Matt Williams grew up in Carson City and played college ball at UNLV, which makes him the second figure at the top of the Nationals’ food chain who comes from Nevada. Almost three decades after Williams tore through the state’s prep baseball scene, Bryce Harper came along and obliterated any and all records. “He was a little after my time,” Williams said, smiling.
Harper’s age, skill set and the spotlight he attracts makes him a unique case, and so any manager the Nationals would need a plan for how to get the most out of him. Williams has one. He wants to promote Harper’s natural aggressiveness and in no way wants to tone him down. Williams preached taking extra bases and applying pressure to opponents at his introductory press conference, and Harper fits right into that mold. Rather than reining him in, Williams plans to refine Harper’s approach without losing any of his aggression.
“I love the way he plays the game,” Williams said. “He plays the game the way it should be played. He is all-out, every day, all the time, every game. He’s paid for it by getting injured and running into walls. The greatest compliment I have heard is Mr. Lerner, the night he ran into the wall in L.A., asked how the wall was. Everybody loves that about him. Now can we be a little smarter sometimes? Sure. And not necessarily run into that wall? Of course. The kid’s 21 years old: let him go. This is a stallion. This is a guy that is ready to just explode. We’re going to try to give him the game plan to do that.”
Over his first two seasons, Harper has hit .272/.353/.481 with 42 home runs. At age 20, Harper punched up an .854 OPS even as he missed a month on the disabled list with left knee bursitis, a symptom of that collision with the right field fence in Los Angeles. Harper underwent surgery on Oct. 23 to debride and repair the bursa sac and should resume workouts in roughly a month.
The injury displayed the stakes for Harper and the Nationals, how his exuberance and inexperience may threaten his incandescent ability. Williams acknowledged Harper’s potential head-on, calling a potential Hall of Famer about two weeks after he turned 21.
“You just have to understand it, and that’s my job: to understand what Bryce does, understand the microscope he’s under,” Williams said. “It’s not easy being Bryce Harper. Who wouldn’t want to be Bryce? But it’s not easy. I understand that side of it for him. I’m here to help him. I’m here to help him become the MVP and a Hall of Fame player. I want that for him. I want him to be that guy. I want him to be our leader. I want him to be the star that everybody wants him to be.”
Harper is currently “doing well” after surgery, General Manager Mike Rizzo said, along with Stephen Strasburg and Adam LaRoche, who both had “loose bodies” removed from their throwing elbows. The Nationals discovered Strasburg’s bone chips shortly after the season after an MRI, and he underwent surgery in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, Rizzo said. LaRoche told Rizzo he does not believe the bone chips contributed to his disappointing season, in which he hit .237 with a .735 OPS.
“They’re all doing well,” Rizzo said. “They’re all back at home rehabbing with physical therapists and they all should be ready by spring training.”