Cubs’ strategy of pitching around Bryce Harper pays off in sweep
The Cubs put Bryce Harper in the record books via a Windy City walk-a-thon, but it proved to be the right call. On Sunday, they walked reigning NL MVP six times—three of them intentionally—in a 13-inning marathon won 4–3 via a walkoff homer by Javier Baez. The victory gave the Cubs a four-game sweep over the Nationals and a 24–6 record, the best at-the-30-game mark since the Tigers went 26–4 in 1984.
Harper’s six walks tied the major league record. Via the Baseball-Reference Play Index, since 1913, three other players received a half-dozen free passes in the same game: the Red Sox’s Jimmie Foxx (June 16, 1938 against the St. Louis Browns), the Indians’ Andre Thornton (May 2, 1984 against the Orioles) and the Astros’ Jeff Bagwell (August 20, 1999 against the Marlins). Since intentional walks didn’t become an official stat until 1955, we don't know how many times the Browns passed Foxx, but Thornton and Bagwell drew two intentional walks. Foxx piled up his walks in a nine-inning slugfest, while Thornton and Bagwell each needed 16 innings.
Harper actually reached base a seventh time on Sunday, as he was hit by a Trevor Cahill pitch in the sixth inning. With that and his walks, he became the first player since at least 1913 to reach base seven times without an official at-bat. What's more, it was the second game in a row that Harper did not record an official at-bat, as he walked three times (once intentionally) on Saturday and hit a sacrifice fly in an 8–5 loss. He was also walked in the final plate appearance of Friday's 8–6 loss, so he’s now gone 12 straight plate appearances without an official at-bat. Including his three walks in Thursday’s 5–2 loss, his 13 walks set a record for a four-game series, according to Stats Inc.. Officially, he went 1 for 4 in the series, with his lone hit being a two-out single off Kyle Hendricks in the sixth inning of Thursday’s game.
Walking Harper was an unorthodox strategy that may have made for less-than-compelling baseball when Harper came to bat, but manager Joe Maddon and company’s first job is to win, with the aesthetics of how they do so of secondary concern so long as they stay within the rules, and Cubs fans probably aren’t complaining much. On Sunday, the team fell behind 3–1 as Jake Arrieta wobbled through five innings, walking four and throwing three wild pitches while striking out seven; one of the three runs he allowed was unearned. Kris Bryant’s two-run single tied the game in the seventh, and it appeared that he might notch the game-winning RBI in the 11th via his double to right-center with Jason Heyward on first base. Danny Espinosa’s strong relay throw to Wilson Ramos cut Heyward down at the plate, however, and while Maddon challenged the call, it was upheld via replay. The two teams continued trading zeroes until the bottom of the 13th, when Baez hit his second homer of the year, a 416-foot shot to centerfield off Blake Treinen, the fifth Nationals pitcher:
The strategy of pitching around Harper paid off all weekend because Cubs pitchers were able to stifle the hitters in front of and behind him. Harper saw just one baserunner on base through the first two games of the series, but struck out against John Lackey in that lone opportunity. On Saturday, Harper was walked twice with a man on third with one out, and once with a man on first and two outs. Two of Sunday’s walks came with nobody on base, one came with a man on first and one out, and all three intentional passes came with two outs and two on, in the fourth, 10th and 12th innings. Cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman made inning-ending outs in all three of those plate appearances, and in fact set a record by leaving 14 men on base on Sunday, via NBC Sports’ Bill Baer; the previous record was 12, held by four players.
In all, Harper scored just three runs for his 15 times on base, 20%, whereas for his career prior to the series, he had scored in 32% of times on base when not hitting a homer. Zimmerman, who batted fourth in all four games, went 2 for 15 in the series, though each hit drove in a run (his double on Sunday scored Harper) and he added another RBI on a groundout. Daniel Murphy went 6 for 15 batting fifth in three games, with Jayson Werth 0 for 4 out of that spot in the other game; neither drove in a run from that spot. Werth drove in Harper with a ninth-inning two-run homer out of the sixth spot in the series opener, but he and Anthony Rendon went a combined 2 for 17 for the series, with Werth's four RBI from that spot all coming when the team was trailing by at least five runs.
While Murphy is red-hot (.395/.439/.640), Zimmerman (.236/.293/.340), Werth (.202/.267/.433) and Rendon (.216/.290/304) are decidedly not. While manager Dusty Baker's batting orders have often been a focal point of criticism throughout his career, there are only so many ways he can shuffle the deck when so many of his players are struggling. Harper’s now batting .265/.432/.633; thanks to the plethora of bases on balls, his OBP rose by 60 points during the sweep, but he, Murphy and Ramos (.358/.373/.543) are the only Nationals regulars providing above-average production. It’s not hard to see how a strategy such as that of the Cubs can work against such a lineup.
The four-game sweep of the Nationals was all the more impressive because Washington came into Chicago with the league’s second-best record at 19–8; with the loss, it fell into a virtual tie for first place in the NL East with the Mets (18–11). The Cubs, at 24–6, equaled their 1907 squad’s record for their best 30-game start since the beginning of the 20th century; that team, led by the famed double play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, won 107 games and the franchise’s first World Series; the Cubs won again the next year and haven’t won since. The franchise’s only better starts date deep into the 19th century: In 1876, the inaugural year of the National League, they were known as the Chicago White Stockings and jumped out to a 25–5 record en route to the NL pennant, while in 1880, they went 27–3 (with a tie) en route to another pennant.
As for where these Cubs fit in historically, from among 20th or 21st century teams, they’ve topped the 2001 Mariners (23–7)—who went on to win a record 116 games—for the best 30-game start of this millennium. They’re tied with nine other teams that started 26–6; only five since 1901 have done better:
|Red Sox||1946||24–6||104–50||1||Won AL|
|A’s||1981||24–6||64–45||1||Won AL West|
Seven of the other 14 team won the World Series, 10 won at least a pennant, and 11 of them reached the postseason.
While there’s a lot of baseball to be played in 2016, this Cubs team now has a 7 1/2-game lead in the NL Central. So long as they maintain this breakneck pace, you can expect a whole lot more comparisons to ’84 Tigers and ’01 Mariners.