The Chicago Cubs have shredded the National League during their first 30 games. After a four game sweep of the first place Washington Nationals, the Cubs stand atop Major League Baseball with a 24-6 record, five games better than any other National League team. They are a club that leads the League in runs scored and runs scored against. They were the heavy favorite entering the season. And, now, it seems like we didn’t favor them enough.
The four game series against the Nationals gave a bit of insight into the confidence level of the Cubs. Manager Joe Maddon decided that his club is talented enough to completely eliminate an opposition’s best offensive weapon. For this series, that weapon came in the form of reigning MVP Bryce Harper. The Nationals entered the series with a record of 19-8. This series was supposed to be a measuring stick between two of the three top teams in the National League. While Harper hasn’t been hot of late, he entered the series against the Cubs with a .266/.372/.649 line with 6 doubles, 10 home runs, 26 RBI, and 5 stolen bases. The night before the Cubs’ series opener, Harper went 2 for 4 with a home run against the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals. The Nationals came into the series winning five of their previous six games. It setup to be a tremendous early season match up between two of the best teams in the sport.
Maddon decided that he would not let Harper be a factor in the series. In the four games–all in which Harper started and played the full game–Harper was 1 for 4 with 3 runs scored, 1 hit by pitch, and 13 walks. The Cubs won each game by three runs or less. In game one, a 5-2 win, Harper was only able to get a pitch to hit in the sixth inning with two outs. In every other situation, Harper was walked, including the 9th inning. That almost backfired as Jason Werth homered off of Travis Wood to make it a three run lead. But, the Cubs had a 5 run lead heading into the inning. While Wood wasn’t intentionally walking Harper, he wasn’t exactly giving in.
In game two, Cubs’ starter John Lackey attacked Harper and was successful, striking him out twice. Harper came to bat in the eighth inning and was walked by Clayton Richard. This wasn’t intentional, as the Cubs were leading 8-2 at the time. That walk was costly as the Nationals rallied to make it an 8-6 game. But, the Cubs held on to win game two. Game three’s starter, Jason Hammel, was careful with Harper. After walking him in the first, the two faced off in third inning with a runner on third and one out. Hammel pitched to Harper, who delivered a sacrifice fly to give the Nationals a lead. Harper wouldn’t get a pitch to hit for the rest of the game. The Cubs won game three 8-5.
Sunday, Maddon’s Cubs took things to a new level. Harper came to the plate seven times. He was walked six times and hit by a pitch once. In a game that went 13 innings, Harper had no official at bats. The Cubs would win 4-3 and complete the sweep.
Joe Maddon is known for taking unique approaches at times. It was clear that his intent was to avoid Harper in most situations, even with ace Jake Arrieta on the mound. While Arrieta clearly struggled with his control, the Cubs made the rest of the Nationals have to come through. This was using the walk, intentional or not, as a weapon. The question is whether or not it is an effective weapon or just something the Cubs got away with. Would this be something that would work in a playoff situation?
For most teams, this strategy would not work. Putting a player on base 14 times (15 counting his one hit) in a four game series isn’t exactly stacking the odds in their favor. In many ways, the Cubs are fortunate that Harper scored just three runs in the series. This is not something that one would expect the Cubs to do, at least to this extreme, again. With games that wound up being so very close, the damage could’ve been more.
A closer look gives a better insight on the Cubs’ plan. The only time Harper was walked in a high leverage situation was in game three during the seventh inning with the tying run on third base with one out. The Nationals did tie the game later that inning, but it wasn’t Harper who did the damage or scored the run. The Cubs retook the lead the next inning and never looked back. A similar scenario played out in game four in the 10th inning. With the go ahead run on second base and a runner on first, Harper was intentionally walked. The Cubs got out of the inning on the next batter. Those two plate appearances really seem to be the only times when Maddon would not have Harper beat his club. The rest of the walks seem to be a product of trying to make Harper hit the Cubs’ pitch. Harper is too good of a hitter for that.
Much will be made of the Cubs walking Harper 13 times. There will be debates about whether or not this is good for the sport. But, that’s not really what the focus should be. The focus should be on whether or not this is sound strategy. Joe Maddon is one of the best Managers in the sport. One of the characteristics that makes him the best is his willingness to try things. The Cubs pitched around Harper and found success this time. But, putting a batter on base 14 times in four games isn’t really playing the odds. That’s why it seems like the Cubs weren’t really trying to walk Harper so many times. It’ll be portrayed that way and Maddon will embrace that. But, it is a strategy that he won’t likely repeat.