had a long time coming. You can see him on his porch, shaking his cane at the young player telling him about the other crazy kid in the neighborhood - Pete Reiser – and just-look-what-became-of-him-now-you-don’t-want-to-end-up-like-him-now-do-you-now-get-off-my-lawn! Boz also takes occasion to make sure you know that, in addition to being a blockhead for running into the wall, Harper also screwed the whole play up (“misplayed a line drive, got turned around and disoriented, then turned a routine double into a triple.“) Thanks for rubbing it in, T.
Buster Olney wasn’t far behind, it seems. I don’t have an Insider account but given Buster is counting the number of steps Harper takes on the warning track in the first sentence, you can tell where he ends up. “So Harper either wasn’t cognizant that he had sprinted onto new ground or else, more likely, he simply ignored all the sensory information gathered in his pursuit of A.J. Ellis’ long fly ball.” These kids today, with their shoes and their hair…
Here’s Ed Graney (of the Las Vegas Review-Journal) taking the opposite view: that Harper needs to play with reckless abandon – cuz that’s just who he is. Like him or not, he’s just all crazy whackadoo and you got to let him be who he gonna be. Brycie being Brycie. “Pete Reiser died in 1981. Here’s guessing he wouldn’t have changed a thing about how he played the game.” Well, if you say so.
Lost in all this back and forth over how the likely concussed Mr. Harper ought to play baseball is the fact that he is very much learning on the job.
Don’t get me wrong. Harper was the author of his own injury on this play. He was the only one running after the ball. He ran into the fence. To simply chalk it up to he’s a young idiot that needs to slow down (or not) is to miss most of what happened on that play. It gives no context as to what is going on. Harper plays well beyond his years so it is easy to forget how inexperienced he actually is. It’s so easy to focus on his offensive production (in no small part because offense is easier to quantify), that it’s easy for the lackadaisical eye to simply just “accept” he is good defensively.
Most outfielders playing in the Majors have years of experience from high school through college and/or the minors. Even phenoms who come up quickly have had some seasoning in the lower ranks. Harper has only been playing the outfield since 2011. Before he signed with the Nationals he was a catcher. Forget the outfield, this means most of the meaningful playing time where he needed to field a ball hit towards him at all has been under contract for Washington.
Folks might expect him to be the equal of the usual right fielder-seasoned veteran Jayson Werth, but he almost certainly has less collective playing time in the outfield than any other starting outfielder on a big league roster.
And yes, let’s not forget: In the “just about two years of his life” that he’s play outfield, he’s played in Left and Center field (he was playing Right when he ran into the wall). Despite presumptions some may have based on playing recreation league softball, these are not the same positions. It’s not all just “The Outfield” and interchangeable like that. Balls hit to different parts of the field by different handed hitters move… differently. It’s not just that there is a wall on your left instead of your right, it’s that liners over one shoulder might be in the gap instead of foul (and are likely to spin or roll a different way, too). And again “used to” is generous given his experience.
So look at the play again (if you can stomach it). Harper’s initial move on the ball is wrong, as Boz so delicately pointed out, which costs him. He instantly realizes the ball is going deeper and turns to follow the ball on a curved, almost banana shaped, path towards Right-Center Field. An experienced player makes the right initial move, and gets to back-peddle as he tracks the ball. Instead, he’s turned himself completely around and is chasing the ball running towards the wall. You know, exactly like Willie Mays did that one time.
Of course, Harper isn’t running straight back like Mays who had a bead on the ball the whole way. Harper has turned into center field on a big loop, a completely different part of the field from where he started and is used to. Harper knows how close he is to the wall from his starting position, but coming the long way around he’s not sure of where he is in relation to things.
Harper probably doesn’t know where ball is exactly either. He takes a first step forward, a big loop to his right, and then a return trip towards the back wall in a park he’s only playing in for the fourth time of his career (and for the first time in right field). The warning track works well for the back peddling outfielder, or the man who’s used to his position, and the particular ballpark. In Harper’s case, it was about as helpful as brake lights on the car you’re tailgating at 80 MPH.
In the end, I don’t think Bryce Harper thought he was invincible. He didn’t think he could go through a wall. He didn’t think he was Superman. He wasn’t being stupid. This isn’t your friend jumping off the roof into a wrestling ring made of old mattresses on a dare.
This was burning your hand on the stove the first time you try and make pancakes. This is learning the hard way why you need to change your oil in your car or not to stick your finger in the socket. This is how you learn. You make mistakes. Sometimes they are violent, scary mistakes – but this is how the unexperienced become experienced. While Jason Reid focuses too much on “letting Harper be Harper” for my taste (again refocusing the discussion on his style of play), he is dead right that this was a mistake of youthful ignorance not exuberance.
Bryce Harper was doing the best he could in unfamiliar territory. While it’s true he needs to learn his boundaries (which isn’t a question of the unbridled energy with which he plays the game, but a question of the vast inexperience incumbent on a second year player, even one as gifted as Harper is), Harper doesn’t need to learn to slow down. Bryce Harper just needs to continue learning how to play the outfield.