Take your pick: a .400 hitter, or a .700 batter

Much talk now hooks around Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon hitting (as of Friday morning) .424, and whether the short season means he’ll finish the season hitting .400 or over. I have a better piece of conversation for you.

Suppose I tell you Blackmon was really batting .648 when he woke up Friday morning?

While you reel your tongues back into your mouths from the floor and retrieve the eyes that blasted out of their sockets, I’ll begin the splainin’ I have to do by saying you might notice where I said “hitting” and where I said “batting.” Because when you say Charlie Blackmon’s hitting .424, it’s not the true, full picture of him at the plate.

The traditional batting average still has isolated value, but it’s also an incomplete statistic. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s something intrinsically wrong with a stat that makes two grave mistakes. Mistake number one—it treats every hit equally. Mistake number two—it addresses official at-bats alone.

I’ve said this before, too: Should you really trust a statistic that treats all hits equally when all hits are not equal? Do you really think a single is as valuable as a double, a triple, or a home run? If you answer “yes” to both questions, you’re really cheating yourself—or you might really be Frank Lane returned to earth and living in someone else’s body.* If you answer “no,” pull up a chair and a cold drink.

Let me present to you once again, with one modification to my original concept, the formula I believe gives the most complete possible look at what a batter does at the plate:

TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP

In plain English, that’s total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances. What the formula determines is a player’s real batting average (RBA), everything he does at the plate.

And when you add Charlie Blackmon’s 2020 total bases (60 entering today), walks (8), intentional walks (1), sacrifice flies (0), and times he was hit by a pitch (1), then divide the sum (61) by his plate appearances (108), you have his real batting average. Tell me now that a .648 batter isn’t as impressive as a .424 hitter. Still have questions? OK, here goes.

Total Bases—It counts a player’s hits the way they ought to be counted—unequally. A single is worth one base. A double, two; a triple, three; a home run, four. If all you see is a player with 42 hits (Blackmon led the entire Show entering Friday morning) you think that’s a lot of hits in 25 games—and it is, of course—but you’re not seeing the real value of those hits or everything he’s doing to help his team create runs.

The last I looked, the name of the game in baseball is putting more runs on the scoreboard than the other guys. A man who’s batting .648 is doing a magnificent job of creating and/or producing runs above and beyond scoring them or driving them in. To do both of the latter, it depends entirely on his teammates knocking him home or reaching base in the first place.

(Why discount runs scored and runs batted in to any degree? Easy: Find me the rule that says you can drive yourself in. Find me the player who steals three bases in one unmolested turn on the bases every time he reaches base. Find me the player who can steal home at will every time he reaches third base. Not even Rickey Henderson, the Man of Steal himself, could do that.)

Charlie Blackmon’s hits as of Friday morning were: 31 singles, seven doubles, one triple, and three home runs. That’s 31 + 14 + 3 + 12 bases each. That’s 60 total bases. We’re not talking about a fellow who’s coming up very big in the extra-base hit department (26 percent of his hits are extra-base hits so far), but we are talking about a productive fellow regardless.

Walks—You’d think the walks would be covered within the total bases, but they’re actually not. But I think a player who’s sharp enough at the plate to read the zone and the pitches in flight and take them appropriately should get particular credit for that. The walk doesn’t count as an official at-bat, of course, but unless I have been very deceived by my own eyes all these years, the last I looked the man was at bat, in the batter’s box, when he worked out the walk, and he wasn’t there without his bat.

Intentional Walks—It may seem superfluous since they’re also counted in the total walks, but there’s a damn good reason a player should get additional credit for intentional walks. Why would you not credit him for a batting situation in which the other guys would rather he take his base than their heads off? Whether it’s him taking their heads off or the guy batting behind him posing the better shot at a defensive out, that batter should get credit for being presence enough that they don’t want him swinging the bat.

Sacrifice Flies—The one change I made to my original RBA concept is removing sacrifice bunts from the equation. Not just because the bunt in general is in disfavour now but because of the basic reason it fell that way in the first place—you don’t give the other guys a free out to use against you.

So you moved the runner over? Good for you. But you also gave your team one less out to work with trying to get that man home, and your chances of getting him home just fell by 33.33 percent. Don’t get me started on the fools who think bunting a runner over with two outs is sound baseball. (And, as the invaluable Keith Law has put it, show me any crowd at the ballpark under normal circumstances who paid their way in to see all those sac bunts dropped, or flipped on the TV set to watch them.)

So why keep sacrifice flies but not sacrifice bunts in the RBA formula? Easy: sacrifice flies aren’t intentional outs and, by their very design and the rule book, they put runs on the scoreboard.

There isn’t a batter on the planet who goes up to the plate thinking, “Let me take one for the team. I’ll just hit this fly ball right to Bernie Boxorocks in left field so I can get Frankie Feetsies home from third on the cheap.” That batter kinda sorta wants to reach base himself, unless he gets to step on each base en route home plate after hitting one into the nearest cardboard cutout or stuffed animal in the seats.

Hit By Pitches—As Groucho Marx once said, this is so simple a child of five knows it, now let’s find a child of five.

It doesn’t matter whether he was just trying to push you back off the plate. It doesn’t matter if he drilled you because you took him over the International Date Line your last time up. It doesn’t matter if he did it because he’s P.O.ed that the guy just ahead of you took him there. It doesn’t even matter if he drilled you for wearing a cheating team’s uniform even though you weren’t on the team to join in the cheating.

If that pitcher wants to hand you first base on the house the hard way, let it be on his head and the plus side of your ledger.

As of this morning the Show had one other .400 hitter—D.J. LeMahieu, about whom the bad news is that he’s another hapless New York Yankee on the injured list. (Yes, children, if The New England Journal of Medicine could have been last year’s Yankee yearbook, this year’s may yet become The Journal of the American Medical Association.) RBA says LeMahieu’s really batting .556.

How about Bryce Harper, about whom everyone harped on his modest traditional batting averages in recent seasons without looking his true depth at the plate? This year, he’s hitting a traditional .338. RBA says Harper’s batting .744. Mike Trout, who plays for a team that’s still not a team its best player can be proud of? He’s hitting a traditional .338 so far. RBA says he’s batting .707.

How about Fernando Tatis, Jr., who inspired this week’s major kerfuffle when he swung on 3-0 with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a San Diego Padres blowout-in-the-making, ground salami, and infuriated the boring old unwritten rule farts including his own momentarily brain-vapourised manager? Let’s see. Tatis woke up this morning leading the Show in total bases. (77.) RBA says he’s batting .738.

Forget the race to see whether Blackmon can finish hitting .400+ in this season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please! Lawrence Fechtenberger Escapes the Intergalactic Nemesis Beyond Tomorrow’s Stroke of Fate. Wouldn’t it be more fun seeing whether Blackmon, Harper, Tatis, or Trout can finish batting .700+?

If you answered “no,” tune in tonight to Chocolate Cookies with White Stuff in the Middle Presents The Wilderness Family Theater.


* When Frank Lane made the notorious Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade as spring training finished in 1960, among his explanations for the deal Cleveland still can’t forget was, “We’ve given up forty homers for forty doubles. We’ve added fifty singles and taken away fifty strikeouts . . . Those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs.”

(Harvey Kuenn was better at avoiding the strikeout, but Rocky Colavito was better at it than you might remember: he never struck out more than 89 times in any season and he only ever reached that number once, in 1958.)

In 1959, Colavito led the American League with 42 home runs and 301 total bases. Kuenn in 1959 led the American League with a .353 traditional batting average and by hitting as many doubles as Colavito hit home runs. But he wasn’t even close to Colavito with 281 total bases. Colavito also produced 201 runs (scored/driven in) to Kuenn’s 170. And, 44  percent of Colavito’s hits were for extra bases against 29 percent of Kuenn’s.

RBA says Colavito batted .580 in 1959 and Kuenn, .543. I’d submit that those singles and doubles didn’t necessarily win as many games as the home runs. So did the 1959 American League standings, with the Indians finishing five games out of first place and the Detroit Tigers—who dealt Kuenn for Colavito—finishing eighteen games out.

It wasn’t Rocky Colavito’s fault the ’59 Indians finished five behind the pennant-winning White Sox, of course, and neither was it Harvey Kuenn’s fault the Tigers finished thirteen behind the Tribe. But Lane also described the trade as “hamburger for steak.” He was too thick—and, in fairness, baseball men of the time not named Branch Rickey wouldn’t have dug deep enough—to know he’d acquired hamburger for steak.

Troll this, Harper haters

2019-10-17 BryceHarper

Even as they celebrate a stupefying sweep to the National League pennant, the Nationals really would have had 2019 life easier with the departed Bryce Harper. Says who? Says the evidence.

Are we over the false addition-by-subtraction narrative involving a certain former National yet? I don’t want to throw any sand in the eyes of Nats fans delirious over their team’s romp to the World Series, but ask not for whom the bell trolls, it trolls for thee.

The Nats’ previous postseason foul-ups, bleeps, and blunders had little to nothing to do with Harper himself. They went to four postseasons with him and didn’t get past the division series. So Nats fans and observers alike think getting past this year’s division series and into the World Series could only have happened without him.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so ramped up if the Nats hadn’t so happened to finish sweeping the Cardinals out of the National League Championship Series the night before Harper’s 27th birthday. In a season before which Harper committed a Freudian slip during his welcome-to-the-Phillies presser (I want to bring a championship to D.C.) with which nobody could resist trolling him now.

Maybe what even the least-believing Nats fans can’t admit to themselves in the flush of the Nats’ surrealistic achievement is that in their heart of hearts—no matter how many catcalls or signs saying “Snake!” or “M(oney)L(oving)B(ryce)!” or “Bryce Arnold” (pasting Harper’s head atop Benedict’s body) showed up—they may think it would have been easier to do with Harper.

If that’s what they really think, they’re actually right. It’s just a shame that what’s proving a glorious Nats season after all had to begin under another false narrative.

Nats fans who misspelled T-R-A-T-I-O-R before Harper smashed a homecoming home run late in his first return to Nationals Park in enemy fatigues either forgot, or chose to ignore, that the Nats lost him after trying to slip him the proverbial mickey as 2018 wound down.

They offered him ten years and $300 million with $100 million of it to be deferred enabling Harper to collect checks until he reaches five years short of Social Security. The part everyone missed or chose to ignore: Deferred money decreases the actual value because it’s a set figure that doesn’t adjust for inflation. In essence, and with the best intentions, the Nats actually offered Harper below his market value to stay.

And when Harper and the Phillies began talking this past February, with Harper essentially telling his agent Scott Boras to keep his big trap shut while he talked turkey with Phillies owner John Middleton, the Phillies didn’t even think about trying to low-ball him.

Harper previously made no secret of wanting to stay in Washington. He knew how appreciated he was in the ballpark and in the city. But if you tell me you’d rather take what proves less than what your fair market tells you you’re really worth, I’ll tell you you’re lying through your teeth. The Nats as much as told him, “We appreciate you, too, but not as much as you think.”

It wasn’t as though the Nats’ owners were going broke, either. The Lerners are actually the wealthiest owners in baseball; Ted Lerner is recorded being worth $4.9 billion. Middleton is merely the third wealthiest baseball owner at $3.2 billion. But Middleton had no problem showing Harper the real market value and securing, not lowballing him.

And don’t go there about the postseasons to which the Nats went with Harper but without getting past the division series. It wasn’t even close to Harper’s fault. Don’t believe me? Ask NBC Sports’ Bill Baer, who also remembers as I do that:

* It wasn’t Harper who let the Cardinals hang four runs on the scoreboard in the top of the ninth in Game Five, 2012 division series—after the Nats jumped the Redbirds for six in the first three innings (with Harper himself starting the scoring with a first-inning RBI triple off Adam Wainwright, then going on to nail Wainwright with a leadoff home run in the third), and following starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez wild-pitching and then walking the Cardinals back to a three-run distance.

* It wasn’t Harper—whose notorious second home run of the set off then-Giants/now-Nats arsonist Hunter Strickland tied Game Five of the 2014 division series—who wild-pitched Joe Panik home with Pablo Sandoval at the plate to break a two-all tie or who stranded himself after a two-out walk in the top of the ninth to end that game and the Nats’ season.

* It also wasn’t Harper’s bright idea to hook Jordan Zimmermann one out from a Game Two shutout in that set, which would have tied the set at a game each; or to leave the better bullpen arms plus available Stephen Strasburg untroubled in Game Five, either.

* It wasn’t Harper who let the Dodgers hang up a four-spot in the top of the seventh of Game Five, 2016 NLDS, or did nothing much from there to answer back even while Clayton Kershaw pitched the ninth to save it. In his final two plate appearances after that seventh, Harper singled a pinch runner to third and worked Kershaw for a one-out walk.

* It wasn’t Harper who puked the Nats’ bed in the fifth inning of Game Five, 2017 NLDS, when an exhausted Max Scherzer was sent to the mound in relief, surrendered a two-run double, and then watched in horror with everyone else when his catcher committed a run-scoring passed ball and a throwing error on the same play, then committed catcher’s interference to load the bases, before the inning’s fourth run scored when Scherzer plunked Jon Jay.

* Harper did, however, set up the next Nats scoring in the bottom of the sixth, when he doubled Jayson Werth to third right before Werth scored on a wild-pitch walk and Ryan Zimmerman doubled Harper home. And after the Cubs made it 9-6, Harper sent the seventh Nats run home with a sacrifice fly.

But no. Everyone wants to remember he struck out to end the game. Nobody wants to remember he wasn’t the reason the Cubs went forward and not the Nats, or that the Cubs made a still-manageable 7-4 game into an 8-4 game when Addison Russell doubled Ben Zobrist home in the top of the sixth.

What of 2019, after the Phillies signed Harper to a platinum contract making him a Phillie for life? Who replaced Harper in right field for the Nats this season, trolls? Fellow named Adam Eaton. Nice fellow. Wouldn’t harm the proverbial fly, seemingly. Good ballplayer. Didn’t exactly hurt the team. Pitched in big in that seven-run first in Game Four.

And wasn’t as good as Harper in 2019. Not even close.

It only begins in right field itself. For a guy whose defense has been solid one season and not so solid the next, Harper in 2019 was worth nine runs saved above the league average to the Phillies in right. Eaton to the Nats? One. I submit a man who saves his teams nine runs above average is more valuable at that position than a man who saves his team but one.

The sourpusses to whom the incomplete traditional batting average (which should really be considered just a hitting average) is the alpha and omega of hitter measurement will look at Harper’s .260 traditional batting average against Eaton’s .279 and decide right then and there, with no further need to examine, apparently, that you should want Eaton at the plate more than Harper.

Well, no, you shouldn’t.

Harper also had an .882 OPS to Eaton’s .792 this season. Harper’s on-base percentage was .372 to Eaton’s .365. I submit that right then and there the argument ought to have stopped. Bryce Harper would have been more valuable to the Nationals than Adam Eaton was this season and beyond.

And so what if Harper struck out 62 more times than Eaton? Harper on a team that turned out not to be quite as good as the Nats this season produced 219 runs (the sum of his runs scored and driven in) to Eaton’s 152. Since Harper’s Phillies finished 2019 with a .327 on-base percentage and Eaton’s Nats finished with a .352 on-base percentage, I submit that Harper looks even better for seeing his opportunities and seizing them.

On a more advanced examination level, Harper created 115 runs to Eaton’s 95; Harper’s run creation boils down to 7.0 runs created per game to Eaton’s 5.9, and Harper used 3.8 outs per run to Eaton’s 4.5 outs per run. You read it right. Bryce Harper in 2019 used fewer outs than Adam Eaton to account for more scoring.

That’s without observing that Harper delivered 72 out of 149 hits for extra bases overall (that’s a .483 extra base hit percentage) while Eaton delivered 47 out of 158 hits for extra bases overall (a .297 extra base hit percentage). And I didn’t even mention Harper hitting 35 home runs to Eaton’s fifteen until this very second.

By the way, if you want to talk about doings on the bases, you might care to observe that Harper and Eaton had the same number of stolen bases and arrests trying in 2019: fifteen thefts, three caught. That’s about the only way in which the Nats got equal value from Eaton this year.

Now we get to the proverbial nitty gritty, the thing that separates the boys from the men around here: how did these two guys do when they checked in at the plate in the highest-leverage moments, the moments that most mean runs on the scoreboard and/or chances to take leads and even win if these guys are at the plate?

All you people who still think the Nats were better off with Adam Eaton than they would have been with Bryce Harper this season aren’t going to like this:

High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

The Nats scored the second-most runs (873) in the National League in 2019 behind the Dodgers (886). I submit that Harper would have made the Nats the most-scoring team in the league by a few runs. And if you wanted someone to get the job done when you had runners on second or better and two outs, Harper’s the one you wanted: he has a 2019 OPS of 1.214 in that situation against Eaton’s .559.

Do you still want to tell me this year’s Nats are better off not having had Harper but having had Eaton? Even remembering the world lamented Harper’s low traditional batting average in the first half, consider Harper’s season-long high-leverage hitting and consider in hand whether that would have helped the Nats to far enough better than that much-discussed 19-31 start.

Without denigrating one degree the Nats’ stupefying October run from the wild card game to the World Series they’re now waiting to play, I think it’s fair to say that Harper would have made the Nats’ off-the-charts postseason pitching breathe that much easier whether in right field or at the plate.

Ain’t I a stinker? And I didn’t even think about wins above a replacement-level player until now.

But being the stinker I am, I have to do it: Harper was worth 4.2 WAR by Baseball Reference‘s measurement, and Eaton was worth 1.6. On the Phillies only catcher J.T. Realmuto (4.4) was worth a feather more than Harper and probably because he played a far tougher field position. On the Nats, five position players were well ahead of Eaton, from Anthony Rendon’s 6.3 to Howie Kendrick’s 2.6.

Think about that for a moment. While it seems like too much of the world thinks the Nats were better off this year without Bryce Harper but with Adam Eaton in right field, an aging, injury-historied veteran Nats infielder was worth one full WAR more than Eaton. (And of course you have to love it that Kendrick, worth that one full WAR more, dropped the bomb that yanked the Nats into their freshly-swept NLCS in the first place.)

Stinker that I am further, I have to measure Harper and Eaton by what I call a real batting average. Once again: the traditional batting average is a false measurement because it accounts for nothing more than your hits divided by your official at-bats and treats all your hits as having equal value.

You don’t need more than a nursery school education to know that all hits do not have equal value. But if you think a single is worth a double, a double is worth a triple, or all the above are worth a home run, maybe you should think about going back to night school. In kindergarten. Failing to account for every trip made to the plate is simply an incomplete measure of a batter’s value at the plate.

A real batting average would add your total bases (which do measure the true value of your hits), your walks, your intentional walks (once again: you deserve extra credit when the other guys decide they’d rather you take first base than their pitcher’s head off), your sacrifices, and the times you got hit by a pitch, then divide that total by all your plate appearances.

So—how do Harper and Eaton account for themselves in terms of a real batting average? Again, the Harper-haters aren’t going to like this one:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486

Would you care to remember that the real reason the Phillies ended up four games under .500 had nothing to do with Harper and everything to do with a) their none-too-good pitching this year, b) the apparent regressions of Rhys Hoskins and Maikel Franco; c) losing Andrew McCutchen for the season to injury after 59 games; and, d) their now-executed manager.

Gabe Kapler may have been deft with analytics, but he seemed blissfully unaware of the best ways to apply the data and seemed clumsy too often in the actual, critical, in-the-game, game-on-the-line moment. He forgot, if he ever knew, that the arguable accidental grandfather of analytics, Casey Stengel, boiled it down to one simple sentence: Baseball is percentage plus execution. Steeped in percentage, Kapler—with or without any string pulling from the front office—seemed ignorant of execution until it wasn’t executed but he finally was.

The Nats aren’t allergic to analytics at all, even if they don’t play it up the way other analytically-inclined teams like the Astros do. But they, like the Astros, execute. That’s the real reason why they finally executed the Dodgers before so thoroughly vaporising the Cardinals to reach the coming World Series. The real evidence says the Nats would have had that much more execution if they hadn’t essentially low-balled Harper last year.

So have your fun, Nats fans and others who still can’t resist trolling Harper over the Nats going there without him. I get that you resent him going to the enemy after everything Washington did for him, and you’re not liable to root for him in enemy fatigues, ever.

I also get that it should make you pray that much harder that the Lerners learned their lesson and don’t compel Anthony Rendon further to test his first free agency market, rather than offering to do him right by his actual market value. And, that they do what it takes to make Stephen Strasburg want to ignore the opt-out clause he can exercise this off-season to come and stay in the Nats family after all.

But I don’t get why you cling to the false narratives that say the Nats’ administration had no responsibility for Harper’s departure and that the Nats really were that much better off without him this year. Yes, they won the pennant without him. But the evidence says winning the pennant would have been a lot easier with him.

Ultimate destruction

2019-08-16 BryceHarper

Hitting the salami that ate the Cubs.

Forget the proverbial meal and stewardess. What Bryce Harper hit in the bottom of the ninth in Philadelphia Thursday night should have had astronauts on board.

A game-ending grand slam hit that vapourises a three-run deficit is called colloquially the ultimate grand slam. There are now 29 such salamis in major league history. Harper’s made “ultimate” seem like an understatement.

One night after he led the Phillies to a blowout of the Cubs with a pair of bombs, with neither team nor the Citizens Bank Park aware of a dangerous standoff between a narcotics suspect that wounded six Philadelphia police officers on the north side, Harper continued defying the 2019 narrative calling his season an absolute bust.

He also defied the ugly 1980s-throwback uniforms the Phillies wore Thursday night. The powder-blue threads with pipings down the sleeves, the sides, and the pant leg sides, the that’s-so-80s P logo with the supposed-to-be baseball seam curve inside the loop, with the maroon trim and caps that looked more like caked dried blood than true maroon.

Well, maybe he didn’t there. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit 583 major league home runs in those threads. Most of his home runs were conversation pieces, too. But even the greatest all-around third baseman ever to play major league baseball never did what Harper did Thursday night.

With the bases loaded, one out, and two Phillies runs already home to close a deficit to 5-3, Harper launched a Derek Holland service into the second deck past the right field foul pole. He stood in the box for a moment, holding his bat downward in front of him, watching the ball fly away.

Some accuse him of just standing and admiring the shot. If they’re right, so what. Show me any one of them who’d say they wouldn’t stop to admire it if and when they might hit such a blast, and I’ll show you people who’d flunk a polygraph before the first question is placed in front of them.

From the batter’s box standpoint, though, it looked more as though Harper needed to be dead last certain the ball would stay fair, since it flew straight over the foul line to begin before it tailed away to the left and landed fair about seven rows up that second deck.

Then he shot around the bases like the Road Runner giving Wile E. Coyote the famous bottle cork-popping tongue razz before hitting the jets and going birdius supersonicus absurdius, right into the crowd of Phillies that waited to mob him as though he were the fifth member of the Beatles.

About the only thing to fear when Harper hit the jets was a possibility of his passing Rhys Hoskins running home from first base ahead of him. Except that Harper’s linger in the batter’s box enabled all three Phillie runners to put enough distance behind them that Harper could afford going beep-beep! and tearing up the ground behind his backwash.

Until that point, Harper spent his Thursday evening getting hit by a Yu Darvish pitch and stealing second only to be stranded in the bottom of the first, striking out to end the bottom of the third, striking out to open the top of the sixth, and hitting a runner-advancing ground out in the bottom of the eight.

Darvish had one of the best outings of his rocky Cubs tenure, striking out ten, and holding a nifty 5-0 lead before Cubs manager Joe Maddon decided it was time to open the bullpen gates. With the Cubs—now tied with the Cardinals for the National League Central lead, and not always looking like division contenders even in their wins of late—having an injury-added-to-insult bullpen that sometimes gets mistaken for those ill pens out of New York, Boston, Washington, and Atlanta, to name a few.

The Phillies snuck one home in the bottom of the eighth on a base hit to right off Brad Wick, spoiling the Cubs shutout, but concurrently spoiling the Phillie rally when Hoskins got himself thrown out trying to score behind Quinn.

But then they chased Wick in the bottom of the ninth, with a little help from Cubs shortstop David Bote—playing there with regular Javier Baez out ill—committing a  throwing error on Cesar Hernandez’s one-out grounder. Scott Kingery singled promptly to set up first and second and pinch hitter Brad Miller promptly singled Hernandez home to set up first and third.

Out came Wick, in came Holland. Into right center went Roman Quinn’s single sending Kingery home, and down to first to load the pads went Hoskins after he was hit by a Holland pitch on 1-2. Here came Harper. There went the ball game. Cubs radio host Julie DiCaro tweeted, “#cubs group therapy tonight.”

“Before I went to the plate, I touched my heart and I was thinking to myself: ‘Why am I not jittery? Why am I not excited?’ But that’s just how I am,” said Harper, whose off-the-charts hitting in some two hundred high leverage situations all season long puts the lie to his starting his mammoth new thirteen-year contract as a high-priced dud.

“I go up there, and each at-bat is the same,” he continued. “I don’t think about bases loaded. I try to get a pitch I can drive and hopefully good things happen. I love those moments. I love those opportunities. I think it helped me a lot from a young age going through those emotions and having those opportunities at 8, 9, 10 years old in big-time games going to different states and cities playing for a lot of teams.

“I just love it. It’s a lot of fun,” he added. “These fans do expect that, and I expect to do that for them on a nightly basis. And if I don’t, they’ll let me know, and I like that too.”

Harper’s blast also meant that, since his premiere in 2012, he’s second only to Atlanta’s Josh Donaldson (seven) for game-ending home runs in the Show. It also left him with seven bombs and fifteen steaks in his past twelve games.

He chopped a Holland sinker foul to open. He fouled off another sinker. He laid off a changeup missing outside by a hair. He chopped another sinker foul. Then he chopped Holland’s and the Cubs’ heads off, when the Chicago lefthander tried yet another sinker and it sailed up to the plate, in the middle and a little inside.

“Knowing his sinker was his best pitch,” Harper said, “(I) kind of cheated the best I could on the inside part of the plate and was able to keep it fair.”

“You have to give credit to where it’s due,” Holland said. “Tip your hat to him.”

It left the Cubs feeling more than just a little abused after being swept in Philadelphia. They’ve felt that way a lot on the road this season. “With the road struggles, being able to win a game here would have been nice,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went two-for-five with a run scored and two driven in Thursday night. “But we didn’t. It’s definitely tough at this part of the season, as opposed to April and May when this happens.”

Darvish continued shaking off his earlier-season struggles to add to a string that now features 26 consecutive innings pitched without surrendering a single walk. He had no problem with manager Joe Maddon lifting him after seven, either. “After the fourth inning I started losing my mechanics,” Darvish admitted. “I think it was a good decision . . . The numbers show good, but I don’t feel that good.”

Nobody in Cubs fatigues or in Cub Country felt that good after Harper shot the moon in the bottom of the ninth. “That one is going to leave a mark,” Maddon said. Leave a mark? More like it blew a hole through the Cubs, whose 23-38 road record to date portends disaster if they reach the postseason. And who have twenty road games yet to play the rest of the season.

With one swing Harper finished yanking the Phillies to a game behind for the second National League wild card. It hasn’t been all fun, fun, fun for these phun-loving Phillies this year, either. But as Thursday night starting pitcher Drew Smyly said, “I think everyone who watches baseball expects him to do that every time he’s up. He’s fun to watch.”

Except when he’s having his fun at your expense.


Wounded cops and battered Cubs

2019-08-17 BryceHarperRhysHoskins

Bryce Harper gives Rhys Hoskins props after Harper’s first-inning bomb started a Wednesday night Phillies blowout . . . unaware, likely, that six Philly cops were wounded in gunfire with a barricaded suspect.

A self-barricaded narcotics suspect in a home on the north side of Philadelphia. A standoff with police involving over an hour’s worth of gunfire exchanges, maybe more, and six  officers wounded.

The standoff began shortly before the Phillies faced the Cubs at Citizens Bank Park Wednesday night. It was still ongoing after the Phillies delivered a far less fatal kind of gunfire at the Cubs good for ten runs before the third full inning expired. It was still ongoing after Bryce Harper hit his second home run of the night.

And it was still ongoing, apparently, after the Phillies finished what they started, an 11-1 blowout of the National League Central leaders.

None of the six wounded cops was injured gravely, thankfully, though the city’s police commissioner Richard Ross said several of the cops who responded to the barricader and got into the house had to escape by jumping through windows. At one point the standoff that began late in the Philadelphia afternoon had nearby Temple University’s Health Sciences Center on lockdown.

Cole Hamels made his third start since returning from the injured list and his first in Philadelphia since leaving the Phillies in a then non-waiver trade deadline deal with the Rangers four years earlier. The audience cheered him appreciatively when he batted in the top of the third, but it was hard to tell whether it was thanks for the memories past or thanks for the clobbering the Phillies were giving him this night.

While police continued trying to resolve the standoff without any further injury or damage, and word emerged that there was a second narcotics suspect in the house aside from the shooter, the Phillies came to bat after starting pitcher Aaron Nola rid himself of the Cubs in the top of the first with a ground out sandwiching a pair of swinging strikeouts.

They didn’t give Hamels a chance to settle into any groove remotely similar in the bottom of the first. Rhys Hoskins singled with one out and an old nemesis named Bryce Harper stepped up to the plate. It’s not that Harper has that impressive a set of past performance papers against Hamels, it’s that Hamels knocked Harper down notoriously during Harper’s rookie season in Washington.

But this time Harper delivered the knock. After looking at a changeup on the low inside corner for an opening strike, he drove a fastball away into middle of the left center field seats. Just like that the Phillies had a 2-0 advantage. Hamels had no way of knowing what was to follow from there. By the time he learned, he must have been shaking his head in the clubhouse muttering, Wha’happened?

Wha’happened was the opening result of Charlie Manuel, returning to the dugout as the Phillies’ hitting coach for the rest of the season, taking the Phillies by the horns and all but ordering them to lighten up, inhale at the plate. Sort of.

They had all the data they could possibly need to help them. But unless they could relax while measuring the situations and the pitches, they weren’t going to hit anything but the pine after returning to the dugout.

“We have to get back to enjoy playing the game and enjoy situational hitting, do things correct, move the runners, have a lot of fun,” said Manuel, taking over for John Mallee, a hitting coach who knew and delivered the data but couldn’t seem to marry it to the hitters properly.

“I think the environment can be different as far as talking to the guys and letting them talk to me,” Manuel continued. “We need to get better. We have a talented team.”

They’d beaten the Cubs 4-2 on Tuesday night to begin Manuel’s sort of homecoming. But what they did to continue the celebration Wednesday night defied practically everything else attached to the Phillies this year. Logic was only the first victim of that defiance.

Hoskins and Harper wasted no time proving Manuel right in the first. More Phillies saw and raised in the bottom of the second. When Roman Quinn led off taking a full-count walk and Cesar Hernandez hit Hamels’s first service for a double to the back of center field. When Nola himself, following a swinging strikeout, shot an arrow through the left side of the infield to send Quinn home. When Hoskins sent home Hernandez with a sacrifice fly and J.T. Realmuto doubled Nola to third.

The bad news was Harper working out a walk to load the bases but the Phillies stranding the ducks on the pond when Jean Segura struck out. The good news was the Phillies wasting no time atoning for that in the bottom of the third.

Three straight pitches from Hamels—who got a nice ovation from his former home fans when he batted in the third—and it was a double off the left center field padding by Scott Kingery, Quinn dropping a clumsy looking bunt but still beating it out for a base hit, and Hernandez dumping the proverbial quail into center to score Kingery.

With Adam Haseley at the plate the Phillies got a little more daring, executing a flawless double steal to set up second and third. And Haseley thanked his mates for their derring-do by beating out a grounder to first allowing Quinn to score and Hernandez to third.

Hamels’s Philadelphia homecoming ended almost before it began, and Alec Mills came in for the Cubs with Nola himself coming to the plate.

And despite showing bunt briefly Nola walked on four pitches to load up the pads once again. Hoskins slashed a hard enough grounder that Cubs shortstop Baez could throw home to force Hernandez at the plate for the first out. But there was no defense for Realmuto fouling himself into an 0-2 count before launching a cruise missile into the left field seats, just past the foul pole.

Almost out of nowhere, the Phillies jumped all over the Cubs for ten runs before three full innings were in the books. The Citizens Bank Park crowd began chanting Manuel’s first name gleefully.

If you can’t have fun while you’re dropping ten on the other guys, you’ve got problems even Manuel can’t fix. The Phillies broadcast team was having even more fun after that than they already had stationed behind the Phillies’ dugout for the evening. They even let the Phillie Phanatic plop Village People-like headgear onto their domes as the sides changed for the eighth as “Y.M.C.A.” pounded around the ballpark.

After two comparatively quiet innings during which Nola stayed in cruise control and Mills gamely held fort for the Cubs since Realmuto’s salami, Harper—who’d singled near the end of the third, before being wasted by a followup Area Code 6-4-3—looked at two high and outside pitches before sending a middle low fastball into the second deck behind right field to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

For the most part Nola cruised his way through the first six innings. He blended his breaking balls and his fastball into a cocktail all but guaranteed to send the Cubs into a stupor at the plate. About the only thing close to a real battle came to open the top of the seventh, when Kris Bryant wrestled him to a full count, including three straight foul offs, before sending a slightly hanging breaker to the near rear of the lower left field seats.

Nola could afford to be generous by then if that was his mood. That was only the third Cub hit off him all night long. The first one, a leadoff single by Anthony Rizzo in the top of the second, turned into Javier Baez forcing Rizzo at second and deciding rather futilely that it was worth challenging Realmuto’s throwing arm, Realmuto springing out of his crouch faster than a jack-in-the-box to throw a dead-on tracer, nailing Baez with the reply, “Ain’t worth it, bro.”

You felt sorry for Mills. Mop-up relief? Mills had to clean up a chemical spill, comfortable perhaps only in the thought that it wasn’t his bright idea to have ducks on the pond when Realmuto drilled him in the third. He was a one-man hazmat team for the Cubs otherwise, if you didn’t count Harper’s sixth inning-opening smash, and it went for so little there must have been moments when he felt like the last man standing on the planet.

It was both the tenth time the Phillies scored in double figures on the year and only the second time Hamels didn’t get past three innings on the year. But somehow, some way, it seemed to mean a lot more to both the Phillies and the home audience this time.

Before Juan Nicasio came on to pitch the top of the ninth as rain began hitting the ballpark and the field, the news came that the final two Philadelphia police still inside the north side house were now out of the house alive and reasonably well, considering, extracted by S.W.A.T. team members “with stealth,” Ross told reporters near the scene.

The rain came down a little more firmly as the Cubs’ trade deadline acquisition Nick Castellanos rapped a one-out base hit to right center. But Nicasio struck Bryant out while Castellanos took second on defensive indifference. Castellanos then took third on further defensive indifference as Rizzo looked at ball two. But then Rizzo flied out to the left field corner to put the blowout firmly in the bank.

The six wounded cops, meanwhile, were reported treated and released from a hospital about half an hour after the game ended.

On the assumption that very few if anyone in the ballpark knew what was happening on the north side of town, both the Phillies and their fans were going to walk from a house of pleasure through a not so gentle, not so good gray night, into news about which the most positive thing to say was thank God it wasn’t far worse. So far.

UPDATE: The suspect who stood off and exchanged gunfire with Philadelphia police, identified as Maurice Hill, was finally apprehended around midnight Eastern time. Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross himself took the unusual step of joining Hill’s attorney in trying to negotiate Hill out of the house in which he barricaded himself.

News reports indicated the standoff began at 4:30 Eastern time, when police attempted to serve Hill with an arrest warrant on narcotics related charges. The Phillies and the Cubs were preparing to play Wednesday night’s game at the time.

On the harping about Harper

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Playfully shushing Giants fans last weekend (after shushing them with a three-run homer) is one thing, but a lot of Bryce Harper’s critics might want to shush, too, if they look at his season a little deeper.

The old schoolers can’t decide whether to be thrilled or dismayed that Bryce Harper’s “only” a .250 hitter this year. It figures, in a way. Too many people still can’t get past their first impressions of Harper. Even seven years after the fact. They can’t see the talent for the real or imagined ego.

They won’t always admit it but that .250 batting average gives them a thrill at seeing what they still consider an insolent punk cut down to size. But they also hope, regardless, that the Phillies bringing former manager Charlie Manuel back as their hitting coach for the rest of 2019—after John Mallee couldn’t seem to grok how to marry analytics to individual hitters—gets Harper to hit “better.”

Suggest they look a little more deeply and see what they can’t see beyond the .250, or the National League-leading 139 strikeouts, and they just don’t have time for such nonsense. Not even if taking that deeper look might tell them what FanGraphs has figured out: Harper this season may be the most clutch hitter in baseball.

Clutch hitting seems at once definable and a little elusive. In Smart Baseball, ESPN analyst Keith Law says there are such things as clutch hits but not clutch hitters: “the idea that a certain hitter is somehow better in these close and late situations—or even that some hitters are demonstrably worse in said situations—is not based in fact, nor has it withstood dozens of attempts to verify it . . . if you’re a good hitter, you’re a good clutch hitter, and if you’re a good clutch hitter, you were just a good hitter to begin with.”

“Statistically,” writes ESPN’s Sam Miller, “‘clutch’ means a player hits better in the highest-leverage moments than he does in lower-leverage ones. It means his impact on his team’s win probability is greater than his overall numbers alone would suggest.” And hitting in the Phillies’ highest leverage situations in 2019, Harper’s numbers look a lot different than his basic slash line.

As a matter of fact, Harper’s high-leverage slash line (read carefully) is .322/.385/.655. He just spent a weekend going 3-for-14 against the Giants, and on the surface that doesn’t look terribly impressive, never mind “clutch” . . . but guess what those three hits were?

1) A three-run homer when the Phillies trailed by a run in the seventh inning. (Making it a little more delicious: a Giants fan chanting “Overrated!” at Harper loudly as he checked in at the plate that time up.) 2) A bases-loaded single that sent home a pair and turned a deficit into a one-run lead in the second. 3) A home run that turned a one-run lead into a two-run advantage.

Harper is also among 2019’s top hitters for win probability added. If you use Baseball Reference‘s WPA measure, Harper’s seventh; if you use FanGraphs‘s, he’s sixth. He’s in the mix with several players on better teams, including a pair of Dodgers (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy), a pair of Braves (Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna, Jr.), and a pair of Red Sox (Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts). Not to mention Mike Trout, who’s next to the top despite his team not being as good as even Harper’s is this year.

It’s Harper’s statistics in low-leverage situations, Miller writes, that’s pulling his overall performance papers down. The cynic to whom Harper’s been a boil on baseball’s butt from the moment he arrived won’t give the deeper look.

Or, listen to Harper himself. The mature Harper who still thinks baseball ought to be fun, doesn’t apologise for having fun, but doesn’t put his foot in his mouth as often as he did when he was a kid who thought the world was his for the possessing.

When Harper signed that thirteen-year contract that’s going to pay him about three times the equivalent of a small state economy, he never promised anyone rose gardens. But how many really paid attention to what he said when he faced the press after signing the deal?

Being able to be part of an organization for 13 years, and to be able to put all my faith and trust into everybody in this organization, I’m very excited about it. I’m not going to tell you I’m going to win MVP every single year. Is that my goal? Absolutely, I want to do that every single year. But there’s going to be down years, there’s going to be big years, there’s going to be years that are just OK. We’re gonna go in, we’re gonna try to do everything we can to win and play hard and play well — that’s what it’s all about.

You can argue (I have) that a sizeable enough piece of Harper is doing just what the Phillies’ Hall of Fame legend Mike Schmidt also did after signing his first big money contract: pressing, trying too hard to live up to the bucks the first time out of the chute. More players than Joe and Jan Fan want to think about have been there, done that.

But Harper is too realistic, too self-aware, to know that even if he could blow Ted Williams out of the water the Phillies wouldn’t and couldn’t possibly live by him alone. He shifted his emphases from himself to the team more frequently than you’d admit if you still couldn’t get past the image of Harper as a self-possessed egomaniac.

“If I’m 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, that doesn’t really matter,” he said under the post-signing questioning. “It’s about what we can do to get that extra run to win the game . . . The thing about the (NL) East is it’s a juggernaut. I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to come in this year and win the World Series or win the division this year. That’s the goal. But good things take time, as well.”

Carp all you want about Harper’s cumulatively down 2019. But then confront that .322/.385/.655 high-leverage slash line. And ponder these among Harper’s situational isolated slash lines:

Bryce Harper, 2019 PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Men on base at all 235 .342 .434 .628 1.062
Runners in scoring position 121 .378 .479 .653 1.132
Second and third/two out 11 .333 .636 1.000 1.636
Bases loaded 15 .333 .333 .667 1.000

This guy is an offensive dominator overall in the moments when it absolutely matters the most to a Phillies team on which he sits, as Miller also notes, with double the win probability added of their second best hitter and over triple their third-best.

The question now shouldn’t be whether Harper’s let the Phillies (or anyone else) down. As Miller says, “They’ve let Harper down.” If you’re still going to be foolish enough to see nothing beyond his .250 traditional batting average, maybe you’ll at least give him his due as the most powerful and most clutch .250 hitter in baseball this season.

At minimum, give Harper his due as a young man with a heart and a conscience, too. The North Camden (New Jersey) Little League, presumably chock full of young players who include some Phillies fans, was robbed in June. Harper just donated Under Armour 4 cleats and other Under Armour equipment, plus signed baseballs, to players in that league. In person, at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods store.

“Growing up that’s what it was all about, looking up to the heroes I did, the guys I loved to watch play,” he told Forbes. “To be able to do that and be that guy now for these kids means the world. Being able to start that process of giving back to them and being able to put a new pair of cleats on their feet, new batting gloves on their hands, and being there today was a lot of fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Hitting in the highest leverage ain’t half bad, either.