Boswell: “Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player”

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You probably saw that Bryce Harper was benched on Saturday after he didn’t run out a ground ball (it was hit back to the pitcher). Matt Williams called it a lack of “hustle” and made a point to call him out publicly after the game. We already covered this one for the most part, but for what it’s worth — and keeping in mind this is a nitpick — I think “hustle” isn’t exactly the issue here. At least not as we usually think of it.

Generally speaking, Harper is nothing if not hustle (the Nats’ program the very day of that game is evidence of that). Indeed, until Saturday the biggest talking point about Harper was whether he hustled too much and whether he should slow down some in an effort to not tax his body. The play on Saturday, I feel, was less about physical effort than it was about (a) quitting mentally; and (b) Williams sending a message to his team in general, even if Harper was the pretext for it. If Harper slowly jogged all the way to first I’m guessing Williams doesn’t bench him, even if that’s not exactly “hustle” as usually defined. It’s more about just giving up on the play. If the Nats had been playing better baseball lately, I’m guessing Williams doesn’t react the way he did.

That’s not a major point, but feel like “hustle” or the lack thereof has become a proxy for laziness and that so often the “hustle” conversation inspires false hustle and needless hustle in ways that are unnecessary. Williams was trying to make Harper and the Nats in general mentally sharper. To not quit or lose focus. He wasn’t — I hope anyway — trying to instill a culture where guys sprint after ball four and in from the bullpen like Pete Rose or something. For that reason he was fine to bench Harper, even if I take issue with him (a) calling him out publicly like he did, which seems unprofessional to me; and (b) couching it in terms of hustle which is such an amorphous and malleable word in sports these days. One which leads to a lot of dumb and unproductive inferences and incentives.

Anyway, with that aside, let’s look at something less nuanced and far, far dumber. It’s Tom Boswell of the Washington Post going off on Harper about this in his latest column. After several paragraphs of ripping Harper and lauding Matt Williams for sending Harper a message, Boswell uncorks this:

Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.

This is what I’m talking about. You put a guy in the crosshairs like Williams did by calling him out in a postgame presser and you declare this a conversation about hustle, you give people license to take their knives out and go insanely over the top because, hey, not hustling is, like, the WORST THING YOU CAN DO and arglebarglebagleblah!

Boswell famously created a stat called Total Average one time. It has been widely debunked as a useful analytical tool and it’s actually pretty misleading. So, perhaps it is not so shocking to see him totally whiffing on a point of analysis here. But hey, if he can get anyone inside baseball to agree that Harper is some mediocre player because of a mental lapse or that they’d rather have Anthony Rendon than Bryce Harper now, five years from now or 20 years from now I suppose I’ll moderate my stance.

It is not Tony Clark’s job to compromise. His job is to advocate for the players.

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Ken Rosenthal published a column today that I cannot describe as anything other than bizarre.

The news nugget in the column: the league and the union met on Monday to talk about certain proposed rules changes which, by now, are pretty familiar to you: a pitch clock, a further reduction of mound visits and, at least in spring training and in the All-Star Game, putting a man on second base to begin the 10th inning in tie games. You know, pace of play stuff that has been much discussed in this space and elsewhere.

The idea here is that the league wants the players to agree to implement these things. If the players do not, the league — after a one year waiting period which we’ve already gone through — can unilaterally implement them. Rob Manfred, for a lot of reasons, doesn’t want to do that, so he’s continuing to seek the players’ agreement. The players have never been big fans of in-game changes, so they resist. That all makes sense as far as it goes. It’s nothing new.

The bizarre part: Rosenthal spends most of the column arguing that the players need to set aside their own desires and compromise with the league “for the good of the sport.” (the headline actually uses that phrase). He argues that they should set aside the dissatisfaction they have over all manner of financial issues in the game right now and address the owners’ priorities. He says Tony Clark needs to lead them in this compromise:

For the good of the sport – a sport he loves as much as anyone – Clark needs to serve as a calming force, build a consensus for positive change and demonstrate greater leadership than before. Clark is aware league officials portray him as someone who says “no” to everything when he is responsive at all. This is his chance – an important chance, with far greater battles ahead – to prove that perception wrong.

This is crazy. For a number of reasons.

  • It’s crazy because presumes that it’s Tony Clark’s job to act a an intermediary between the owners and players and to prod the players to compromise when that is precisely the opposite of his job. He is their advocate. It is his job to fight for them, not to play the good cop for Rob Manfred;
  • It’s crazy because if there can be anything said about Clark’s style before now, being too tough a negotiator is not one of them. Sure, he may offer a quick “no” on small things like rules changes, but he has said “yes” to more major owner ideas in his six years at the helm of the union than his three predecessors did in the previous 45 years combined. I mean, we have a soft salary cap and specific rules aimed at depressing free agent salaries now. Clark actually said yes to those things. Marvin Miller is still spinning in his grave;
  • It’s crazy because there is no call whatsoever for the owners to make any compromises with respect to players’ current concerns over the slow free agent market and players’ suspicions of collusion. Indeed, there’s a paragraph in there that says, in short, “if players have a beef about that stuff they should file a grievance or else shut up about it.” I mean, it’s Rosenthal and he’s a very nice and polite man so, no, he does not put it that bluntly, but that’s the takeaway;
  • It’s crazy because the advice it proposes to Clark — any matters that the owners bring up should be handled piecemeal and that players should not ask for anything* that addresses their own priorities when the owners seek concessions from players on their priorities — is exactly the opposite of how organized labor works. Indeed, handling workplace matters in piecemeal fashion whenever management brings stuff up is exactly the situation that existed before the MLBPA had any power at all. It’s exactly how management would draw things up if they had it to do over again. 

Clark is not an intermediary between the owners and the players. He is an advocate for them. He is, quite literally and by specific design, on their side and it is his job to fight for what they want and for what is in their best interests. It is not his job to “compromise.” What’s more, the owners cannot expect the players — many of whom are hopping mad at how the past two offseasons have gone — to pretend none of that is happening and approach the owners with totally open minds and agree to do thing they don’t really want to do “for the good of the game.”

Should the players have negotiated a better deal on money stuff two years ago? Absolutely. But then again maybe the owners should’ve asked for these rules changes they want now back then too. That Rosenthal expects one party’s concerns to be “case closed” and the other party’s concerns to be perpetually subject to renegotiation makes no sense to me at all. In reality, everything is negotiable, always. Rules touching on every aspect of the game, on-field and off-field, have been renegotiated or altered in between CBA bargaining sessions over the years. If one side wants to re-open the CBA they can’t expect the other side not to do it too.

Rob Manfred and the owners have every right to come to the players and ask for stuff. They cannot, however, expect the players to pretend everything else is hunky dory and assume a “compromise” stance “for the good of the game.” And let’s be honest, if the “for the good of the game” standard is what triggers renegotiation of things, I’d argue that it’s high time to renegotiate the financial parts of the CBA, because the current state of affairs is doing the game no favors.

Whatever the case, Rosenthal’s column reads like a message passed from owners to the players with little regard for the realities of the current relationship between them. As one of my Twitter followers observed a little while ago, it reads like one of those political columns in which a member of one political party writes about how the other party “really needs to nominate someone who can reach across the aisle and compromise.” Maybe that’s what the writer would love to see, but it’s unrealistic in the extreme and flies in the face of what’s best for the other party. Same too here with the owners and the players.

I’m not sure where this column came from, honestly. It reads like a leaked strategy memo from the owners.

*UPDATE: To be fair, Rosenthal does say that the players should “work around the edges of the CBA” and propose “non-economic measures” that could possibly address teams’ seeming lack of a desire to compete and sign players. For my part I feel like that’s an artificial distinction — asking for the moon if you really just want a rock is not the worst way to get something in a negotiation — but it’s not as if Rosenthal is proposing a complete unilateral disarming of the players’ negotiating position.