WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper has been intentionally walked 13 times this season.
Through Sunday’s games, 27 teams have been intentionally walked fewer than 13 times.
For that reason, it’s fair to say Bryce Harper will be affected by one of MLB’s proposed rule changes more than any other player. Only one other player, Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants (7), has been intentionally walked even half the times Harper has.
Harper drew just 15 intentional walks last season, as it was his breakout year and opposing pitchers had only truly begun to fear him at the plate. But the reigning NL MVP is on pace to roughly triple that total this season.
Aside from Harper’s 13, the Nationals still draw a fair share of intentional bases on balls thanks to Danny Espinosa’s five, which is tied for third in MLB. For context, four teams have drawn fewer than five intentional walks this season, and the Tampa Bay Rays have drawn exactly five. Most of Espinosa’s intentional walks are due to his position in the order — he typically bats eighth, so opposing teams don’t mind putting him on base in order to face the Nationals pitcher. Mostly for this reason, the National League draws considerably more walks than the American League, which uses a designated hitter instead of the pitcher. The top 10 teams in intentional walks are in the NL, and every NL team is in the top 20 in the category.
It will therefore come as no surprise that the Nationals lead MLB in intentional walks drawn, by a lot. Washington has drawn 21 intentional walks; the Chicago Cubs and Giants are tied for second with 15 apiece.
One of the league’s proposed new rules, which is expected to pass and be enacted as soon as next season, would eliminate the need to actually play out an intentional walk. Instead of a pitcher being forced to throw four pitches to intentionally put a run on base, the team would simply signal that it wants to put the hitter on base, and the hitter would head to first.
The goal is to quicken the pace of the game and eliminate a tedious act that often results in boos by the home crowd if the away team is the one committing the act. The change likely won’t stop the boos, but it should decrease the duration, and it should cut out a few minutes here and there — especially for Nationals games.
However, one element of the change is how it will affect opposing pitchers, who now have four fewer pitches to throw. Sometimes those pitches are negligible. If no runners are on base, a pitcher tends to just lob the four freebies way outside the plate. It doesn’t drain much energy, and there is little chance of anything going wrong.
But if there are runners on the basepaths, everything changes. The pitches, while still aiming to accomplish the same goal, have markedly greater significance. The pitcher can’t lob the pitches anymore, as a decent base-runner can use that extra split-second the ball is in the air to get a jump and steal a base, so he must expend more energy on the four pitches. By throwing hard, there is a greater chance of a wild pitch, which would also give the runner(s) a chance to grab an extra bag.
In itself, those four extra pitches don’t mean a whole lot, and very little comes of them. For the Nationals, however, those pitches add up. In the game they played against the Miami Marlins Sunday afternoon, for example, Marlins starter Adam Conley issued three intentional walks to Nationals hitters. That’s 12 pitches right there, and each of them came with at least one runner on base. He finished the day with 106 pitches, more than 11 percent of which came on intentional walks to Harper, Espinosa and Wilson Ramos.
Sunday’s game was an outlier, of course. Conley issued seven walks in the contest, four of which were not officially intentional, and the Marlins bullpen added two more.
But the point remains: The intentional walks issued to the Nationals’ hitters help push up opposing pitchers’ pitch count and wear out their arms, and that’s a weapon that might no longer be available to Washington next season.
The Nationals, as a team, have seen 6,527 pitches this season — 84 of them, or 1.3 percent, have been on intentional balls. Bryce Harper has seen 745 pitches this season, the 36th most in MLB; if you remove the 52 intentional balls he’s gotten, he’s seen just 694 pitches, all the way down to a tie for 69th most in MLB.
The modern era of baseball is driven by pitch counts, and a difference of four pitches might sway a manager to send out his starter for another inning or revert to the bullpen. After all, fatigued pitchers are rarely as effective as fresh pitchers. If a pitcher is at 88 pitches through seven innings, there’s a better chance he goes out for the eighth inning than if he’s at 92 pitches. If a second intentional walk was doled out in the game and now he’s at 96 pitches, that likelihood decreases even more.
The silver lining for Harper and the Nationals in all this comes in the form of the other major rule change, which would shrink the strike zone for hitters. The current strike zone begins just below a hitter’s knee, while the new rule would raise the bottom to just above the hitter’s knee. Harper, who already has some of the league’s best vision and discipline at the plate, leads the league with 48 walks — five more than runner-up Paul Goldschmidt, who has played in two more games and has struck out 15 more times.
Between a smaller strike zone and less of a negative impact for opposing pitchers doling out intentional walks, 2017 could see Harper living on the basepaths without ever doing much swinging.
Whether the new rules go into effect or not is still to be determined. But if they do, especially the intentional walks rule, Harper and the Nationals are poised to see the effects more closely than anybody else.