Friday, July 17, 2009

The Intentional Walk Has to Stay

There's a sentiment going around the baseball blogosphere that, every time I encounter it, I can't quite seem to understand: intentional walks are anathema to the game and should be removed from the game. Oh, I read and follow and understand the arguments that are provided, but I just can't shake the feeling that what I'm reading are justifications for getting rid of something that the blogger doesn't like on a personal level instead of legitimate reasons for outlawing a true flaw of the game of baseball. The fact that these arguments are raised by some of the writers that I admire the most - Joe Posnanski and Tom Tango to name two - just serves to confuse me even more. The intentional walk of Victor Martinez in this week's All Star Game seems to have re-sparked the fire, at least a little.

The Argument (and why it's wrong)

The gist of the argument is that a) it gives too much power to the defensive team by allowing them to completely remove the offense's only weapon (their bats) and b) it's unsporting and goes against the very nature of the batter-pitcher matchup, which is the heart of the sport. Here's one very clear denouncing of the IBB from Pos (also echoed by Tango):
Now, I need to say up front that I hate the intentional walk. Hate it. Loathe it. Despise it. I appreciate that there are times for it, and I expect that it ”works“ more often than it fails because pitchers get outs more often than they allow hits and walks. Runners on second and third, one out, tie score, ninth inning, I get the intentional walk there. When managers were walking Barry Bonds every day, it was infuriating to watch, sickening to watch, pathetic to watch, but I at least understood — Bonds had, for any number of reasons, crossed some line where he was officially too good. And so on.

Still. I abhor the strategy in almost every instance except the most obvious ones. It goes counter to every single thing I believe about baseball. The game is about challenging people. The game is about pitcher vs. hitter. The game is also about entertaining millions of fans — let’s not get away from that.
So we get it. The intentional walk is no good for the game of baseball because it's an unsportsmanlike way of avoiding the challenges that are inherent to the game. Thus, Pos and Tango would argue, it should be done away with completely and anything resembling an intentional pass must be penalized in some way.

But I just don't see where that leap in logic came from. Walks are a powerful weapon. It's been well-established in the sabermetric community, and accepted throughout much of baseball in general these days, that walks, while not as powerful or impactful as a line drive basehit to the outfield, are still incredibly useful and should be viewed as a positive result of any at-bat. So how can anyone feel that the pitching team is taking away the offense's weapons when they freely and intentionally put the batter on base? A walk is a penalty to the pitching team and a boon to the offense. Why then are we complaining about it?

Maybe it's because the IBB forces the offense into only one move and removes their option of doing anything further. If that is the case, then it should be noted that the complaints have shifted from the defensive to the offensive perspective. Still, though, the offense has every chance to take advantage of the new situation in the ensuing at-bats. It's no different than if the batter had walked in an unintentional way except that it was a conscious decision by the defense to face this new batter in this newly disadvantageous situation. I don't see how it's either unsportsmanlike or against the nature of the game to give the defense the ability to make that choice.

It is boring, though, and it does remove some of the excitement of the moment. This is neither an offensive nor defensive argument, though - it's a fan's argument. Which gets me to what I said earlier: I can't shake the feeling that these reasoned, impassioned pleas for the abolishment of the intentional walk aren't anything more than mere "I don't like it, so get rid of it" arguments. When the main pieces of your argument are "this is how I feel" and "this is boring to the fans", I think you're treading on thin ice. Rule changes should be made only to strengthen the play on the field, but only if they do not conflict with the nature of the sport and do not add undue complications to the basic gameplay. To outright disallow a legal play, the evidence of its negative impact on the game must be indisputable. I don't think that's true for the intentional walk.

A Suggested "Solution"

That's not to say rule changes are impossible, or that I don't have at least a little suggestion to improve the situation. Earlier this week, Tango wrote another piece on his distaste for the intentional walk. In the comments (which are a very good read, by the way), he asks for any possible alternatives to the current setup, no matter your position on the issue:
Once again, I will ask the bright folks here to act like a paid consultant who has been charged to finding a better way out of problem that your customer has noted: he does not want to see Albert Pujols being walked on 4 pitches any more than other top hitters. Your personal feeling on this issue as a consultant on this issue is irrelevant.

PLEASE, do not take the politicians way out and say that the current structure is the best. You are a paid consultant. Your job is to find a solution.
I gave a suggestion later on in the comments:
One thing to note, even though I’m not particularly in favor of any rule changes regarding the intentional walk: there is some precedent for a slight rule change that both altered the standard batter-pitcher matchup and was done to increase its sportsmanship - the two-strike foul bunt.

It’s a special rule that everyone knows comes into play only when the batter has two strikes on him, but no one seems to have a problem with that. And the rule was obviously put in place to prevent perpetual at-bats. What it has going for it (and this is the reason I don’t think anybody has much issue with it) is that it doesn’t introduce any kind of complications to the matchup and it resolves itself immediately. You have two strikes and you bunt the ball foul, you’re out. Pure and simple. (Of course, if the rule was suggested today, then people would complain about the fine points and how umpires would have trouble distinguishing some bunts from swings, etc...)

If I were in favor of any kind of rule change, it would have to affect only the 3-0 count and be resolved immediately. Here’s my suggestion (and I know that other people have mentioned it, but I think I provide some good justifications for it here):

Classify any “ball” thrown on a 3-0 count as a “pitched-ball balk” (or something along those lines). The runner would get his base on balls, ending up at first, but all other runners would advance a base as well. Each runner would only be given one base. The ball would still be live. If the bases were loaded, the runners would still only advance one base unless they wanted to test the defense. A wild pitch would still give the batter-runner and the base-runner their one base, but they would be free to try for another one.

I think this rule would work really well because it does not deviate from any established rules whatsoever. A bases empty walk wouldn’t incur any further penalty to the pitching team, but neither does a bases empty balk. The situation is immediately resolved, so there’s no “bleeding” into extra or ensuing at-bats. And, most importantly, the pitcher is already used to being penalized for miscues on the mound by way of balk, and this would not do anything different.

The only thing I’d like to add to that rule would be to give the home plate umpire discretion in deciding whether the pitcher tried to throw a strike and failed or if he was just throwing ball-4 away. This would be similar to the umpire deciding whether a batter hit by a pitch attempted to get out of the way of the pitch or not. This isn’t a discretion given to umpires about balks, though, so it might not be a good idea unless the general balk rule is re-examined.
I'm not convinced that this is a better solution than just leaving the rules as they are but, if the rule had to be changed, I think this is the best possible solution. The fact that it introduces no new concepts to the sport and is not executed any differently from other established rules in the sport is a big plus in my book. As it stands, though, I don't see any need to change this rule just because we don't like to watch the best players in the game get walked. It may be annoying, but it does not go against the nature of the sport in any way. It's up to each team to use their roster in such a way that they can take advantage of these free passes. If you want to get upset at anybody, it should be the manager (or general manager). The intentional walk is not to blame.


henry said...

Nice summary. I don't get the outrage, either -- I mean, within the rules as they are, the IBB is a defensive decision like any other. Like, is shifting on Papi weak? It's a non-standard way to treat one player different from others because of the particular threat they pose -- and as a Boston fan, i would hate it the way SL fans hate seeing Pujols walked.

As to 'challenging' people, I though the idea was to win. Like, where's the line between the IBB being weak and every pitcher who nibbles being weak? Was Maddux weak for painting the corners?

The walk-balk is an interesting idea. I guess the problem I have with the whole thing is that there are a lot more 4-0 walks due to pitchers losing the zone than due to IBB -- so the rule would be applied in a ton of cases where it's not really warranted. The false-positive rate would be huge, is what I'm saying.

I don't know. Seems sort of overblown to me.

Paul said...

Let's say it's the bottom of the 9th in a tie game, one out, your leadoff hitter up and he triples. Your #2 hitter strikes out. Now with 2 out and your number 3 and 4 hitters coming up, what is the visiting team going to do? They're going to intentionally walk the #3 hitter for sure, possibly the #4 hitter, too, to set up the force at any bag. That's boring and takes a lot of the fun out of watching your best hitters bat in the most crucial situation.

However, I agree that in no way should the intentional walk be taken out of the game. So there you go.

Paul said...

I commented before I read your "pitched-ball balk" solution. Nice - I like it, and though I wouldn't vote for it against the current rules, I do think it's the best alternative I've seen suggested.

lar said...

Henry: Those are all great points. I completely agree, even about the pitched-ball balk. I think the PBB is a good idea if you must make a change, but I'm happy with the rule as it is.

And, Paul, you totally get at the heart of the intentional. It sucks from the fans' perspective, but it's a perfectly valid strategy. You've just got to live with it.