Thursday, July 23, 2009

More on the Intentional Walk

It seems like the post I wrote last week about the intentional walk got a few people talking. Over at Baseball Think Factory, a very lively discussion broke out about the merits of the intentional walk and what, if any, other options could be deployed. The debate mostly split into two camps: those who saw no compelling reason to alter the rules and those who felt that the excitement that the intentional walk robbed from the game was worth retaining. The suggested rule change that seemed to have the most legs was the "double intentional walk" that Bill James introduced a while ago (basically, after a four-pitch walk, the batter has the option to decline the free base and reset his at-bat; if a second four-pitch walk was thrown, the batter would get two free bases).

Rob Neyer also commented on the post. In one of his own postings yesterday, Rob aired his own opinion. Let's just say, he didn't particularly agree with me:
Today we have a lot of intentional walks, which seem to be within "the nature of the sport." But it was not always so. When the game's rules were first codified in the 19th century, the pitcher's job was essentially to serve the ball to the batter, and the batter's job was to put the ball in play and then run like hell until somebody put him out. Later, when the pitchers were actually trying to get batters out, for a while it took a lot of balls to walk a batter. Eight or nine of them. Why? Because nobody believed that walks should be an integral part of the nature of the game.
Well, I must beg to differ. It seems to me that if you've got something that clearly contradicts the real nature of the game -- pitchers throwing baseballs and hitters trying to hit them -- and the fans actively despise it, then you should seriously consider doing something about it.
There's nothing wrong with these opinions. They are opinions, after all. But, every time I read them, I feel like I missed something. Of course, I don't fancy myself important enough to have any bearing on a major discussion, but I still feel like I have to comment.

First off, I think I need to say that I am not a fan of the intentional walk. I find it frustrating and boring when a team walks a batter like Albert Pujols, especially in lesser-leverage situations. I boo when an opposing team does it to one of my own guys like Prince Fielder. It's just not fun to watch. But, like I said in the original piece, I don't think that's enough.

The original pieces that I read, and that inspired me to comment on the topic to begin with, seemed to dance around this point. They would admit to disliking the intentional walk at the start of their argument but would then try to justify their stance with other reasons, like gameplay issues. Basically, they tried to house their true objections - their objections as a fan - with offensive and defensive excuses. It seemed disingenuous to me, and that's why I had to say something.

At least now the debate is a little more clear: are the drawbacks of the intentional walk - the way it can kill the excitement of a game by completely removing the bat from some of the best sluggers in baseball - enough to justify a new rule? (Though Tango would probably phrase that a little differently: is there a way to handle intentional walks that improves the game?)

After all, changes have been made to the game of baseball for decades. Rob points out the advent of the infield fly rule and the evolution of the base on balls. In the BBTF thread, Tango mentions the changes in strike-zone enforcement and the make-up of the ball and mitt. If these rules and essential pieces of equipment can evolve and change, then why can't the intentional walk rule?

It's a good point, and one that I'm happy to concede. But it's still not enough to convince me. As Rob points out, most of these changes (the rules changes, at least) were made long ago, when the game was still growing and learning. Of course changes would be made then: it's impossible to anticipate every weakness a game might have, so changing the rules to accomodate them as they were discovered is only sensible. By now, 140 years after the game was invented, these weaknesses have been ironed out. The strike zone and pitching-count rules have had decades to prove their worth (though the strike zone's exact boundaries have proven to be a little too susceptible to the whims of the umpires and the commissioner's office), as have all the other esoteric rules of the game. They are where they should be.

So, should a recent uptick in intentional walks be enough to make us rethink the rule? Is this a serious and irrevocable exploitation of a flawed rule, or just evidence of managers choosing to make strategic use of a risky tool at their disposal? Does our natural dislike for the move matter? That's a decision that everyone needs to make individually. The game is not perfect, but is this one of the problems that need addressing? I don't think it is, but that's obviously not a universal opinion. If someone can give me a better reason than "it's boring" and give me a better suggestion for how to handle it (I do kind of like the "pitched-ball balk" rule I suggested last week), I might reconsider. So far, though, that hasn't happened, no matter how much I respect Rob or Tango.

1 comment:

The Terrific Girlfriend said...

Ultimately, though I hate it at times, I think the intentional walk is more democratic solution. Having a 5th chance, as some propose, would prolong the game and wear out the pitcher. Even the 'balk' rule, while a good idea, still creates a lot of problems.

Baseball, to me, is like a chess game..and an intentional walk is just another strategic move..rather than being 'chicken'..