MIAMI — From the day he was drafted, Bryce Harper seemed like a strong candidate to lead the majors in something before long, whether home runs, slugging percentage, outfield assists or something along those lines.
It may come as a bit of a surprise, though, that Harper currently leads all MLB hitters in a stat that has nothing to do with his power or arm or overall athletic ability. No, right now the 22-year-old leads the majors in walks.
Entering Friday night’s series opener against the Marlins, Harper has drawn 15 bases on balls, one more than the Mets’ Curtis Granderson and more than twice as many as anyone else on the Nationals roster.
So, is that the product of a concerted effort on Harper’s part to draw more walks or of the manner in which opposing teams are pitching him?
“I think it’s more pitchers not giving me pitches to hit,” he said. “I’m just trying to be as patient as I can and get my pitch to hit and not give in to what they’re doing.”
Indeed, opponents have gone out of their way at times not to pitch to Harper. He has already been intentionally walked five times in 16 games, also tops in the majors and more times than he drew intentional free passes in either of the last two seasons.
So, Ryan Zimmerman’s presence behind Harper in the Nationals’ lineup has played a role in this. Not that anyone’s complaining.
“I think they’re going to pick who they want to pitch to: me or Zim,” Harper said. “I mean, pick your poison.”
Intentional or not, Harper has done a noticeably better job so far this season forcing pitchers to come to him instead of chasing stuff thrown off the plate. And then making sure he does take a healthy cut when he gets something that looks good.
“The biggest thing is not missing the pitch I do get, and knowing if I do miss that pitch, it’s going to be a tough at-bat, because I’m probably not going to get another one,” he said. “So I’m just taking more walks, trying to be as patient as I can and committing to that pitch that I get over the plate.”
On the flip side, Harper has struck out 22 times, tied for second-most in the NL. It’s a bit of an odd combination at the moment, but one the Nationals don’t expect to continue for long.
“I think it’s probably not typical of his season,” manager Matt Williams said. “I think the strikeout numbers will come down. I think the walks will stay the same the deeper he gets into the season, the timing and the grind and all of that. I think you’ll see those numbers get a little different. I think the walks will still be there, which is important for us.”
Whether Harper can keep up this pace or not, the Nationals know an improved walk rate can only be considered a good sign for the young slugger and for the team as a whole.
“For him, it’s important for him to do that,” Williams said. “We always know that he’s got the ability to be a high on-base guy, and at the same time be a power guy and be a run producer. So that’s a pretty good package if he puts that all together.”