Bryce Harper is extraordinarily good at swinging the bat. After taking home the National League MVP award last season when he hit .330 with 42 home runs and a WAR of almost 10—Harper began the 2016 campaign hotter than a firecracker. Despite the fact that he cooled off in late April, he has managed to hit 10 homers in just 31 games, and he boasts an OPS of 1.065, close to the mark he posted last season.
Harper is the linchpin of the Washington Nationals' lineup, and because of his prowess at the plate, opposing teams have simply stopped pitching to him. In a four-game series with the Chicago Cubs this weekend, a series the Cubs swept, Harper walked an absurd 13 times, including six in Sunday's finale. He reached base seven times (he was also hit by a pitch) without recording an official at-bat, something that's never happened before.
The Cubs refused to let Harper swing his bat. They either intentionally walked him or pitched around him, throwing balls in the dirt or out of the strike zone. If Harper had gotten antsy and decided to swing, he would have either ground out or popped out. The strategy worked. The man hitting behind Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, left a whopping 14 men on base on Sunday alone.
The obvious comparison is between Harper and Barry Bonds, who was notorious for enforcing a strict strike zone, and when he became the most feared hitter in the game, teams stopped pitching to him. They'd even walk in a run with the bases loaded, imagining that the alternative, Bonds hitting a grand slam, wasn't worth the risk. Bonds walked a record 234 times during the 2004 season. Harper is far from achieving that kind of respect, but if this weekend was any indication, the walks are going to pile up in a hurry.
"You want to hit, you want to be excited, you're trying to do everything you can to help your team win," Harper told Fox Sports. "But you have to have the courage in the guys behind you, so that you know, 'Hey, if I walk and get on first base, I have all the faith and courage in Zim [Ryan Zimmerman] to get something done behind me.'"
At age 23, Harper has already earned the ultimate sign of respect from pitchers. It remains to be seen how he adjusts.
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