There is perhaps no player in baseball who can wow a stadium full of fans, teammates, opponents and others just by swinging his bat more than Bryce Harper. But what the Nationals’ 22-year-old slugger did Thursday night by never taking that bat off his shoulder actually produced a more awe-inspiring reaction.
The Nationals shellacked the Braves, 15-1, pounding out 18 hits in the most-lopsided victory in club history. Yet Harper contributed none of those hits. Instead, he drew four walks in four plate appearances, scoring four runs. Which proved to be one of the strangest, yet greatest, offensive performances in baseball history.
Only three other players in the last century have ever scored four runs without recording an official at-bat in a game: Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan and Larry Doby. Harper now joins that group of Hall of Famers.
He also didn’t swing at a single one of the 20 pitches the Braves threw him during the game.
“I’ve done it before,” Harper said. “I’ve done it in high school. I’ve done it in college. I did it when I was like 10 years old. It’s part of the game. Like I’ve said numerous times, I’ve got the confidence of everybody on the team to get the job done behind me. And you saw that tonight. That was good.”
Indeed, the reason Harper’s nothing-but-walks outcome was so effective was the fact the three guys hitting behind him in the lineup — Ryan Zimmerman, Clint Robinson, Yunel Escobar — collectively reached base 10 times themselves, with eight hits and 10 total RBI.
And nobody is producing more in Harper’s wake right now than Zimmerman. The veteran slugger followed up Harper’s walks on Thursday with two doubles, a 2-run single and a sacrifice line drive to center.
“That’s why Bryce didn’t swing at a pitch and scored four runs,” manager Matt Williams said. “There’s your proof in the pudding right there.”
And this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. Over his last 11 games, Zimmerman is hitting .405 with seven homers, 23 RBI and a 1.428 OPS, taking full advantage of all those opportunities to hit with Harper on base.
“Usually every team picks one person that they’re not going to let beat them, and obviously Harp is the choice more times than not,” the first baseman said. “I’m proud of him for being patient. That really shows the maturity that he’s come around this year. It’s hard to take those pitches, because everyone wants to get hits and everyone wants to drive in runs. Walks are good, but obviously it takes a lot of patience and discipline to do what he’s doing. I’m proud of him for that.”
Harper still is maintaining a league-best .331 batting average, though he’s been stuck on 31 homers for awhile while sporting a modest RBI total of 79. No matter, though, because his 104 walks (combined with his hits) leave him with a staggering .460 on-base percentage.
Opposing pitchers simply aren’t giving in. Only 38.3 percent of all pitches Harper has seen this season have been in the strike zone, according to Baseball Info Solutions, the lowest rate among all qualifying major-league batters.
How much respect are those pitchers giving Harper? Well, when Barry Bonds drew a record 234 walks in 2004, he still saw 44.4 percent of all pitches thrown to him in the strike zone.
“He’s talked about it a lot, saying: ‘I’m not going to get away from my approach. I’m going to take what they give me,'” Robinson said of Harper. “And that’s what a good hitter does. The good thing about Bryce is, he’s patient. But when they do come in the zone, he does damage on it. He’s got confidence in the rest of our lineup that when he gets on base, we’re going to drive him in. So kudos to him. It’s pretty impressive to see the patience and not getting out of his approach.”