Previously, part one of this series was published, explaining the pace-of-play committee and examining the pitch clock.
No-pitch Intentional Walks
Under this proposed rule change, pitchers would no longer need to throw four balls to a batter if they want to intentionally walk them. The manager would simply need to give the umpire the “four finger salute”, displaying four fingers in the air to the umpire, and the umpire would then signal to the batter to take their free base. This is basically Major League Baseball taking a cue from a speed-up rule used in nearly every recreational softball league in the country for several decades. It’s an attempt to speed up the pace of play and create a compromise on a necessary evil that seems universally hated.
What is the intended effect of the rule? Is there already a rule affecting this area of baseball?
This rule intends to eliminate any pitching involved with an intentional walk, removing the awkward couple minutes devoted to the charade that goes into intentionally walking a hitter and, hopefully, preventing fans’ eyes from wandering away from the game or even their legs wandering away from their seat. Ninety five years ago, the play was so unpopular with owners, who were trying to drag baseball out of the deadball era, that they nearly banned intentional walks altogether. This lead to one of the two rules that could become obsolete if the pace-of-play committee decides to remove the pitching from the intentional walk.
Currently, only two rules directly affect the intentional walk: four balls must be issued to a batter in order to give them a free base on balls and the catcher must stand in the catcher’s box until the pitcher delivers the ball (the catcher’s box rule was the compromise owners came up with in 1920). The no-pitch intentional walk option would eliminate the need for either of these rules, seemingly making them obsolete. While it may only shave a little time off of games, the goal of any pace of play rules are to limit the amount of stagnation in the game and advance to competitive play as soon as possible, as we’ve seen with the new restrictions on breaks between innings. With no-pitch intentional walks the game can carry-on without the need to pause for a play with an extremely high success rate.
Would this rule actually achieve its goal?
It’s difficult to find data on the average length of time it takes to intentionally walk a batter but we can assume that the delivery for an intentional walk occurs with some expediency. One of the most common uses of the intentional walk is to set-up a double-play with a runner on second and/or third base and first base open late in a close game. By manufacturing a double-play situation, the pitching team gives themselves the chance to end the inning with one swing of the bat. If the pitcher is issuing an intentional walk with a runner on base, we can assume they will pitch from the stretch and deliver the ball with enough velocity to prevent the base-runner from attempting a steal. Comparing the pace of an intentional walk to an unintentional walk, according to these parameters, means the pace of the intentional walk should be slightly faster than a four-pitch unintentional walk and significantly faster than a longer plate appearance resulting in a walk. Intentional walks also save time over the unintentional variant because the intentional walk eliminates the need for the catcher to send signals to the pitcher between pitches, re-run signs when the pitcher and catcher get crossed-up or for the pitcher to waste time on pick-off attempts. Requiring the pitcher not to throw any pitches, would speed the pace along even more. It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time would be saved by eliminating pitching during an intentional walk but this rule may be MLB’s attempt to squeeze every second out of an inning like a Broadway director trying to squeeze every hesitation out of a David Mamet play.
Is this rule contradictory, unnecessary, or over-reaching? Would it cause confusion?
It’s hard to see any extra confusion caused by just sending a batter to first base. As mentioned earlier, any fan who has played recreational softball should already be familiar with how this rule would work. There also doesn’t appear to be an existing rule that could be more closely enforced to replace this rule. Rule 8.04, or the “12 second rule”, is hardly enforced (and may soon be overruled by the 20-second pitch clock) but forcing pitchers to throw a pitch within 12 seconds after receiving the ball with no runners on base, would probably not affect intentional walks. As mentioned earlier, there is no need for the pitcher to spend a lot of time between pitches since he’s basically playing catch with the catcher.
As far as whether or not this change is necessary, the rate of intentional walks per game has actually declined over the last twelve years. In 2002, when each team scored an average of 4.62 runs per game, they averaged .3 intentional walks per team per game. In 2014, that number was down to just .2 per game. That means, in a full day of 15 major league games, you should expect to see just 3 intentional walks per day. Interestingly, the amount of intentional walks issued in 2014 was not just 10 percent lower than it was 12 years ago, it was also 10 percent lower than the .3 intentional walks per game issued by major league teams in 1976 when teams scored just 3.99 runs per game. There doesn’t appear to be a strong correlation between the run scoring environment in the league and the amount of intentional walks issued so it’s impossible to predict if intentional walks would rise with an increase in offense. The National League does tend to issue more intentional walks than the American League, probably thanks to the large difference between the skill of the number 8 hitter and the pitcher, but the difference isn’t very significant. Because of the low number of intentional walks per game, and the pace of the intentional walk, this doesn’t seem to be an issue that needs reform on its own. Changing the rule alongside other pace of play rules changes could help shave a few minutes off of some games, though. This may just be an “easy win” for Major League Baseball since the average fan is probably more concerned with the game they’re currently watching rather than the average intentional walk rate across all games.
What are possible unintended consequences of this rule? Could it be exploited or circumvented? Does it unfairly punish or reward certain players? What unintended consequences might occur?
A primary motivator to watch the game during an intentional walk, other than the catharsis of yelling obscenities at the manager during the play, is that you can’t predict when it will lead to a strike-out, go-ahead hit, or a even a wild pitch that helps decide the NLDS. [Unimportant personal note: during little league, I once saw Austin Kearns’ then-teammate hit a home run during an intentional walk. When you see something like this in person, you never forget it.] This rule would eliminate any chance that the hitting team might get lucky during an intentional walk and end up with runners already on-base advancing more than the pitching team intended. The rule gives a very small, almost negligible, advantage to the pitching team by eliminating any events that could occur during a traditional intentional walk. This means the only unintended consequences I can see are eliminating the chance for a very fast runner to attempt a steal during an intentional walk or the very small chance that something might otherwise happen to affect the outcome of the game.
As far as circumventing or exploiting the rule goes, this rule would allow a team to execute a piece of strategy without the pressure of actually playing baseball. You could compare this rule to the batting team electing an automatic strikeout for their pitcher in order to avoid a double-play. They could tell the pitcher to go up and swing and miss three straight pitches, but why bother if the outcome is pre-determined? As far as I can tell, this rule would actually allow a team to circumvent some traditional baseball rules.
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
This seems to be one of the most straight-forward of the proposed rule changes the pace-of-play committee was considering before making recommendations for the 2015 season. As chronicled above, this should not create major changes on run scoring and it looks like this would shave a small amount of time off of some games. The only reason to implement this rule that I can see is to implement it alongside other pace-of-play rule changes, since intentional walks do not take up a significant portion of games. Since intentional walks will still exist, I’m left to wonder if this rule change would affect the strong opinions pundits like Joe Posanski or Rob Neyer have on the subject. Sports fans are susceptible to believing what sports writers tell them and many sports writers appear to be telling baseball fans that the intentional walk is a problem in need of a solution. You probably can’t use intentional walk rates to reason with a fan who may be 2 or 3 tall-boys into the game by the time an intentional walk is deemed necessary by a manager, though. It just feels a little strange that Major League Baseball would create a new rule that removes playing baseball from the course of a baseball game, even if it’s just for a moment.
Data for this article comes from Baseball-Reference.com.Next post: Evaluating Front Offices and Farm Systems: Part 2
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