A counterpoint to astute Cubs manager, Joe Maddon’s stance on Bryce Harper. Bryce Harper is already the closest thing MLB has to Barry Bonds since, well, Barry Bonds. I paid $70 to watch Harper take numerous walks in Chicago on Sunday. Six of them, actually, three intentional and three not-intentional, tying a Major League record. And I was happy for the opportunity — Bryce Harper has officially reached Bondsian status in the way that opposing teams, even the first-place Cubs with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta on the mound at the Friendly Confines, will go out of their way to avoid pitching to him.
After the game, Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark called it “scared baseball.” Roark’s wrong — It’s not “scared” baseball, it’s smart baseball, and it worked.
In four games against the Cubs, Harper came to the plate a grand total of 19 times, walking 13 times and getting hit by a pitch. In 11 plate appearances over the weekend, he didn’t record a single at bat (9 walks, 1 HBP, 1 sacrifice fly), something that is downright unheard of.
Oh, and the most important stat — the Cubs swept the Nationals. The Cubs dared the rest of the Nationals to beat them and they couldn’t.
Bryce Harper is the most terrifying player in the game right now. Aside from the white hot Daniel Murphy, who for some reason Dusty Baker won’t bat behind Harper to give him protection, there’s nobody else on the Nationals who inspires anything even resembling the kind of fear in the hearts of opposing fans or managers that Bryce Harper does.
Sitting in the stands for Sunday’s game brought back memories of watching Bonds at his apex from 1996 through 2004 with the Giants, a nine-year stretch where he hit at least 40 home runs in seven of those seasons. During that stretch, there was a game in 1998 when the Giants were down two to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the bottom of the 9th with two out and the bases loaded. Bonds came to the plate and…the Diamondbacks intentionally walked him.
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The strategy paid off, however. The very next batter, Brent Mayne, flew out to right field to end the game.
No manager has done that to Harper just yet, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility either. Who would you rather your team face in that situation, Harper with a two run lead or someone like Zimmerman with only a one run lead?
Through his first 32 games, Harper already has nine intentional walks, or 60% of his total last year and one more than he had in his first three seasons combined. That’s putting him on a pace for roughly 46 intentional walks this year, which would be the highest non-Bonds single season total of all time according to Baseball Reference, surpassing third place Willie McCovey’s 45 in 1969. With only 32 in his career, he’s got a long way to go before he’s at Bonds’ all-time record of 688 or even within shouting distance of 2nd place Albert Pujols’ 297.
If the strategy works, however, you’ll see managers utilizing it at a much greater clip.
Taking the bat out of the hands of one of the most exciting players in the game isn’t necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing decision. If your favorite team isn’t playing against him, who wouldn’t want to watch Harper spray the ball all over the field and out of the park?
But from a competitive standpoint, it absolutely makes sense.
Why would a manager ask his pitcher to pitch to a guy who has hit more than 100 home runs before his 24th birthday and who posted a .649 slugging percentage en route to the NL MVP last year? Why not take your chances with the likes of, say, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, or Jayson Werth, none of whom are going to beat you without Harper’s help. The Nationals as a team are hitting an anemic .239 right now, which would’ve placed them last in the league last year.
Harper is getting the Bonds treatment, but he has more than earned it. Given the success that the Cubs enjoyed from their ugly yet effective strategy of dealing with his presence in the lineup, look for more teams to replicate their strategy moving forward.
Matt Lindner is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared on ESPN.com, the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye and the Chicago Sun-Times. You can talk baseball with him on Twitter: @mattlindner
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