Bryce Harper’s Collision With the Wall is Not an Example of His Passionate Play

From his controlled-rage of a swing to his aggressiveness on the base paths, Bryce Harper plays the game of baseball with an intensity that most fans normally associate with football . . . or mixed martial arts.  For this reason, Harper is often described as “gritty” and “hard-nosed” and any number of other adjectives usually reserved for the scrappy middle-infielder-type who always has his uniform dirty.  Unlike the light-hitting middle-infielder who is hailed for doing the “little things” to help a team win (i.e., Ryan Theriot or David Eckstein), however, Harper is also unworldly talented,  has the potential to be a perennial MVP candidate, and is universally loved by baseball traditionalists and Sabermetricians alike.  Harper is the rare star athlete who has the mentality of the last player on a roster:  “I’m going to play every single game like it’s my last.”

Yes, Bryce Harper plays hard.  This is not in dispute.

But, just because someone plays “hard” does not mean that every scenario which transpires during the course of a game is a consequence of that player’s relentless and intense nature.   Sometimes a situation is just the result of a poor play.

On Monday night, A.J. Ellis hit a fly ball to right field in the fifth inning at Dodgers Stadium.  Harper took a poor route, appeared to lose the ball, never found the wall, and then ran straight into the right field wall.  Don’t take my word for it – watch the replay:

Clearly, Harper misplayed the ball.  He initially ran to his right and then had to take a poor angle back toward the ball to try to recover.  In doing so, it looks like Harper lost sense of where he was in relation to the wall and he appears to have lost track of the ball altogether.  You can see, right before he hits the wall, Harper is looking over his shoulder for the ball and begins raising his hand as if to ask “where is it?”

Harper

Harper is a relatively inexperienced outfielder.  So, one could analyze all of the mental and physical errors he made on that play (taking a poor angle, failing to find the wall, not recognizing that a fly ball off the bat of a right-handed batter would be slicing toward the right field foul line).  However, Harper’s inexperience is not the issue.  The take-away from watching the replay is that – whether due to inexperience or not – Harper misplayed the ball in right field, which led directly to him running headfirst into the wall.

Therefore, this incident was not a result of his passion, intensity, or aggressive style of play.  The incident was simply the result of a poorly judged fly ball.

When I first saw Harper’s collision I was immediately reminded of Butch Huskey’s incident many years ago.  Huskey, then a member of the Seattle Mariners, was chasing a fly ball in left field, never found the wall, and ran headfirst into it.

Eerily similar to Harper’s face-plant, no?

The funny thing is that I don’t recall anyone in the media lauding Huskey for his aggressiveness and intensity after this play.  Indeed, Huskey’s incident has lived on as one of the preeminent outfield bloopers of all time, ranking right up there with Jose Canseco heading a ball over the fence for a home run and Manny Ramirez cutting off Johnny Damon’s throw.

Instead of being fitted for its place among MLB Network’s next episode of Prime 9 outfield bloopers, however, Harper’s incident has – rather curiously – been labeled Exhibit A in support of Harper’s passion and is being held up to the public as demonstrative evidence of Harper’s tenacious and unbending style of play.

Indeed, some writers are describing Harper’s misplay as an “all-out effort” and an example of playing the game “with respect, with hustle, with the utter lack of reserve that’s just as likely to culminate with an 11-stitch standoff in a confrontation with a wall.”  Other articles are praising Harper for “trying to make a play when it would have been safer, easier, fully understandable, if he’d pulled up and taken the ball off the wall.”  This incident has led others to ask “does Bryce Harper play too hard?” 

To paraphrase the esteemed Jacobim Mugatu, “Is everyone taking crazy pills?”

Harper ran into the wall because he misjudged a fly ball, not because he plays the game the right way.

If you want an example of Harper’s hustle, show the highlight of him turning a routine single into a double.  If you want an example of Harper’s aggressiveness, point to him stealing home.  If you want an example of Harper’s “all-out effort,” queue up any number of acrobatic catches he has made.  Harper is a great ballplayer and, in fact, does play the game the right way.  There is no need to pad his resume by mischaracterizing a poor play as an example of Harper’s passion.  The reality is that even passionate players who “play the game the right way” make mistakes.

There have already been plenty of examples of twenty-year-old Bryce Harper’s admirable and noteworthy plays and there will be many more to add to this list as his career continues.  Harper’s play on Monday night just isn’t one of them.

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