Someone recently wrote a dumb article arguing that the intentional walks should be discouraged by advancing base runners even when there are bases open, essentially turning the intentional walk into a single. The impetus for this article was the May 8 game in which the Cubs walked Bryce Harper six times and hit him with a pitch in seven plate appearances. The Cubs won the game in 13 innings 4-3.
The basic argument of the article was that fans don’t want to see the game’s best hitters pitched around. That makes a certain amount of sense. However, there are a couple of obvious flaws with the argument.
First, it’s a little late in the day for this change. Pitchers and teams have been pitching around the game’s best hitters at least since the days of Babe Ruth and the rise of home runs in 1920, and probably since the heavy hitting days of the 1890’s.
Second, baseball is supposed to be a team game. An intentional walk is almost always a failed strategy if the next batter reaches base safely. If a team has one great hitter in the heart of its line-up, but no one else that can hit, why shouldn’t the opposing team be able to take advantage of that fact by pitching around the team’s only strong hitter?
That’s exactly what the Cubs did in all four games of that series against the Nationals, which the Cubs swept. The Cubs won all four games by no more than three runs, and Harper scored only three runs in spite of reaching base 14 times without hitting safely, so obviously the strategy worked. Why shouldn’t the onus be on the Nats to find somebody who can hit behind Harper to make other teams pay for employing this tactic?
Finally, and most importantly, I don’t see any way to for the plate umpire to determine whether or not a pitcher is intentionally trying to walk a batter if the intentional walk is eliminated and pitchers simply elect to throw four pitches out of the strike zone without the catcher stepping out from behind the plate. Presumably, in the early days of baseball, pitchers simply threw four pitches out of the strike zone when they didn’t want a certain hitter to have an opportunity to hit, and at some point, teams did away with the pretense of trying to look like the pitcher was pitching to the hitter in good faith but not throwing strikes.
Pitchers pitch to the game’s best hitters very carefully anyway. Making the plate umpire decide whether or not a pitcher is missing the strike zone intentionally would lead to a lot of arbitrary decisions or would simply be ignored.
An analogous comparison is allowing umpires to deny the batter a base after the batter is hit by a pitch if the umpire thinks the batter didn’t try to get out of the way. This rule is almost always ignored, even for batters who every one knows don’t try to get out of the way (Don Baylor) or who appear to be moving out of the way but are actually moving into the pitch (Ron Hunt). As a result, the rare instances when the rule is enforced, for example during Don Drysdale‘s scoreless innings pitched streak when his plunking of Dick Dietz wasn’t called, allowing the streak to continue, always seem arbitrary and capricious.
MLB has only been keeping track of intentional walks since 1955. What is interesting about the stats is except for when Barry Bonds was juicing hard between 2001 and 2004 and hitting like Babe Ruth‘s big brother, the record for intentional walks for a season is Willie McCovey‘s 45 in 1969.
Since the end of the Steroids Era, it’s not at all clear that intentional walks are much more common now than they were before the Steroids Era. It’s also worth noting that the intentional walk appears to be much more of a National League strategy, perhaps because of the DH in the AL, with the top 17 single season intentional walks totals recorded in the Senior Circuit. Further, walking Barry Bonds as much as teams did between 2001 and 2004 does not appear to have been particularly effective, as the Giants won more than 100 games more than they lost during those four seasons.
Good time for a trivia question — who holds the American League single season record for intentional walks? Answer below.
Anyway, what got me thinking about this issue again is that MLB is reportedly discussing a rule to make the intentional walk automatic, meaning that the defensive team could simply advise the umpire of its intent to issue an intentional walk without the need for four wide pitches. Presumably, the purpose of the new rule, if formally approved, is to speed up the game.
MLB is also discussing reducing the strike zone from the bottom of the knees to the top of the knees. If enacted and enforced by the umpires, this is anticipated to boost offense. More offense means more intentional walks, as the cost of the intentional walk (a free base) is less when the league’s best hitters become more productive offensively.