Intentional walk rules to change

MLB has made a formal proposal to the players' union to change the intentional walk rules to not require pitches to be thrown. A good article popped up recently on Fangraphs about this, which echoes a similar article I wrote last season when the idea was first floated. My previous article is reproduced below.

From May 24, 2016:

It was reported recently that, starting in the 2017 season, intentional walks will no longer require four pitches to be thrown and the batter will simply be awarded first base. It’s almost certain that this has to do with MLB’s recent gush of changes to try to improve pace of play (despite the fact that recently-instututed replay reviews take much longer than they should and are generally awful and boring).

This is, for me, irrationally upsetting. From 2000-2015, there were 19,637 intentional walks issued. With 2,430 MLB games each season, this means there are 0.51 intentional walks per game. I’m not sure where to find information on the pace of pitches during intentional walks specifically, but I pulled some data from this article from 2010 on pitch times in general. If you assume each team threw the same number of pitches during the course of the season in question, you come out to an average time of 20.8 seconds per pitch. This means that an intentional walk of four pitches takes just over a minute (62.4 seconds, on average) from the first pitch to the last pitch. With some rounding, this means the new intentional walk rule is saving, on average, 30 seconds per game, which is a pittance compared with the total time a game takes and how much time is wasted on other trivial things.

These rough calculations show that the amount of time that is wasted on intentional walk pitches on a per game basis is less than the amount of time it takes to tie your shoes in the morning. At this point, you might be inclined to ask “who cares?” A small amount of time is a small amount of time, wasted or saved. However, I’d like to point out two positives to the current system under which intentional walks are completed.

The first is that the nature of an intentional walk is that you’re putting a guy on base for free because you would rather pitch to someone else than the guy you’re walking. This almost always happens in a tense situation in the game. This doesn’t happen very often if there are no runners on base, the opposite of a tense situation. In fact, since 1913, only 152 batters have been walked intentionally with no one on base.

[Sidebar: An incredible 41 of those 152 (27%) were Barry Bonds, including 19 in 2004.]

[Sidebar 2: The most recent person to have this happen to them was Andrew McCutchen last year, in the 11th inning of the first walkoff win against the Cards prior to the All-Star break. There were two outs, and McCutchen was only walked to force Pirates’ pitcher Deolis Guerra to bat, who promptly grounded into a forceout at second base. Here’s the video of Cutch’s walkoff homer later in the game, just because it was awesome.]

Random musings aside, the intentional walk with nobody on has happened, on average, barely more than once per year in the last hundred or so years. Therefore, the situation calling for an intentional walk almost always has some tension connected to it, and tension in baseball is exciting. Why, then, would that be the one minute you eliminate from the game? It would make more sense to eliminate boring minutes, like pandering to American nationalism during the seventh inning stretch by playing God Bless America or allowing challenges prior to the late innings of baseball games.

Furthermore, the rate of intentional walks is decreasing in recent years, which is probably both a product of the end of the steroid era in baseball and changes in thinking about putting guys on base related to sabermetrics. This makes this even less important for baseball to eliminate because it's happening even less often.

The second reason that intentional walks pitches should be retained is that there’s the really rare chance that the pitcher or catcher will screw up. The inadvertent nature of such foibles provides great joy or consternation for those watching, depending on whether your team is the addressee or addressor of such unintended missives. For example, Jason Kipnis scored just last season on a wild pitch during an intentional walk. It would appear at first glance that plays of this sort should be eliminated by the time players reach puberty, but everyone makes mistakes and the very best baseballers in the entire world are no different!

With the elimination of the intentional walk pitches, you won’t ever see something like Miguel Cabrera getting a hit to drive in the go-ahead run:

And if your Google-fu is good enough to find cat memes, you can find this clip from a game between the Lancaster Barnstormers and the Somerset Patriots in the independent Atlantic League, in which the Patriots win on a walkoff wild pitch during an intentional walk attempt in the 12th inning:

While these plays are few and far between, weird things happening that aren’t supposed to happen is one of the things that makes baseball really exciting. While this rule change is admittedly not a big deal, it’s a small, small part of the homogenization of baseball that is taking away some of the quirks and excitement from the game.

Stats in this article on intentional walks all came from www.baseball-reference.com.