The Chicago Cubs discovered the perfect way to stifle Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper on Sunday: never let him swing the bat.
The reigning National League MVP became the fourth player in MLB history to walk six times in one game, per MASNSports.com's Mark Zuckerman. Harper was also hit by a pitch. The Cubs would get the last laugh as they held off the Nationals 4-3 in 13 innings.
Before Sunday, no hitter in the last century had reached base seven times in the same game without getting a hit, per ESPN Stats & Info (via ESPN's Jayson Stark).
This isn't the first time Harper has produced a ridiculous stat line despite not being credited with an official at-bat. On Sept. 3, 2015, against the Atlanta Braves, he scored four runs and earned one RBI despite finishing 0-for-0 at the plate:
Chicago had been careful with Harper over the last four games. According to Baseball Tonight, his 13 free passes are the most ever in a single series. MLB.com's Phil Rogers noted how the Cubs didn't want to give the left-handed slugger anything to hit:
Cubs pitcher Adam Warren even intentionally walked Harper in the top of the 10th inning with the score tied at 3-3. In doing so, Warren put the go-ahead run 90 feet from home plate, per Nationals on MASN:
The strategy paid off when first baseman Ryan Zimmerman lined out to end the inning. Zimmerman struggled mightily throughout the day, stranding 14 runners, per Inside Edge. Sports Illustrated's Jonah Keri believes the game magnified Washington's need for support behind its best hitter:
With Zimmerman failing to offer much of a threat behind Harper, opposing teams will continue to be content letting him take first base. It's a trend that began in 2015. According to FanGraphs, he ranked second in walk rate last year (19.0 percent) and sat third (19.2 percent) heading into Sunday.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon explained his approach to Harper after the game, per Jamal Collier of MLB.com: "[Because of] how good he is—why tempt fate? If the other guy gets you, that's fine. You have no problem with that."
However, Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark didn't see it that way, saying he was "very, very surprised" that Chicago walked Harper so many times, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. "I think it's scared baseball," he added.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker should be equipped to adjust his lineup if this trend continues or gets even more extreme. Baker managed the San Francisco Giants amid Barry Bonds' constant parade to first base. From 2000 until 2004, Bonds walked 872 times, including 249 intentional walks in a three-year span (2002-04).
While Harper is nowhere close to Bonds' walk rate yet, a trend may now be in motion to send him that way.