A Brief Examination of Intentional Balls

Before we get started, I find appropriate two words of warning. One, this post contains .gifs, like many of my posts on FanGraphs. If your browser locks up from too many .gifs, I think the bigger story is that you’re visiting the present-day Internet from 1997, but it’s at least right of me to give you a notice. Two, this is maybe the dumbest and most pointless thing I’ve ever put together. And it wasn’t that long ago that I wrote a post about bunt doubles. In terms of determining wins and losses, you aren’t about to learn anything the least bit meaningful. On the standards of significance, this post sucks.

All right. This is a post about intentional walks, and, more specifically, intentional balls. People don’t really notice intentional balls because they don’t matter. The outcome is pre-determined, and throwing and receiving intentional balls isn’t a skill. Nobody is thought to be “good” at it or “bad” at it because it’s just a simple game of catch that maybe shouldn’t even be necessary in order to advance a hitter to first base. Once every several years or so, a hitter will swing at an intentional ball, just to take the other side by surprise. Once every year or month or something, an intentional ball will be thrown too wildly, and bad things will happen. This is when intentional balls are noticed, but those events are infrequent.

Generally, an intentional walk proceeds as such:

  • manager calls for intentional walk
  • catcher stands up
  • crowd doesn’t boo yet
  • pitcher throws first intentional ball
  • crowd starts booing
  • pitcher throws rest of intentional balls
  • next hitter comes up

Intentional walks are a nothing exercise, an essentially un-practiced exercise, but they’re an on-field exercise and within the exercise we can expect to find variation. At some point last week I found myself curious about the variation, and it all led to this, and a big giant spreadsheet you can’t see. Thanks to Matthew Carruth, I was given a spreadsheet of PITCHf/x data for intentional balls going back to 2007. I eliminated the data from 2007 because I don’t trust it, and then I played around to see what I could find within the rest.

Right off the bat, the fastest intentional ball that I can confirm with video was thrown by Kelvin Herrera in 2012. It left the hand just above 92 miles per hour, although this was in Kansas City and the PITCHf/x gun in Kansas City seems to have been a wee bit hot. The bigger point is that there have been intentional balls at 90 and above. The slowest intentional balls have all been at or around 45 miles per hour. The average comes out to 70.3 miles per hour, with a standard deviation of +/- 7.9.

Now, yesterday we looked at the locations of hit-by-pitches. Today we’ll look at the locations of intentional balls, taking care to note that some of the readings over the plate are simple PITCHf/x glitches. It would be impossible for me to correct for these, and let’s not pay them any mind. Let’s do pay mind to the axes, and the magnitudes:

intentionalballsmap

The average intentional ball is about 4.4 feet outside from the center of the plate, and about 4.8 feet off the ground. You’ll recognize 4.8 feet as being about the height of the catcher’s chest. You’ll recognize 4.4 feet as being far enough outside to make sure the hitter can’t do anything without being ridiculous. A catcher could probably afford to stand closer, and a pitcher could probably afford to throw the ball closer, but there’s no reason to do so. The further away the ball goes, the less the chance of the hitter throwing in a surprise swing and ball in play.

But how about intentional balls that were almost strikes? These are always mistakes on the pitchers’ part, but they do happen, and for the sake of satiating your curiosity and my curiosity, here are the three closest intentional balls from the 2012 regular season, from third to first:

Pitcher: Tim Dillard
Batter: Brandon Belt
Location: 22.4 inches from center of zone

dillard_ibb.gif.opt

dillard_ibb

Pitcher: Dan Runzler
Batter: Chris Johnson
Location: 21.1 inches from center of zone

runzler_ibb.gif.opt

runzler_ibb

Pitcher: Jose Mijares
Batter: Hanley Ramirez
Location: 16.8 inches from center of zone

mijares_ibb.gif.opt

mijares_ibb

That’s a pretty good first pitch to Hanley Ramirez. If only Jose Mijares intended to throw it! Pretty lousy framing job by Buster Posey back there. Lots of distracting movement.

To be perfectly honest, though, what I didn’t set out to look for were the intentional balls closest to being strikes. I mean, that’s interesting enough, but I was after something even stupider than that. I wanted to look at intentional ball location broken down by catcher, to observe the variation within the pool. Which catcher might receive intentional balls closest to the plate, therefore taking the biggest risk? Which catcher might receive intentional balls furthest from the plate, therefore being the most cautious?

I ran some manual calculations and then eliminated catchers who I didn’t feel had a big enough sample size. Two names I was left with at opposite extremes:

Kratz has received his average intentional ball 3.3 feet outside from the center of the plate. McKenry has received his average intentional ball 5.6 feet outside from the center of the plate. We have a difference of 26.9 inches, horizontally. Some of this might well have to do with the pitchers on the mound, but it seems to me the catchers are more in control, and I went to the video to see what might be causing this, if anything. This struck me as a pretty big difference to just be random noise.

I watched way too many intentional walks, probably more intentional walks than you’ve paid attention to in your whole life, and I think I’ve identified the cause. Let’s watch Kratz catch an intentional ball:

KratzCatching.gif.opt

Now let’s watch McKenry catch an intentional ball:

McKenryCatching.gif.opt

Kratz starts moving later, and he moves less. Kratz takes one step to his side. McKenry does kind of a double-shuffle, where he ends up half-in and half-out of the opposite batter’s box. This behavior was repeated over and over, for both of them, and I have to assume this is what’s causing the difference in pitch locations. Pitchers anticipate that McKenry will end up way outside, so they throw way outside. Pitchers will anticipate that Kratz will end up less outside, so they throw less outside. Still outside — still very far outside — but considerably less outside.

Why do Kratz and McKenry behave differently? Why do there exist different techniques for receiving intentional balls? I’m not sure. They would’ve learned it all at some level, but this would’ve hardly been the main point of any exercise. You don’t spend hours or weeks, probably, training a catcher to catch an intentional ball. You just stand there and you catch the ball and you throw the ball back. Maybe this is McKenry’s own technique, and Kratz’s own technique. These techniques are hardly worth talking about or correcting, if they need to be corrected, which they almost certainly do not. Kratz might run a slightly higher risk of a batter throwing in a surprising swing. It’s still unlikely, and just because the batter swings doesn’t mean the batter does any damage to the baseball. This doesn’t matter. If you asked McKenry why he does a double-shuffle, he might not even realize he does it.

But he does it. Kratz doesn’t. This has been a post all about intentional balls, and I hope you’ve come out of it with not nothing. I know I…have…not? I know I’m done, that’s what I know.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


34 Responses to “A Brief Examination of Intentional Balls”

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  1. Tyler Greene says:

    I reckon I could hit one of those for a dinger, if someone would just give me a chance.

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  2. derp says:

    So we can gather from this data that pitcher’s make lousy intentional balls if the Giants are playing.

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  3. tynandaly says:

    Jeff, I am so glad you write here.

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  4. NatsFan73 says:

    I think this post has served a valuable purpose, in that you might be establishing the floor for the importance of baseball related minutiae. IBB are things that happen in games and are a very real part of in-game strategy. They do matter. As opposed to, say, commentary on a hitters bat flipping style that clearly belongs in a related but not entirely serious corner of the interweb. So IBBs do matter, but there is very little to glean from them. We could probably call this a replacement level FG post, if you will.

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  5. Ransom says:

    This close, they always look like landscape.

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  6. jevant says:

    I love the little dance-hop-jump thing that the HP umpire does in the Mijares GIF. Complete with the hand movements as well.

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    • Buddhasillegitimatechild38 says:

      The Dillard ump has some fun movement too. Maybe we need a wrote up on ump movement during IBBs

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    • Tim says:

      If the pitch gets away and the runner moves up, could the Giants argue that he called time?

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  7. John says:

    I thought it might be interesting to look at which pitchers/catchers give up the most wild pitches and passed balls on intentional balls.

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  8. BigNachos says:

    By rule 4.03(a), the catcher is supposed to have both feet within the catcher’s box until the pitcher releases the ball. That probably explains the different techniques, as Kratz is more or less doing things legally while McKenry is clearly violating the rule.

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    • Nate says:

      What’s the penalty? A ball?

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    • TKDC says:

      I like 4.03(c) – “Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.”

      Teams should get guys to stand directly in the hitter’s line of sight and just jump out of the way as the pitch is coming.

      Ah, but then this is 4.06(b) – “No fielder shall take a position in the batter’s line of vision, and with deliberate unsportsmanlike intent, act in a manner to distract the batter.”

      Now I have wasted about 5% as much time as the author of this post.

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      • Phrozen says:

        Could you outfit everyone in catchers’ gear and station them in a semi-circle five feet from home plate?

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  9. MyrEn says:

    Would have loved to see the crazy ones where a batter swings or an intentional ball that ends up being a wild pitch.

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  10. Neil says:

    I love this. The last intentional ball for a hit I can remember is Cabrera during his Marlins days. Anybody else have a more recent one?

    Could you isolate the average distance from the center of the plate based on which bases were occupied? That might be interesting. Pitchers might be more careful if the runner is on third.

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    • Buddhasillegitimatechild38 says:

      I hope this comment is as sarcastic as mine was. Otherwise i dobt want to know your opinion of the value of time

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      • Tim says:

        Just be aware that it’s the value of Jeff Sullivan’s time. If he doesn’t do this he’ll be judging the average distance inside the field on fan interference or something.

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  11. Colin P says:

    I coach high school, where they’ve developed an excellent time saving device for these situations. Kid walks to batter’s box, coach steps out of dugout, coach tells umpire to “put him on,” kid disappointedly trots to first, game resumes.

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  12. Who Gif’d? I’ve got to know.

    FYI That links to a .wav file, an audio bot from 1997.

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  13. MikeS says:

    FYI: it’s not just ancient hardware that locks up. My iPad 2 slows down noticeably in a GIF heavy article. That’s a device whose main purpose is internet consumption.

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    • joser says:

      Yeah, mobile browsers aren’t especially multithreaded and mobile devices are pretty computationally weak in general. When it comes to this sort of thing, a lot of people are indeed effectively using devices from 1997

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  14. I heard from Jayson Stark that 71% of all pitches thrown to Giancarlo Stanton were outside of the strike zone. I wonder how his 2013 spray chart compares to the IBB one.

    You think Stanton’d like to borrow Prince Fielder? Cabrera BB: 108 (2011) and 66 (2012)

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  15. The Real Joey Votto says:

    I have to admit, I learned far more from this article than I thought I would.

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  16. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I wonder how many IBBs ended up actually got thrown for strikes, since Pitch F/X glitches.

    I also wonder if anyone has intentionally hade the catcher look like an IBB then thrown a strike to catch them off balance.

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    • TKDC says:

      I seem to remember the Mets trying this against the Braves after a stolen base with 2 strikes. I don’t remember how many balls there were, or whether they pitched to the hitter after, but I think the Braves hitter fouled off the fake out pitch. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but it was during everyone’s favorite manager’s time there.

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  17. canuckassassin says:

    Why do catchers still extent their right arm before the pitch is delivered? It seems to serve no purpose. Its not like the pitcher is going to forget that he’s walking someone. Do any catchers NOT do that? Does that affect where the ball usually ends up?

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    • joser says:

      Supposedly it supplies a target for the pitcher to throw to, since that’s what they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hours practicing. Though in some cases they miss badly anyway, and in other cases the catcher seems to be doing it out of convention rather than thought.

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      • TKDC says:

        It also tells the pitcher that the catcher is in fact ready, but I think it is mostly for a target.

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      • canuckassassin says:

        I get that, but I’d still like to see if theres any link between catcher right arm animation and intentional ball accuracy.

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  18. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    Come on ump, be a dick and call it a strike

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  19. g says:

    Can we get PITCHf/x numbers on ceremonial first pitches?

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  20. Tim says:

    I’ve always wondered why we don’t see the occasional steal of home off a left-handed pitcher walking a right-handed batter, especially those who throw wild lobs.

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