The question, of course, then became what can be done to alter the pattern while three all-star-level hitters sit on the disabled list? Martinez’s attempt at an answer came Tuesday. For the first time since 2013, Bryce Harper will lead off for the Nationals against the Pirates. Trea Turner, the Nationals’ best hitter over the last two weeks, will bat second.
Martinez is, essentially, daring the Pirates to pitch around Harper, who has walked at a historic rate this season. After Monday’s win, Martinez broached the idea to Harper in his office. They both came to the same conclusion.
“Why not?” Martinez said. “I mean, really. He’s a little frustrated. Hopefully, he gets more pitches to hit. We talked about him just getting probably one at-bat and he’s chasing a lot. So hopefully he gets a couple more pitches to hit. Give him a chance to maybe get up there five times in a game. Those guys behind him are actually hitting the ball pretty well. So if he gets on, even by a walk, we should have some action.”
Something had to change. Harper drew two intentional walks Monday, increasing his league-leading walk total to 38, and struck out in his two other plate appearances. That left Harper on pace for more than 200 walks this season — a number not reached by any major league player since Barry Bonds accumulated 232 walks in 2004. But getting pitched around has affected Harper’s rhythm. And the results are stark.
Entering Monday, Harper was 5 for 35 without an extra-base hit over the previous 12 games. The stretch has plunged his batting average from .304 to .247 and his slugging percentage from .750 to .528. He hasn’t hit a home run since an absurd broken-bat homer off Jacob deGrom on April 16.
Yet he’s walked 17 times during the slump, including six times intentionally, and leads the National League with a .458 on-base-percentage. Ideally, hitters behind him would capitalize enough to scare teams away from continuing the approach. The problem is hitters behind him have rarely capitalized. Entering Monday, Nationals cleanup hitters, who have hit behind Harper every game this season, were batting .200 with a .692 slugging percentage.
“At 25 years old, you want to hit the baseball,” Harper said. “That’s just going to make me a better baseball player. Every single day, going in, having a good mentality about it and just trying to be the best I can. Try to get on base and having good at-bats. It’s definitely tough, but just go out there and try to get on base and score some runs.”
Harper has batted leadoff 16 times in his career, all in 2013. In those starts, he batted .317 with four home runs, eight walks and a 1.022 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 75 plate appearances — though, as Harper and Martinez pointed out, the leadoff hitter leads off the first inning and might not lead off again. Obviously, that was a small sample size five years ago. But it’s enough evidence that Harper can excel in the spot.
Martinez also has experience putting MVP-caliber sluggers in the leadoff hole when he was a bench coach under Joe Maddon, with the Rays and Cubs. In Tampa, they slotted Evan Longoria first a few times. In Chicago, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo led off at various points.
“I think it’s a very creative thought,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Dave was with Joe, and they hit Rizzo first at times. Joe’s hit different people first in Tampa when Dave was with him there as well. I’m sure he has his own reasoning. We probably won’t start the game with an intentional walk. They’ve got that going for them.”
Probably not intentionally walking Harper doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pitch to him, though. As Martinez mentioned, he was in the Cubs dugout a couple years ago when they walked Harper 13 times in a four-game series at Wrigley Field. He knows how the opposition thinks about navigating the Nationals lineup because he was the opposition. But if the Pirates are going to throw Harper strikes, he’s ready to pounce. After all, several hours before first pitch Monday he was out for a rare early on-field batting practice session, alternating with the injured Daniel Murphy as hitting coach Kevin Long observed, with one goal.
“Just hit some homers,” Harper said. “Get some balls over the plate and do some damage.”
Adam Frazier 2B
Gregory Polanco RF
Starling Marte CF
Josh Bell 1B
Corey Dickerson LF
Francisco Cervelli C
Colin Moran 3B
Jordy Mercer SS
Chad Kuhl P
Bryce Harper RF
Trea Turner SS
Matt Adams LF
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Howie Kendrick 2B
Michael A. Taylor CF
Matt Wieters C
Max Scherzer P
Wilmer Difo 3B