The Cubs walked Bryce Harper six times on Sunday

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The Cubs seemed to figure out how to handle reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper: don’t pitch to him. Harper, whose Nationals were swept in a four-game series against the Cubs, was walked 13 times — four times intentionally — in 18 plate appearances. Of his five official at-bats, Harper registered just one single. Six of those walks came in Sunday’s game, and Harper was hit by a pitch in the other plate appearance. The last player to walk six times in a game was Jeff Bagwell in 1999. It’s only been done two other times by Andre Thornton in 1984 and Jimmie Foxx in 1938. Baseball Reference didn’t yield any results when searching for batters who reached base (without the help of an error) at least seven times without an official at-bat in a game, so he might be the first since at least 1913 to accomplish the feat.

Barry Bonds was famously walked during his reign of terror in the early 2000’s. Saberist Tom Tango, one of the co-authors of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, created a chart with which one determines whether or not to intentionally walk Bonds in a road game. In the early innings, one would only walk Bonds if first base was open and there were two outs. There were only 12 situations in which it was advised to walk Bonds, most of them involved a tied or one-run game in the eighth or ninth inning and first base open. Tango had five conclusions:

  • Walk now!: a no-brainer
  • Walk: a situation that favors the intentional walk
  • Go with gut: Based on other circumstances, you can make a case either way
  • Face him: A situation that favors not walking him
  • Do not walk: A no-brainer

With the caveat that Bonds was a much more productive hitter than Harper and played in a different type of offensive environment, I decided to apply Tango’s chart to Harper’s walks in the series against the Cubs.

Date Inning Outs Base State Score Tango
May 5 T1 2 0-0 Go with gut
May 5 T4 0 0-0 Do not walk
May 5 T9 0 0-5 Do not walk
May 6 T8 1 2-8 Face him
May 7 T1 2 0-0 Go with gut
May 7 T5 2 1– 2-2 Go with gut
May 7 T7 1 –3 4-5 Do not walk
May 8 T1 1 1– 0-0 Face him
May 8 T3 1 0-0 Face him
May 8 T4 2 -23 2-0 Walk
May 8 T8 2 3-3 Go with gut
May 8 T10 2 12- 3-3 Go with gut
May 8 T12 2 12- 3-3 Go with gut

There were no “walk now” conclusions; only one “walk”; six “go with gut”; three “face him”; and three “do not walk”. In other words, Cubs manager Joe Maddon had his pitcher correctly intentionally walk or “unintentionally-intentionally” walk Harper once, and six gray areas. It was demonstrably wrong to walk Harper in six of the 13 situations. I’d imagine, since Harper is an inferior hitter to Bonds, that even the lone pro-walk situation and six “gut” situations become “do not walk” or “face him”.

Still, the Cubs got the series sweep — thanks to a Javier Baez walk-off home run in the bottom of the 13th inning — and now sit with a dominant 24-6 record.