In Defense of the Old-Fashioned Intentional Walk

Commissioner Rob Manfred has clearly made a priority of improving baseball’s “pace of play.” The theory goes that, since today’s youngsters supposedly have shorter attention spans than ever and aren’t all that inclined to watch players stand around between bursts of actions, the game should move at a brisker pace and the bursts of action should feature less time between them. This theory has already led to some practice, including the introduction of a between-innings clock and a rule requiring hitters to keep their feet in the batter’s box. Baseball is an old game with an old audience, and Manfred would like to see a younger audience consuming his product.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark reports that the league has submitted two new proposals to the league: one which would raise the bottom of the strike zone and another that would eliminate the need to throw four lob pitches to intentionally walk a batter. The strike-zone proposal aims to create more balls in play, while the intentional-walk proposal would simply speed up the game. These things make sense in a vacuum. Of course, baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, but in real time and with human beings, and that makes the game a very interesting collection of circumstance, accidents, and general madness.

We won’t touch on the strike-zone proposal now, although it certainly merits discussion. Stark says in his report that it’s less likely to get a green light for the coming season than the intentional-walk proposal. So, about the intentional walk, then.

It’s a trivial part of the game, really. Barry Bonds has come to the plate, and you, in your wisdom, do not wish to pitch to Barry Bonds with a man on and two outs. You present Bonds with first base instead of a potential home-run ball, and then you work to get the next batter out. All you have to do is play catch with your catcher for a few moments. If Baseball with a capital B wants to speed up the game, why not eliminate the game of catch? It’s dead weight.

Because, once again, baseball is played by human beings. The man on the mound isn’t a robot, but a pitcher. Intentional walks almost always go off without a hitch. When they don’t, it’s impactful to the game.

More importantly, botched intentional walks almost always make for good entertainment. Here’s Miguel Cabrera doing something hilarious.

And, more recently, here’s Gary Sanchez nearly going deep during an attempted intentional walk.

These are once-in-a-blue-moon events, of course. You’re not going to see contact during an intentional walk very often. But there are occasionally wild pitches during intentional walks. These are routine plays, yes, but the pitcher still has to make the routine play. The slim chance of error is there, and those mistakes can easily lead to runs. Eliminating those four tosses takes away some of the natural fun of the game, all in the name of shaving off a relative fraction of the time of play.

Is making the game a minute shorter really worth eliminating even the faintest chance of pure chaos? Are intentional walks even that big an issue? There were 1410 intentional walks in 2006, and just 932 in 2016. It’s a tactic that’s becoming rarer as teams put more of a premium on limiting baserunners at all costs, and as bullpens grow larger and more specialized. Manfred may be tilting at a shrinking windmill here.

This would be a silly rule with almost no effect but taking away one of the smallest and rarest pleasures of the game. If the league is concerned with pace of play, why not just institute the pitch clock? It’s already been in effect in the minors for a while now, and it’s almost unnoticeable. If it takes away the maddening doldrums of watching someone like Pedro Baez pitch, then it isn’t hard to imagine that the fans would be all for it.

Intentional walks aren’t slowing the game down so much that something needs to be done about them. Overly long replay reviews are slowing baseball down. Endless pitching changes and clown cars full of relievers that only grow larger when the games are most important are slowing baseball down. Pitchers staring in for signs for what feels like years at a time are slowing baseball down. Improving the pace of play of the game isn’t a cause without merit. Overreaching and overreacting by cracking down on intentional walks of all things is perhaps a bit overzealous, and removes one more chance for unexpected fun.

No, Miggy isn’t going to get a hit every time he’s intentionally walked, and no, the pitcher isn’t always going to lob one to the backstop. But why would we want to remove that slim chance?

We hoped you liked reading In Defense of the Old-Fashioned Intentional Walk by Nicolas Stellini!

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Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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elkabong
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Member
elkabong

If the league is concerned with pace of play, why not just institute the pitch clock?

Yup. Quick check of the leaderboards from the last year yields this:

Eliminating 4 pitches for an intentional walk saves 35.42 seconds per game. To get this, I took the pace of each pitcher, multiplied by the number of IBB for that pitcher, multiplied by 4, and divided by number of games. This probably overstates the savings, as slow pitchers probably don’t take as long between pitches on an IBB.

Instituting a 20 second pitch clock would save 796.53 seconds per game. That’s over 13 minutes! To get this, took pace of each pitcher, subtracted 20 seconds (made it zero for those already under 20), multiplied by batters faced, multiplied by 3.87 (league average pitches/PA), added them up, and divided by number of games. This is a rough estimate, but it’s over 22 times more than eliminating IBB.

Pedro Baez is slow, but the biggest time savings for any pitcher would be from David Price. Instituting a 20 second pitch clock on him alone would save roughly 5 hours and 43 minutes over the course of the season.

DSCeee
Member
DSCeee

Agreed. Pitchers would prefer to pitch fast, just get in a rhythm and go, hitters want to go slow and mess with that.

scotman144
Member
scotman144

OMFG and this sox fan thought Buchholz was bad about pace…..

elkabong
Member
Member
elkabong

To be fair to Price, he did face the most batters of anyone last year. Buchholz was only 0.4 sec faster, but faced nearly 400 fewer batters. Buchholz was 12th in potential time saved at 3 hours, 17 minutes.

a different brad
Member
a different brad

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if even only the 4th ball is intentional it’s scored as an IBB, yes? So not all of these are even going to be actually shortened at all.

Ian R.
Member

And even that estimate may somewhat understate the impact of the 20-second pitch clock, because some of the pitchers with an average pace under 20 seconds probably still go over 20 seconds on occasion. Zeroing them out eliminates whatever seconds are saved on those occasions. (Though I suppose it’s also possible that some of the slow guys occasionally speed it up, which would offset some of that effect.)

Moreover, if the pitch clock is set at 20 seconds, I imagine most pitchers would want to get in the habit of an 18-second pace or thereabouts in order to give themselves some wiggle room instead of taking the full 20 seconds every time. So, again, there’s the possibility of still greater time savings.