Should MLB Pitch Around the Intentional Walk?

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When Bud Selig left the commissioner’s office he left a league in good financial standing, but one that still had some issues. The strike zone and pace of play are two of the on-the-field issues that were discussed recently, and it had some at the SoSH offices asking questions. Brandon Magee tries to answer the question: Should MLB pitch around the intentional walk?

On Friday, reports started surfacing that Major League Baseball’s competition committee had approved a radical change to the intentional walk. Instead of throwing four balls outside the strike zone to issue a free pass, as has been done since time immemorial, a team would be allowed to simply place a batter on first base without a single pitch being thrown. Is this a change we have been waiting for, or a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist?

The Intentional Walk

The intentional walk – four balls thrown wide of the plate to avoid pitching to a dangerous hitter (or, in National League parks, to get to the light-hitting pitcher) is one of baseball’s most disputed stratagems. In light of the Chicago Cubs walking Bryce Harper six times on May 8th – at least three ‘officially’ intentional – and an additional seven times during the remainder of their four-game series, the question of whether there should be changes to the tactic is at the forefront of discussion.

However, the changes proposed by the competition committee do not address the major problem with the intentional walk, the anti-competitive nature of the strategy. Wouldn’t most neutral viewers rather see reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta face off in a battle with reigning the NL MVP? Instead, Arrieta continued to place the Harper on first base to face the soft underbelly of the Washington National’s offense.

Is that good baseball? In terms of the word ‘good’ being equivalent to ‘winning’, Cubs manager Joe Maddon would undoubtedly answer in the affirmative. The tactic worked: the Cubs swept the Nationals despite Harper reaching base multiple times each game. But it certainly wasn’t entertaining.

Intentional Walk Surprises

The proposed change is intended to remove the dead time it takes to successfully issue an intentional base-on-balls. However, it does so by taking a fundamental part of the game away, players needing to execute the strategy.

A game of catch between the pitcher and the catcher is 30-seconds of excruciating irrelevance… when done correctly. It’s not a given, however, as the gambit is not always executed with precision. When it isn’t, it can turn into both an exciting and pivotal moment for the game.

In the 2014 National League Division Series, Nationals reliever Aaron Barrett attempted to intentionally walk Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval in the bottom of the seventh, but instead threw the ball to the backstop, resulting in a highlight-reel attempted theft of home:

Perhaps if this was a one-off oddity, the change might make sense. However, the wild pitch on a free pass happens rather frequently. In fact, just last week in AAA, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs walked-off with a victory on an errant throw during an intentional walk attempt.

Wild pitches are not the only way a game can change on an intentional walk attempt. In 2006, Miguel Cabrera decided to swing at an intentional ball and drove in the go-ahead run in the tenth inning against the Orioles.

It wasn’t the only time a batter swung at an intentional pitch that year in MLB, as Andres Galarraga did so with positive effect as well. According to this article by Bill Deane, there have been fifteen actual attempts to swing at an intentional ball, with a dozen instances having negative outcomes for the defensive team.

Additionally, without pitches being thrown for an intentional walk, the A’s subterfuge on Johnny Bench in the 1972 World Series would not have been possible.

Nor would this strikeout chicanery by Tony Pena be possible. Or this reversal in 2014.

The Proposed Change

The proposal has been put forth as a way to end dead time in Commissioner Rob Manfred’s fight to keep a brisk level of “pace” in the game. However, how much time does it actually save?

An intentional walk may take upwards of 30 seconds to execute properly. Or, about the time one pitch gets executed in a normal circumstance with runners on base. Or, the same time it took for Bartolo Colon to get around the bases on his magnificent home run earlier this season. Or, approximately 400% less time than it takes Clay Buchholz to throw to the plate with a runner on first.

For all the hoopla over the Cubs/Harper battle, intentional walks are a relatively rare event. Last season, the average team handed out an intentional walk once every fifth game. And, as one might expect, the average American League team hands out even fewer, averaging one every seven games.

In other words, like a good infomercial, the proposal finds a non-solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist. The speed of the game is not going to be markedly changed with implementation of the rule. There are certainly many other ways to go about shaving half a minute off the game time.

Are there problems with intentional walks? Yes, and MLB should continue to seek solutions so that the anti-competitive nature of the strategy is blunted. However, a fundamental part of baseball is execution and the punishment which ensues when execution is flawed. Taking away the actual pitching portion of the intentional walk takes away the possibility of these mistakes and, as we have amply demonstrated, games have been lost by failing to execute an IBB. The competition committee may have their hearts in the right place, but this proposal can and should be voted down by MLB’s playing rules committee, the final authority on the matter.


Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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