The Washington Nationals trailed 4-3 in the eighth inning of Wednesday's loss to the Baltimore Orioles, but they had the right part of the order coming up to do some damage. The major league leader in both batting average and (more importantly) on-base percentage was leading off the inning. That same player happens to lead the majors in Slugging Percentage (by 82 points!) and Isolated Power (by 35 points!). Every time he steps to the plate, there's a higher likelihood than any other player in the league that Bryce Harper will not only reach base, but advance beyond first base.
With a 1-1 count against rookie reliever Mychal Givens, what did that hitter who is more likely to reach base than anyone in the league do? What did that hitter who is more likely to notch an extra base hit than anyone else in baseball do? He bunted a ball well below the zone and fouled it off. A pitch later, Harper chased high heat to strike out leading off the eighth inning. The Nats final eleven hitters failed to reach base as they lost 4-3.
There's logic in having the leadoff man bunt in the eighth inning of a one run game if the opposing team is positioned to allow an easy hit. In all honesty, the ultimate goal for every hitter should be to not make an out. A free baserunner is a free baserunner, and if Harper could have executed a decent bunt down the third base line would have raised their run expectancy from 0.45 (0 runners on, 0 out) to 0.82 (runner on first, 0 out).
I may always sound like I'm vehemently opposed to bunting, but I'm happy to see guys like Danny Espinosa or Michael Taylor try to drag a bunt and beat it out for a base hit. Of course, when Espinosa or Taylor try to lay down a bunt and beat it out for a single, we're talking about players who are inferior hitters to Harper. They don't have nearly the type of power that Harper does. They both strike out far more frequently than Harper. Perhaps most importantly, if you add their walk rate percentages (8.0% for Espinosa, 6.7% for Taylor... No... I'm not figuring their average, but combining their walk rates. This is for effect), it's still nearly 5 points lower than Harper's walk rate of 19.5%. Harper (.472 OBP) is more than one and a half times as likely to reach base than either Espinosa (.311, 1.51) or Taylor (.286, 1.65).
What's perhaps most frustrating about seeing Harper square to bunt with a 1-1 count in the eighth inning of a one run game, which he could tie with one swing, is this: If the bunt had been successful, Harper would have been standing on first. Orioles manager Buck Showalter would probably have been content with a Harper walk, which would have yielded the same result. Thus far in the series, Harper has walked five times in eight plate appearances, so the Orioles sure haven't shown much of a desire to challenge him.
The pitch sequence doesn't really tell us much different from the assertion above:
Givens certainly wasn't intentionally walking him, but it seems clear he wasn't exactly attacking him either. He threw an almost perfect fastball to start the at bat that hugged the corner and the bottom of the zone. He followed that up with a slider at the bottom of the zone. The pitch that Harper bunted was a changeup well below the knees that would clearly have been ball two. He then struck out chasing an elevated fastball that was out of the strike zone. In four pitches, he saw one strike and another borderline call go his way. Bryce got himself out.
That last sentence is something that we haven't said about Harper very often this season. Even before this season, the 22-year-old seemed mature beyond his years. This season, he's continued to show dramatic growth with his consistent and patient approach at the plate. However, Harper's insistence to occasionally bunt is one part of his game that continues to be frustrating from time to time. At some point, the most feared hitter in the league has to realize that the last thing that his team wants him to do is take the bat out of his hands. Last night, Harper didn't take the bat out of his hands because he couldn't get the bunt down in fair territory, but he did put himself in a hole in the count that he was unable to crawl out of by trying to.