Bryce Harper was intentionally walked three times yesterday. He walked a total of 13 times during the Nationals’ four-game series against the Cubs. That’s a lot of walks, and it’s creating quite a reaction among fans and commentators today. In many places I’ve seen it referred to as Harper getting “the Barry Bonds treatment.” One person I saw even suggested that they should change the rules regarding intentional walks in order to deal with managers like Joe Maddon “cheating the fans” due to the free passes issued to the reigning NL MVP.
That last bit may be ridiculous, but the Bonds-Harper thing is at least an understandable comparison. It’s a comparison, however, which severely undersells just how feared Barry Bonds was in his prime.
Harper has been intentionally walked eight times this year. That’s on a pace for 40 or so intentional walks. That’s a lot — if he gets to 40 it’d be the eighth highest single-season IBB total ever, tied with Willie McCovey in 1970 — but it wouldn’t be an insane number. Last year Paul Goldschmidt led baseball with 29. The year before that Victor Martinez led with 28. Prince Fielder had 32 in 2011. Albert Pujols had 44 in 2009. Again, 40 would be a ton of intentional walks, but it wouldn’t be a break-the-game sort of outlier.
Bonds, however, sort of broke the game for a while. Indeed, he was in a different stratosphere when it came to intentional walks for a few years. Five of the top seven single season intentional walk totals belong to Barry Bonds. In 2001 he hit 73 homers. It must’ve taken a bit for the rest of the league to catch on, because he was given a free pass “only” 35 times that year. He didn’t even lead the league! Sammy Sosa did with 37. The next year, however, everyone woke up and Bonds was intentionally walked 68 times. The following year 61. The year after that: 120. Yes, One. Hundred. And. Twenty. Times. The next highest was Jim Thome with . . . 26. Bonds had two other seasons in which he was walked 43 times. Once in his final year in the bigs, 2007, the other in his first year in San Francisco, 1993.
And that’s just the clearly intentional walks. The ones where the catcher threw his hand out and they didn’t even try to get him to chase. Obviously there were a huge number of pitch-around-him, don’t-give-him-anything-to-hit walks which weren’t technically intentional. In the space of four seasons during his prime, Bonds had walk totals of 177, 198 and 232, which are the top three single-season walk totals of all time. Harper walks a lot and has been pitched around a lot in the early going, but he doesn’t even lead the leagues in walks at the moment. Paul Goldschmidt does. Harper is on pace for “only” 157 walks. That’s a ton of walks — it would be the highest total for any player in the past 12 years and the eighth highest total of all time — but it’s still not Barry Bonds land.
None of which is to throw shade at Harper. He’s clearly the most feared hitter in the game right now. He just needs to ratchet up the fear factor a couple more notches in order to be on Bonds’ level. Oh, and he’ll need to do it for, like, five more years or so, I reckon.