On The Intentional Walk

There were seven intentional walks issued in last night’s World Series Game Five, three of which were dished out to Albert Pujols alone. That’s a lot. In fact, it’s more intentional walking than any other World Series game ever.

There are those among us who believe that the intentional base on balls is the scourge of the game of baseball. It’s difficult to argue with this following’s most basic points:

  • It’s anticlimactic;
  • It’s a non-action, with no actual baseball playing necessary;
  • It’s the removal of something that should be an exciting moment for fans;
  • It’s a flaw in the rules of the game;
  • It’s a blatant lack of confidence in the ability of your team;
  • It’s unlike anything in any other sport because it takes zero skill to accomplish; and
  • It’s ultimately stealing from the spectacle of watching baseball.

While all of these are true, I can’t escape the feeling that the intentional walk is a necessary evil. An attempt to ban it, or the implementation of gimmicky rules to force pitchers to avoid it, seems far more likely to call the legitimacy of the game into question than to simply and perhaps begrudgingly allow it. After all, the intentional walk’s misuse is so rampant that it’s far more likely to harm the team implementing it than the one being given a free pass.

Tom Tango’s The Book used run expectancy in base out states to find that generally speaking, without looking at the specifics of the score, the only time an intentional base on balls clearly benefits the pitching team is in the following scenario: two out, base runners on second and third and a hitter at the plate with a projected true talent weighted on base average 14% better than the batter behind him in the lineup. Later in the chapter, The Book goes into specifics, which was recently summarized and applied to the Cardinals lineup by Matt Klaasen for FanGraphs.

Nonetheless, the most adamant of the intentional walk haters have come up with a few potential rule changes that are every bit as creative as they are unlikely to ever be implemented. Rob Neyer, writing for SB Nation, brings up an idea first formulated in 1937, and written about in Peter Morris’ A Game of Inches:

Sid Keener of the St. Louis Star-Times made an imaginative proposal. He suggested giving a batter who walked on four pitches the option of declining the free pass. If a second four-pitch walk resulted, the batter could choose between a walk to second or again declining the walk. If he declined again and another four-pitch walk ensued, the batter would walk all the way to third base.

Another idea, from Tom Tango, would see a four pitch walk punished with a free trip to second base for the batter.

Any 4-0 walk, intentional or not, results in a two-base penalty. If you have a runner on 2B, the 4-0 walk gets you runners on 1B and 3B. If you have a runner on 3B, then it’s guys on 2B and 3B. And, with runners on 2B and 3B, the batter goes to 1B, the runner on 2B stays put, and the runner on 3B scores. Under this scenario, how often would a pitcher not give the batter at least one strike?

Perhaps the most inventive, and realistic, comes from a reader of Tango’s The Book blog, who suggests putting limits on the catcher’s movement.

What about just making pitchouts more difficult? Perhaps by ruling that the catcher must be crouched in the catcher’s box when the pitch is released? Penalty could be a balk. With no runners on, the penalty could be the 2-base walk. Or, potentially, one warning with a second leading to the catcher being ejected. True, the pitcher could just throw high or outside 4 times in a row, but there is a greater risk of missing the spot, either via a passed ball/wild pitch or a pitch near enough to the strike zone.

While we’re on the subject, and because the numbers are so incredibly astounding, allow me to close with the five highest individual intentional walk seasons in the history of baseball:

  1. Barry Bonds (2004): 120.
  2. Barry Bonds (2002): 68.
  3. Barry Bonds (2003): 61.
  4. Willie McCovey (1969): 45.
  5. Albert Pujols (2009): 43.