MLB: Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Matt Williams still have much to learn about their respective roles

The majority of 21-year-olds participating at the big league level are prone to being sent down to the minor leagues if their performance suffers.

Then again, most 21-year-olds don’t have the potential of Bryce Harper.

The Nationals prized outfielder headed into Thursday afternoon’s series finale against the New York Mets still mired in a month-long slump and with less than a full day separating him from being the subject of ridiculous speculation that that involved his manager, Matt Williams.

Harper erased any thought of a demotion with a game-winning, opposite field home run in the bottom of the 13th inning to keep the Nats solidly atop the National League East.

While it can be confirmed here that placing him down in AAA would indeed be illogical, discussion regarding the cause for his recent performance—or lack thereof—is a worthy topic.

After all, he was the No. 1 overall selection by the Nationals in 2010 MLB Amateur Draft and, along with Stephen Strasburg, makes up the centerpiece that is Washington’s baseball renaissance.

So when his stat line for the 2014 season reads: four homers, 16 RBI, 59 strikeouts and a batting average of .253 in 190 at-bats, you start to wonder what’s amiss.

During an interview on Wednesday with a local Washington D.C. morning radio program, “The Sports Junkies,” Williams was asked about drastic measures to cure Harper’s woes.

“Is it a terrible idea—just a wacky idea—to send him down to Syracuse for a week, just to get him right?” one of the co-hosts asked. “Is that just a stupid idea on my part?”

“I don’t know,” Williams responded. “I don’t think it’s stupid. Generally, if you have young players, that’s what you do. But this guy is a special young player. We all know that. It’s different. I think he works hard every day. He’s the first one in the ballpark, generally, to get his day going. He’s grinding.”

With the first-year skipper’s thoughts open to interpretation, the media hounds pounced on this proverbial door being left ajar. In the pre-game press conference that same day, Williams slammed it back in their face.

Whether this statement was of his own doing or these were words influenced by general manager Mike Rizzo, the attempt at damage control can best be described as unnecessarily forceful.

Rather than backtrack and acknowledge his initial error in causing the uproar, Williams verbally bullied those media members in attendance—turning the tables in the blame game.

Ever since receiving the call-up from AAA Syracuse to the Nationals in late April 2012, Harper has been the face and personality of  the franchise’s highly-touted young talent—in the mean time providing a great deal of excitement in Washington D.C.

There have been flashes of brilliance. After all, the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year had accumulated 39 home runs before his 21st birthday—surpassing a record once held by Ken Griffey, Jr. There have also times of poor on-field judgment that can be expected of someone his age. The desire and potential is ever-present. The execution is not.

This is partially due to a lack of consistency—best reflected in his statistics at the plate.

But a more significant reason is due to his recent string of injuries.

Who could forget his running into the Dodger Stadium right field wall in May of last year? Probably Bryce. His bell certainly rung many times over following that face plant, Harper also suffered a jammed left shoulder and a cut under his chin.

At the start of this season, he was battling through a strained left quad. In late April, he underwent surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb—putting him out of the lineup until early July.

Knowing his attitude, he’s probably back a bit sooner than he should. Therefore, he definitely is not 100 percent healthy. And thus, his chances of getting acclimated again with everyday play take a bit more time than fans desire.

It’s quite difficult for a player to be regularly productive and establish a rhythm at the plate when the focus is more on recovery rather than growth and development. Combine that with the fact that he’s still so young, and the recent notion of how to handle Harper’s latest failings is an utter overreaction.

His body hasn’t been the only thing hurting lately. Harper’s psyche has been affected too.

He’s probably unsure at this point when to go all out and when to rein it in. Harper’s hustle—which sometimes borders on recklessness—cannot be questioned. Except by Williams, who pulled Harper in the sixth inning of a game against St. Louis due to not hustling down the first base line after a routine comebacker to the pitcher—making an example of his phenom and causing a major strain in their relationship.

It was less than a week later that Harper—probably wanting to show his manger that the aggressiveness has not waned—slid head-first into third base on a triple and suffered the thumb injury.

Like Harper, Williams has never been accused of having a lack of passion—although it’s not as prevalent. He’s also shown his faults in being a new manger that’s still learning the ropes—while at the same time fielding a first-place club.

The mini firestorm that he sparked on Wednesday, officially put to rest by Harper’s walk-off, was the most recent of his mistakes. He, of course, is right in expressing the foolishness of sending Harper down a level. But his execution was also poor.

He realized the error of his ways when he concluded Thursday’s post-game press conference by apologizing to the reporters he berated nearly 24 hours prior.

There are many aspects of Bryce Harper’s game that still need to be ironed out, and undoubtedly the best avenue for him to learn is through being in the major leagues. When it comes to his manager, there is certainly room for growth there as well. The events of Thursday afternoon were positive steps in their progress.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as the Washington Examiner. He is currently the host of his own sports history podcast, 'Profiles in Sports'. While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. Nothing would please him more than a World Series title for his beloved New York Mets.

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