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:


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



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



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



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:


Now let’s watch McKenry catch an intentional ball:


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.

We hoped you liked reading A Brief Examination of Intentional Balls by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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Tyler Greene
Tyler Greene

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

Kelly Leak
Kelly Leak

I nearly did one time, but I got thrown out at home.