Bryce Harper is a walking kick-me sign, his every move guaranteed to draw the ire of those who don't know him and don't care what he stands for. It's how Jonathan Papelbon's hands ended up around the neck of Harper, his Washington Nationals teammate, on Sunday: He ignored facts and let perceptions guide his stupidity.
Let's delve into these perceptions and facts, because they're central to the absolution of Harper at a time where his greatest sin was allowing a troglodyte relief pitcher to burrow into his head.
Perception: Harper does not hustle.
Fact: Harper's average time from home to first base is among the top one-third in all of baseball. His average speed down the line is even higher than that. He hustles pretty damn hard actually.
MLB.com's Statcast system tracks every runner who puts a ball in play and clocks his speed from home to first. A query of the Statcast database looked at who ran the fastest time (on plays that took between 3.5 and 5.5 seconds) and who had the best top-end speed.
Harper's average from home to first this season: 4.82 seconds, 113th of 347 players. That's the same as speedy Ketel Marte and Carlos Gomez, .01 behind Adam Jones and Yoenis Cespedes, .02 behind Juan Lagares and Lorenzo Cain, and .04 back of Mike Trout. Now, Harper does have the advantage of batting left-handed, and this sort of measurement generally does not factor in flyballs, which was the issue here. What it does offer is a decent look at plays that do matter – ones in which strong effort could be the difference between safe and out. And that's a proper segue into another important example.
Perception: Harper did not run out his pop fly to left field in Sunday's game.
Fact: Harper, angry with himself, took less than one second to express frustration at the ball he lofted before starting to jog to first base. He reached the base before the ball was caught. From the time it hit the bat to when it was caught, the ball hung in the air for 6.08 seconds, meaning even if Harper busted it out of the batter's box like a banshee, the chances of him taking second base on a Jeff Francoeur error were minuscule.
The effort put forth by Harper, as Adam Kilgore so astutely noted, was far from offensive, not worthy of a snide remark, let alone an assault. A great hitter got angry with himself and exerted the proper amount of energy rather than doing something because it's supposed to be done a certain way.
In baseball, it's called eyewash. It's false hustle, doing something so others can see you do it. For some, it's a sin. For those like Harper, the victim of excessive hype and, occasionally, his own youthful hubris, it's a necessity, lest he be accused of not playing the game right.
Every time Harper huffs it down to first base, he averages 18.18 mph, which ranks 95th in Statcast's query. Is Brian McCann, an unwritten-rules connoisseur, not playing the game right because he runs just 16.07 mph, the slowest in baseball by nearly a quarter mph? Are James Loney and Adrian Gonzalez insulting the game because their average speed to first is slower than Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, both professional lopers?
On the Nationals, only Ian Desmond and Michael Taylor run down the line at an average higher speed than Harper's. Desmond beats him by 0.5 mph, Taylor by .05. Papelbon wouldn't dare call out Denard Span (4.9 seconds home to first, 17.65 mph average top speed) or Anthony Rendon (4.94, 18.01) or Yunel Escobar (4.98 seconds, 17.36 mph) or Jayson Werth (4.99, 17.6) or Ryan Zimmerman (5.01, 17.42) or Wilson Ramos (5.23, 16.78) because … that would make too much sense, and Papelbon sees Harper as someone worthy of derision. Due in no small part, of course, to Harper rightfully calling out Papelbon for his senseless throwing at Manny Machado.
What's funniest about this is that Harper is the sort of player who usually does get the benefit out the doubt with unwritten rules. They tend not to apply to someone who's going to be the National League MVP. If Harper wants to slack, the thinking goes, let him slack, so long as he's slashing like Lou Gehrig.
Plenty gets made of Harper's attitude, and it's true: He's not Trout, all milquetoast and inoffensive. Harper whips his hair. He says dumb things on occasion. There's the excuse that he's 22, but Harper has been a celebrity since he was 15 years old. He's not dumb. He knows exactly what he's doing. This is him. There is an edge, and unless he takes a chamfer to it, he forever will polarize the masses.
The worst perception is that Harper is a bad guy and hated by teammates. Here's the fact: Neither is true. They know he is a big personality with a big ego and accept it because that's pretty much the baseball archetype. Clubhouses teem with guys like Harper. Chip away the impetuous, judgmental, foolish side of Papelbon, and he falls into that category just the same.
Now he's staring at a suspension for the rest of the season while Harper gets to play out his MVP coronation. The offseason will bring more questions about Papelbon's future with the team, how much of his $11 million salary the Nationals might eat in an effort to trade him and whether he can coexist with Harper going forward. Because for the statement Papelbon tried to make, the way he wanted to show Harper that his actions wouldn't be tolerated, the ultimate fact is this:
Bryce Harper, future of the Washington Nationals and Major League Baseball, does hustle. And Jonathan Papelbon, the old man trying to uphold a code full of fallacies, illogic and contradictions, is the real dope for not recognizing it.
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