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Why the Washington Nationals Have to Bench Bryce Harper in Crucial Game 5

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Why the Washington Nationals Have to Bench Bryce Harper in Crucial Game 5

The Washington Nationals will be looking to keep their season alive on Friday night. To do that, they'll need to win Game 5 of their National League Division Series matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals, and for that they're going to need all hands on deck.

Except for Bryce Harper. If Nats manager Davey Johnson wants to do what's best for his ballclub, he'll stash his 19-year-old slugger on the bench.

You may begin your "Rabble! Rabble! Rabble!" outcry right...

Now.

[Waits.]

OK, now stop. Now that you've gotten all that aggression out of your system, we can have a serious talk about Harper and why he should be riding the pine in Game 5.

Reason No. 1 is the most obvious reason: Harper's production at the plate in the NLDS against the Cardinals has been, well, nonexistent. In 18 at-bats so far in the series' four games, Harper has just one hit and no walks. He has yet to strike out since the series shifted to Washington after striking out six times in St. Louis, but he admitted on Thursday that he's still a little off at the plate.

"I’m just missing pitches. Popping them up. Just missing. Nothing I can do. Hopefully tomorrow I can come out here and get a few knocks and help our team win," said Harper, courtesy of James Wagner of the Washington Post.

Now, "just missing pitches" doesn't sound all that bad. If Harper is to be believed, the problem he's dealing with at the plate is a minor one that could be fixed with one swing of his bat.

Maybe so, but don't they all say that? When was the last time you heard a hitter say, "Dude, my swing is all over the place right now. Somebody help me!"

No, that kind of honesty has no business in baseball. Not when the media is present, anyway.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
This is what a frustrated hitter looks like.

The eye test tells a different story. My colleague Mike Rosenbaum, B/R's most preeminent prospect expert, is of the mind that Harper is in the no man's land between trying to be patient and not being aggressive enough. He's gotten to be too tentative, which presumably has something to do with the grand stage he's found himself on in the last four games. The playoffs could be in his head.

A run-of-the-mill excuse, perhaps, but is it that hard to imagine that Harper is a bundle of nerves these days? When it comes to swagger, the dude certainly has loads of the stuff. But it must be kept in mind that he's playing in his very first postseason series, which happens to be against the big, bad defending champion Cardinals.

It must also be kept in mind that he's only 19, and that he's only human.

Some of you are sitting there going, "Exactly! The last thing Johnson wants to do at this point is ruin Harper's psyche by benching him! Especially not with the world watching and scrutinizing every step Harper takes!"

Point taken, but my first counter-argument would be that Johnson shouldn't care about the mental well-being of one player right now. He should only be worried about winning Game 5, and for that he needs productive players more than he needs happy ballplayers.

Harper is not being productive right now, and he'd be going up a pitcher in Adam Wainwright on Friday night who handled him pretty well in Game 1. Wainwright retired Harper all three times he faced him in Game 1, including twice by way of the K.

At the rate he's going, it's not like Washington's offense will be missing anything if Harper is moved to the bench. If anything, getting him out of the No. 2 hole and replacing him with somebody else in that spot will only help Washington's sputtering offense spring to life.

For example, Ian Desmond and his .467 average in this NLDS could be moved up to No. 2. A move like that would do nicely if Harper is moved to the bench.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Harper's glove is just as good as his bat.

What the Nationals could find themselves missing with Harper on the bench more than his bat is his defense. He got tons of attention for his bat during the regular season, but he played a damn good center field too. FanGraphs had his UZR/150 calculated at 17.6 and his DRS calculated at plus-13. He rated as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game this year.

The Nats, however, have a pretty good defender that they can stash in center field in Harper's place. Roger Bernadina is a very good defensive outfielder who could easily step into Harper's shoes out in center field.

Will benching Harper agitate him? Will it push his hot temper to the boiling point?

Of course it will. Harper's a live wire. And like any other live wire, he doesn't like being benched.

However, benching him could actually help him in the long run.

Think back, if you will, to early August. Harper had hit .173 with a .532 OPS in his first 27 games after the All-Star break, and the next thing anyone knew Johnson decided to leave him out of his starting lineup for Washington's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on August 11. He found himself out of the starting lineup a week later on August 18 against the New York Mets

After that, Harper took off. He hit .323/.378/.646 with 11 home runs over his final 42 games, helping the Nats secure an NL East title that appeared to be in jeopardy for a while there.

The lesson learned may be that an angry Harper is the best Harper. There's an Incredible Hulk joke or two to be made here, but you probably get the point.

An angry Harper could conceivably help the Nationals in Game 5 even if he's on the bench for much of the game. Johnson could tell him to grab a bat in the late innings, and that's when we could see Harper grip it and rip it like he was in the final few weeks of the regular season. He could also be sent to first base as a pinch-runner, in which case he could be flying around the basepaths in typical Harper fashion in no time at all.

Regardless of what kind of role Harper plays in Game 5, there will be plenty of action awaiting him in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants if the Nats happen to advance. He'd surely still be angry over his benching, and he could very well take his frustration out on the Giants.

Your call: Should Bryce Harper be benched for Game 5 of the NLDS?

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To be sure, Johnson would be taking a risk by moving Harper to the bench for Game 5. There's always risk whenever a regular starter is left out of the starting lineup, especially in the postseason. In this case, Johnson's decision to bench Harper could drain Washington's offense of whatever life it has left rather than spark it to some sort of explosion.

But considering the circumstances, Johnson could do much stupider things than benching Harper. He'd be removing a struggling hitter from the top of his lineup, and that's something that could indeed pay off in the form of a little extra offense and a nice, shiny W at the end of the day.

It could also get Harper's motor running for the Giants. Very long fly balls would surely follow.

Benching Harper therefore wouldn't be like the New York Yankees' decision to bench Alex Rodriguez. That benching is pure punishment. It's not a means to an end. Just an end.

If Johnson benches Harper for Game 5, it will be punishment with a purpose.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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