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.

Comments (21)

  1. “It’s unlike anything in any other sport because it takes zero skill to accomplish”

    Ummm how about a QB taking a knee?

  2. Parkes, you are maximum douche.

    But you are a good writer and keep me entertained. Thanks for that.

  3. So…looking at those intentional walk totals for Barry Bonds in 2004 with 120 free passes, do you honestly think that it was only because of the juice…or that he was one of the greatest players of all time, and just happened to boost it a little bit with Steroids?

    First ballot HOF in my opinion, with or without the juice.

    • I will go you one further. I believe him to be the best baseball player we will ever see. I will be shocked if another player ends up being as good as him in our lifetime.

      • So nice to see someone who shares my views. Love the writing, can’t believe how much great content you have on your site as well as DJF.

        Keep up the great work, and let’s get the Jays back to being a contender!

  4. I would like the IBB a lot better if Adam Lind could hit better.

  5. If you modify the IBB rule, you’d better change the HBP rule too. If you make a 4 pitch walk a worse penalty than a hit batter, a lot of hitters are going to take one on the ass.

  6. There are plenty of 4-0 walks that make no sense, that were completely unintentional.

    The only rule I can see is that an intentional pass gets you to 2B

    It will atleast make pitchers fake the 4 balls, which could lead to them making a mistake or a wild pitch

    • What if it lead to teams wasting a roster spot on an unintentional-intentional walk specialist? How much would a top unintentional-intentional walk specialist get on the open market? 3 years and $40 mill?

  7. How about we just leave it alone and appreciate that baseball has a lot of strategy that goes into it. Please don’t change the rules on walks.

    If the tables were turned and it was the Blue Jays in the WS and they pitched to Pujols and he sent the ball into the next season then everybody would be saying “why didn’t they walk him?” It is a smart strategic move and should not be punished.

    Yeah it sucks to not see Pujols smash balls out of the park but the objective of the game is still to win. If you want to watch Pujols hit then get to the park early and watch BP or vote him onto the All Star game where he can do the home run derby.

    • After watching Bautista get pitched around all season I kind of have to agree with the stupidity of the IBB. Or even the “unintentional” intentional walk. Really takes the fun out of the game. I watch baseball with the hopes that the best players in the game will be in a position to make an impact, not get pitched around so lesser guys can hit.

      Think of it this way – when a guy is on first I almost don’t want him to advance to second if Bautista is up, because if they do they will walk him. And yet strategically, it makes more sense that if a runner can go to second, he should. Obviously Bautista hits enough HR’s that a guy can score from first, but if you want to talk about strategy, that’s one spot where the threat of an IBB actually forces you to do something that will make you less likely to score.

      And it’s not even a matter of protection, as Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman are outstanding hitters and Pujols still gets intentionally walked with them behind him.

      • Well I guess it comes down to what you want to see on the field. If you just want to see guys mash then yeah make them pitch to him. If you want to see your team win especially in a close game where one bad pitch could have a huge impact on your chance at the playoffs or worse yet in the playoffs then you leave the game well enough alone.

        I agree with your second paragraph. Sometimes the IBB can have a negative effect on the team using it but that team should still have the option to do so.

        I know that you have to modify the game some as it evolves over time but I think most people are way to quick to want to change it. Those modifications can bring changes that some fans would rather see done away with such as inter-league or the DH.

        Also Matt Holiday and Lance Berkman don’t hit three home runs in a game in the WS. I know Beltre did it in the ALDS but that is different than the WS. There is a reason why Mr. October is such a legend now. It is rare to do what Albert did and if I were Ron Washington I would play it smart and not pitch to him either especially when you know that Matt Holiday has been having an off WS and probably wont all of a sudden find his swing. Holiday is a good player and when healthy is a really good player but unhealthy I rather walk Albert and go after Holiday and hope for a DP or a strike/ground/pop out.

  8. Baseball is still a team sport and the IBB helps keep one player from dominating a game.

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