If there's one hitter on the Washington Nationals who should be exempt from criticism so far this season, it's Bryce Harper. The 22-year-old outfielder leads the majors with a .465 OBP, 20 HR, a .723 SLG, a .484 wOBA, and a ridicuous 210 wRC+. Harper has not only been the best hitter on the Nationals so far this season. He's been the best hitter in baseball. He's also not only human, but he's still young. Harper is going to make a poor decision from time to time. Despite acknowledging everything I've written above, we're going to take a look at Harper's curious decision in the top of the seventh inning last night.
The Nats and Yankees were tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh inning. Harper was leading off the inning. He was stepping in against Masahiro Tanaka for the third time in Tuesday's game and was quite successful in his first two chances. In his first turn against Tanaka, Harper fouled off four 2-2 pitches before running the count full and hitting a slow chopper to second base. In his second plate appearance, Harper got ahead 1-0 before depositing one over the wall in left center field for his 20th home run of the season.
Harper quickly fell behind in the count 1-2. He then decided to try and bunt for a hit with a 1-2 count. He fouled it off and struck out. Let's look at the thought process that could have gone into this decision a bit.
The Nats needed baserunners
While I believe it's flawed, let's start out by using the reasoning that probably led to Harper deciding to try and lay down a bunt. Again, he's leading off the inning in a tie game. The Yankees had the shift on, so any bunt that made it past Tanaka (in fair territory) was going to be a hit. In a vacuum, it doesn't matter how Harper gets on base. They want him to reach and give the hitters behind him a chance to drive him in. A bunt single would have done the trick, and the Yankees were certainly conceding that to him for the entire at bat.
I get what Harper was thinking. He saw the Yankees giving his team a free baserunner if he could just get a decent bunt down. He tried to take it. I don't agree with the decision, but I get it. What I don't get was the decision to not try that until there were two strikes. That adds the additional risk of a ball that he bunts foul being a strikeout to the equation. Sadly, that (the fouled off bunt) ended up being the result.
I don't think that results based thinking is the best way to look at this, though. Harper's decision to attempt the bunt there was what was flawed.... not the fact that it didn't work out.
Harper has been the best power hitter in the league so far this season
I quoted the stats at the top, so I won't bother to rehash them again. The game was close (tied) and late (seventh inning), so the Nats were in a situation where one swing of the bat could have had a major impact. Those numbers above tell us that Harper should be the last player on the Nats who is being criticized. They also tell us that there is no hitter in MLB more likely to change the dynamics of the game with one swing right now than Bryce Harper. Taking the bat out of the hands of the best hitter on the field is generally not such a good idea.
Harper was behind in the count 1-2, so he was trying to be sneaky and salvage a single
Tanaka quickly got ahead of Harper 1-2. This usually means trouble for hitters at the big league level. It hasn't for Harper so far this season, though. Harper has fallen behind 1-2 in 76 plate appearances this season. In those 76 plate appearances, Harper has a .343/.421/.731 triple slash line with 3 doubles, a triple, and seven home runs. Harper's ability to battle back in the count and extend his plate appearances until he gets something to hit has been just one of the many impressive things about his performance this season.
The numbers above show us that despite falling behind in the count, Harper still had an excellent chance to work his way back into the at bat and do some damage simply by taking his regular approach. Instead, he elected to bunt with two strikes, which meant that the result of that pitch was going to be the result of the at bat. Even when a hitter is struggling, attempting to lay down a bunt with two strikes is extremely risky. When a hitter who has thrived when behind in the count as much as Harper has does it, it simply feels like he's throwing away the plate appearance.
Anyway, the small ball contingent got their way in the top of the seventh. Harper tried to bunt. He bunted it foul. The Nats ended up getting two of the next three hitters on base, but failed to score. It was just one poor decision in a tie game, and it certainly wasn't the reason that the Nats lost the game. In fact, it may have been the least egregious error among the several that the Nats made in the seventh inning. Unfortunately, Harper's decision to bunt in that spot was the pebble that started an avalanche of questionable choices.....
Max Scherzer was left in to throw 116 pitches despite showing some signs of fatigue in the seventh
I really don't have that much of a problem with this one. He didn't look particularly strong in the seventh inning, but he'd pitched fairly well overall. One of the two hits that Scherzer allowed in the seventh was a bloop single. He averaged 110 pitches per start last season in Detroit and he's a veteran whose arm doesn't really need to be babied. The 116 pitch mark isn't exactly uncharted territory for Scherzer. Furthermore, he executed well enough so that he could have escaped the inning unscathed if not for Ian Desmond's decision to throw to third.
I would have a problem if Matt Williams' reasoning for sticking with Scherzer was what F.P. Santangelo was talking about on the MASN broadcast. After F.P.'s third mention of trying to reward Scherzer by getting him a (pitcher) win, I had no choice but to hit the mute button. Matt Williams' job as the manager is to try and get the Washington Nationals the win... not Max Scherzer. That said, the inconsistency that the bullpen has shown so far this season certainly doesn't give me a lot of faith going to any of the (non-Storen) relievers in that spot anyway.
Ian Desmond and the throw to third
Desmond made a nice stab to get to a sharp grounder to his right off the bat of Alex Rodriguez. Desmond ended up throwing the ball to third to try and get the lead runner for the third out. It was a tough play, but his best shot was probably to throw the ball to first to try and get A-Rod. His other options were to try and gun down Brett Gardner at second base (unlikely) or just eat the ball and let Scherzer try and get Mark Teixeira.
Unfortunately, throwing to third was probably the worst call that Desmond could have made here. It was the only base that he could have thrown to where the path to and the view of the fielder he was throwing to were obscured by the runner. The throw ended up hitting Ramon Flores on the thigh and bouncing into the third base dugout. Flores scored the winning run on Desmond's fourteenth error of the year.
Matt Williams had Matt Thornton come on and intentionally walk Mark Teixeira
Apart from "putting runners on base for the opposing team is usually a bad idea," there's really no statistical evidence to back up what I'm about to say. If Williams wanted the Thornton/McCann matchup, he should have just let Scherzer throw four wide ones and then had Thornton come into the game. It can't be easy to go through your normal routine in the bullpen and get ready to pound the zone only to come in and intentionally walk the first batter you face. Never mind the fact that there were two outs in the inning and that Teixeira is batting just .200 against lefties this season. Still, it set Thornton up with the platoon advantage against McCann (.220/.298/.293 vs. LHP this season) and should have created a good opportunity to limit the damage.
Sadly, that's not what happened. McCann ripped one inside the bag at first base to plate two more runs. Carlos Beltran followed with an RBI single to score Tex... because nobody that a manager chooses to intentionally walk ever comes around to score, right? At this point, the game got away from the Nats, leaving them with a long uphill battle against one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Let's not take anything away from the Yankees, though. Tanaka was outstanding last night. Betances was filthy. The pitched extremely well and waited for the Nats ace and defense to finally blink. Unfortunately, the floodgates opened afterwards to make it look like a blowout.