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In Defense of Intentional Walks

I am no fan of the intentional walk. Not only is it usually poor strategy (there are very few situations when it is even a good play to give Albert Pujols a free pass), but I also tend to agree with those who think that the intentional walk is contrary to the “spirit of the game.” There are some interesting suggestions out there on how it might be “banned” — for example, any 4-0 walk gives the walked player two bases, and makes corresponding adjustments for any base runners. My own opinion on whether or not intentional walks should be “punished” (and if so, how) is not fully-formed. However, for the sake of argument, I have tried to think about why we might not want to change the rules with regard to intentional walks (as defined above). I am not a firm traditionalist who believes that “this is the way the game is played and forever shall it be,” as that is neither true nor rational. Rather, as a devil’s advocate, let me propose that how we might view intentional walks as a enjoyable part of the game.

This sort of dispute cannot be settled in the same manner as, e.g., the average run expectancy of some event. It is more of an aesthetic matter regarding what makes the game pleasurable to watch. (Some might want to call this an “objective” versus “subjective” difference, but I think it is problematic to use “objective” interchangeably with “quantifiable,” and “subjective” with “unquantifiable.” This is an all-too-frequent habit in much sabermetrically-influenced writing that I hope to address at greater length some other time.) Those who oppose the current arrangement with respect to intentional walks have a strong aesthetic claim — almost all of us would agree that it is much more fun to watch hits, defensive plays, strikeouts, or even simply the pitcher and batter dueling it out than to watch the catcher standing to the side while four lazy pitches loop over to him. Moreover, intentional walks (usually) mean that we do not get to watch a “real” plate appearance from a superior hitter.

But let me try to introduce a different aesthetic perspective for the sake of argument. I have not run the WPA numbers for the 2011 season, but it is fairly well-accepted that most intentional walks (at least when the pitcher is not batting next) are bad ideas that usually hurt the chances of the pitcher’s team. Are we going to punish other bad strategies? Should the league give fines for having good hitters bunt too often? Will Mike Scioscia get suspended four games for every time he starts Jeff Mathis (Angels fans are nodding vigorously)? If I really wanted to get on my high horse, I would make a comment about the irony of a league that allows the players to use smokeless tobacco on the field trying to crack down on strategies that result in self-inflicted harm, but I do not want this post to get that “serious,” the parallel harms are quite disproportionate, the similarity breaks down in other ways, and I am no good at riding horses, anyway.

What I am trying to get at is that there is a sort of aesthetic pleasure that comes from seeing a bad move (as many, if not all, actual intentional walks are) “punished.” Those who are parents and/or teachers might view outcomes such as these as natural consequences. Of course, there will always be times when excessive intentional walks do “work,” as in the surreal 2011 World Series Game Five (subtitle: “Come Back, Grady Little, All is Forgiven”). That may frustrate some from a “natural consequences” perspective, but may also generate a perverse joy in seeing something so wrong go oh-so-right, somehow.

It may be that my own sense of aesthetics that is perverse, of course. I do generally prefer “good baseball” to silly strategies blowing up in the faces of those employing them or working out against all sense. Maybe my perspective on the perversely pleasurable possibilities of the intentional walk can be illuminated a bit by reflecting on how things can go wrong not just in the post-walk situation, but during the process itself. After all, it has been proposed (apart from the whole for-or-against intentional walks discussion), that the necessary pitches be eliminated, and that the pitching team could just signal that the batter can take first. I oppose that with the same contempt that Octavio Dotel shows for the intentional walk in general. It takes the (potential) fun out of the process. After all, some pitchers just are not ready to do it. Royals rookie pitcher Danny Duffy reported that prior to a major-league game this September during which he airmailed the last pitch of an intentional walk, he had never intentionally walked a player before at any level. I have heard that about other young pitchers. That can be fun (unless you are rooting for the team providing the entertainment).

Sometimes, the hilarity and natural consequences all come together, as in the case of the game-winning run during the June 26, 2011 Marlins versus Mariners classic.

Graphically:


This is what is at stake.