New Nationals manager Dave Martinez moved Bryce Harper to the leadoff spot on May 1, with the Nationals sitting at a disappointing 13-16 on the season and mired in an offensive slump that saw the team produce more than four runs in a game just once over its previous nine games.
The reasons for the move were pretty straightforward: Martinez wants his team to score more dang runs; and Harper, doing an awful lot of walking while batting cleanup in a lineup otherwise struggling to find consistent production, missed the catharsis of unloading on a damn fastball every once in a while:
Martinez had said that Harper was getting frustrated at not getting a chance to extend his arms and really unload on a ball because of the way he has been pitched in April. But Harper says there is a positive about getting walked 38 times.
“Getting on base, so I can’t be mad about that,” he said. “On-base percentage is super important. Getting on base for the guys behind me, trying to have good at-bats and not expand the zone. It’s definitely tough, but I just gotta keep doing it, keep trying to get on base, and have good at-bats and wait for a mistake and not miss it.”
The logic goes like this: if opposing pitchers continue pitching around Harper in his new leadoff spot, they’ll have to accept starting every game with a runner on first. The batters behind him will get more chances to move a runner along with no outs, as well as to stand in against a pitcher working from the stretch. And, if nothing else, Harper will get more plate appearances, and that can never be a bad thing.
You could say it’s working! After a 3-2 series-opening win against the Pirates on April 30, Harper was batting .247 with an MLB-high 38 walks on the season. In the four games since, batting leadoff, Harper has gone 6-for-17 from the plate (.353) with a double, four home runs, and nine runs batted in. Pitchers are finally throwing him strikes—he’s walked just once as a leadoff man—and the Nats have scored 31 runs in four games, and swept a series for the first time since their season-opening series at Cincinnati. Yes, the sample size is vanishingly small. But the early results are encouraging for a Nationals team that hasn’t started the 2018 season anything at all like the way they’d hoped.
Friday night Harper clubbed his second leadoff dinger of the season, a muscular shot the opposite way off Phillies starter Nick Pivetta:
An inning later, with Wilmer Difo on base after a walk, Harper smoked an absolute rocket to deep center field for what Statcast says is the fifth-longest home run of the 2018 season:
That 473-foot dong put the Nats up 5-0, and signaled the end for Pivetta, who was replaced by Drew Hutchinson one batter later. Who knows whether the experiment should or will continue once guys like Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon are back in the Nats lineup, but for now the math works just right and the fireworks are lovely. Per the Washington Post:
“They’re not going to walk him, and if they do it’s not intentionally,” Martinez said. “We tell him every day, ‘Be ready to hit from the first pitch, be ready to hit.’ And he’s doing that and he’s taking some really good swings.”