Would MLB Be Better off Without the Intentional Walk?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 7, 2013

Pressure situation. Ducks on the pond. Quality hitter striding to the plate. Crowd buzzing.

And then...four wide ones. Boos. Quality hitter jogs down to first base. More boos. Looks on the faces of the manager and pitcher responsible that say, "Hey, them's the breaks."

Behold the ballad of the intentional walk, the most irritating play in Major League Baseball. Were it never to be heard again, the league would be a lot better off.

It's unfortunately doubtful that the ballad of the intentional walk will ever be gone forever. It's less doubtful, however, that baseball will one day get to a point where the ballad of the intentional walk is rarely heard.

And given the current state of the league, now's the right time for baseball to start moving in that direction.

This seems like the kind of suggestion that ought to be inflammatory, but somehow I doubt anyone would actually mourn the intentional walk if it were to slowly go away. Nobody actually likes the intentional walk, right?


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Nah, I doubt it. With the intentional walk, the line of thinking is more like this: Nobody likes it, but everyone gets it.

We get it because the intentional walk does make sense as a piece of baseball strategy.

A smart manager is always playing the percentages. And while we know courtesy of the number-crunching gnomes over at Baseball Prospectus that run expectancies go up with runners on base, there is wisdom in the notion that a team is better off facing, say, a .225 hitter instead of a .325 hitter in situations when preventing a single run from crossing the plate can make a huge difference.

Plus, there is data in favor of the intentional walk. Jeff Zimmerman and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs recently did a study that looked at the performances of hitters after intentional walks and found that post-IBB hitters tend to perform worse than regular hitters do with runners on base.

That's largely because those post-IBB numbers have been compiled by inferior hitters, but, well, that's kinda the whole idea, isn't it?

So yes, the "pro" of the intentional walk is there. Hence the reason we all get it.

The reason we all dislike it is because of the "con" of the intentional walk, which is that it's a lame and downright cowardly strategy that contradicts the fundamental nature of the game.

SB Nation's Jason Brannon put it best: "Baseball is what happens between the pitcher and the batter, or the batter and the fielders. The intentional walk isn't baseball, it's the avoidance of baseball."

Brannon went on to point out that there is no equivalent to the intentional walk in other sports. It's easy for a manager to neutralize Miguel Cabrera's bat at will. There's nothing a basketball coach can do to neutralize LeBron James. There's nothing a football coach can do to neutralize Tom Brady. Ditto Alex Ovechkin, Lionel Messi and so on down the line.

One wonders if other sports point and laugh—after somehow becoming personified, of courseat baseball when intentional walks happen. Baseball fancies itself as the ultimate sport of individual matchups, but then there's that blasted rule that permits clubs to pick easier individual matchups.

Such a rule is hardly befitting of a sport that's supposed to be a constant string of mano-a-mano showdowns, and the heck of it is that it doesn't even take a modern mind to realize that. The disdain for the intentional walk dates back much further than you might think, as do efforts to get it out of the game.

If we were to hop into the TARDIS and travel back in time to the year 1913 for the sake of asking American League president Ban Johnson for his thoughts on the intentional walk, he might repeat what he told The New York Times that year.

“The intentional base on balls has come to be one of the most, if not the most, unpopular plays in baseball,” said Johnson. “The great majority of the game’s patrons seem to oppose it. So do I."

Johnson expressed this sentiment 100 years ago. Remarkable how well it holds up today, don't you think?

However, even Johnson recognized that banning the intentional walk was going to be easier said than done. You can ban intentional walks, but you can't ban unintentional-yet-actually-intentional walks.

Said Johnson,

Many complaints have come to me recently suggesting that pitchers who give intentional bases on balls be penalized, but no one has suggested a good method of detecting the intentional pass. The pitchers will simply bluff the ball over the plate and give the star batsmen their bases on balls just the same.

He was right, of course, so the league had to resort to other tactics to try to curb the use of the intentional walk.

In 1920, a rule was passed that prohibited catchers from getting out of position to receive an intentional ball, with the penalty being an automatic balk call. Later in 1955, the league again attempted to curb intentional walks by implementing a new rule that called for the catcher's box to be only 43 inches wide. Before that, catchers had a full 16 feet to work with, meaning they could be well away from the plate and still technically in position when intentional balls were thrown.

But somewhere along the line, baseball gave up trying to kill the intentional walk. It continued to be practiced in games and was allowed to become ingrained to a point where the rules don't even matter anymore. The catcher's box is still 43 inches wide and it's still illegal for catchers to leave their position before intentional balls are thrown, but the rule isn't enforced.

Nobody complains about that because, well, that's how it is.

This, however, is a good time for MLB to reboot its old determination to get the intentional walk out of the game. It's still as hated and out of place as it's ever been, but what's different now is that it's becoming more unnecessary than ever before.

It's happening under the radar, but intentional walks are at an all-time low in 2013. According to Baseball-Reference, only 0.20 intentional passes are being issued per game, the lowest figure in baseball history.

This presumably has something to do with the fact that interleague play is an everyday thing now—NL clubs playing more games in AL parks means fewer opportunities to walk the eighth-place hitter to get to the pitcher—but it's also the continuation of a budding trend. There were 0.22 intentional walks per game in 2012, the lowest mark since 1998 and one of the lowest marks in baseball history.

It makes sense that fewer intentional walks would be happening nowadays. This is, after all, a day and age where pitchers no longer need to fear superior hitters like they once did.

For starters, hitters are undoubtedly cleaner now. Baseball obviously hasn't seen the end of PED scandals, but there's no ignoring the fact that power production has fallen off dramatically over the last few years. The league is not as loaded with dangerous hitters as it was during the Steroid Era.

Then there's the fact that pitchers themselves are better. Strikeout rates are at an all-time high, and that's owed to a mix of pitching talent and careful scouting, among other things. It also helps that bullpens have some real talent in them, and that managers are becoming more and more willing to call on this talent.

Now, this is not 1968. Today's hitters are not completely overwhelmed against today's pitchers. But the advantage has certainly shifted away from hitters and toward pitchers. Given the state of the playing field, the intentional walk is almost an unfair advantage. Pitchers don't really need it anymore.

How to take the intentional walk away is still the tricky part. Simply banning the free pass is as impractical now as it was way back in 1913, when Johnson and others easily recognized that nothing could be done to stop pitchers from pitching around hitters in lieu of walking them intentionally.

But baseball was onto something when it was making efforts to curb the use of intentional walks by implementing rules and regulations. These efforts failed, but they also only scratched the surface. There's work to be done, and it doesn't have to be complicated.

Baseball can start by enforcing the rule that's already in place that prohibits catchers from leaving the box before a pitch is thrown. That will make the actual throwing of intentional balls a risky proposition, which could in turn force managers to risk intentional walks only when absolutely necessary.

But even in those situations, there needs to be some sort of incentive not to call for an intentional walk.

It was suggested in the 1940s by Chicago Cubs farm system director Jack Sheehan that an intentional walk should count for two bases (via The New York Times), but here's a better idea: In the event of an intentional walk, the next hitter automatically starts with a 2-0 count. 

Don't think that would be a big deal? Think again. Per Baseball-Reference, hitters have a .970 OPS this year after getting to a 2-0 count. Last year, they had a .983 OPS after 2-0. In 2011, they had a .989 OPS after 2-0.

A 2-0 count is generally a huge leg up for hitters.

Intentional walks already carry some risk, but the risk level would go up a huge amount if the balk rule started being enforced and the next hitter to the plate after an intentional walk started his at-bat with a 2-0 count.

A pitcher and catcher would be one ill-timed twitch away from giving the runner(s) on base an extra base, and the pitcher would have a much smaller margin for error with the next hitter even if the intentional pass was successful.

Under these circumstances, intentional walks wouldn't disappear in the blink of an eye. They would, however, be used more sparingly than they already are. And because they would be so risky for the team issuing them, fans of opposition might actually come to react more favorably to free passes. Rather than watching their team being denied a golden opportunity, what they might see is their team being given a golden opportunity.

I'd much rather have the intentional walk outlawed once and for all. But since that's asking too much, making them risky to the point of being stupid will have to do.

With fewer intentional walks, baseball would more often be the ultimate mano-a-mano sport it's supposed to be.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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