- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

Over the course of his budding big league career, Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper has grown accustomed to hitting 400-foot home runs, pausing with bat in hand as the ball soars toward some distant part of the ballpark and ricochets off the concrete.

The intentional walks, however? Those are something new.

In the first 13 games of the season, the 22-year-old has already been intentionally walked a career-high five times and drawn six others. Though his 18 strikeouts this year are tied for fourth in the major leagues, his 11 walks are tied for second, and he has posted three multi-walk performances in Washington’s past four games. The walks are not as much an emphasis of Harper’s approach as a byproduct of it.

“I’m trying to be quick, not as strong, do what I can to connect to the baseball, see my pitches, draw my walks if I need to,” Harper said Friday. “If they’re not giving in, keep throwing me off-speed or off the plate or anything like that, don’t chase. If you strike out on a good pitch, it happens. But draw your walks, try to get good pitches, and don’t miss ‘em.”

Harper has always had a sharp eye at the plate, taking a base on balls between 9 and 13 percent of the time as a big leaguer. The difference early this season is that the walks have been largely intentional, and they’ve been coming at an incredible rate. It’s unfair to use the first two weeks of the season to project the remaining 25, but if you do that with Harper, just for fun, here’s what you get: 62 intentional walks, the most by anyone not named Barry Bonds since 1901.

Is this indicative of a long-term change in how Harper is viewed? A newfound level of respect from opposing pitchers, perhaps? As far as Harper is concerned, it’s merely situational. With first base unoccupied and a right-handed pitcher on the mound, it just makes more sense to face right-handed hitter Ryan Zimmerman.

“It sucks, because I want to hit,” Harper after Sunday’s 4-1 win. “I want to get that RBI out there. But I have confidence in the guy behind me, of course, and I have confidence in my whole team. So it’s easy to take that walk, get on first base and try to score from first as best I can. Hopefully Z gets a knock or something happens.”

Most of Harper’s intentional walks have come under the same circumstances: Two outs with a runner on second base and a right-hander on the mound. And, for the most part, the strategy has worked. Zimmerman has two strikeouts, one groundout, one fly out and one double in the at-bats following an intentional walk. Zimmerman’s hit Sunday was the first time he made an opposing team pay for passing on Harper.

“I think it goes from game to game,” manager Matt Williams said. “[On Sunday], they’ve got a decision to make with Harp and a man on second base. They chose to pitch to Zim. I don’t know anybody in their right mind who wouldn’t, the way he’s swinging and the way Harp’s swinging. They’re not going to let that guy beat you.”

Circumstances aside, Harper’s walks say just as much about his comfort level at the plate as his four home runs. Though he created a lot of fuss in spring training with his “Where’s my ring?” remarks, Harper’s priority this season has been staying quiet at the plate. When he steps into the batter’s box, he does not bounce the bat off his shoulder or take practice swings, instead standing perfectly still as he waits for a pitch to arrive. If it’s a ball, he keeps waiting.

“We talk a lot about driving runs in and things like that, and that’s kind of the hardest thing to learn in the big leagues is when they’re going to pitch to you, when they’re not,” Zimmerman said. “So far this year, he’s done an unbelievable job of that, and I think that’s kind of the next step as a hitter of maturing and learning what they’re going to do to you, so it’s good to see him do that.”

Harper has talked with Williams about his approach and is concentrating on being quick to the ball, rather than strong. “Not trying to muscle up and hit a ball 900 feet,” he said.

That understanding is something that comes with age, according to Zimmerman, and it’s sometimes easy to forget just how young Harper still is. Entering his fourth season, he still has yet to face a pitcher younger than him in the major leagues, and he is 10 months younger than hotshot Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant.

“A lot of the learning that he did over the past couple years normally would be done in the minor leagues,” Zimmerman said. “I think he’s going to continue to learn the strike zone more and learn what pitches he can handle the best, and work to get those pitches.”

Several pundits believe this could be a breakout year for Harper. Maybe so. But if the first two weeks are any indication, one thing is clear: The walks will keep coming for Harper, whether they’re intentional or not.

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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