So, I was in Toronto last week working on this Jose Bautista story that could run next week — more on that fun experience when the story runs — and I saw something that drove me nuts. Anyone who cares would know just how much I despise the intentional walk. I despise it because it’s often (usually) illogical. I despise it because it’s always (always) anti-competitive.
Here was the situation: The Blue Jays and White Sox were tied in the eighth inning. The series was a cavalcade of small-ball gobbledygook*, infields played in, suicide squeezes blown, the sacrifice samba.
*Part of the ongoing series: “Using words that are supposed to be out of date.”
In any case, score was tied, two men were out, and Corey Patterson singled. This brought Jesse Crain in to pitch for Chicago. And this brought Jose Bautista to the plate. Now, I happen to think there are ten thousand good reasons to go to the ballpark. But there’s little question that “watching Jose Bautista hit with the game on the line,” is one of the better ones. The man is utterly locked in. His plate appearance in that moment creates all the tension and excitement and drama that baseball can offer.
Two things then happened, one after another, that destroyed the moment.
1. Corey Patterson stole second base without a throw (and to Chicago’s unrepentant glee).
2. Jose Bautista was intentionally walked.
There are vague comparisons in other sports. But I would argue this is no killjoy in football, basketball, hockey or soccer quite like THAT killjoy. It may be true, as John Updike wrote, that every true story has an anticlimax. But only baseball can suck the life out of a moment quite to that degree. I cannot stand that Patterson stole second base in that situation … and yet, how can you argue with getting a runner into scoring position. I cannot stand that the White Sox intentionally walked Bautista, but with the score tied and probably the best hitter in the game at the plate, how can you argue with facing Juan Rivera (who promptly hit a weak grounder to short to end the inning).
It’s a flaw in baseball’s rules, I believe, that allows the intentional walk. The walk — as Bill James has said many times (and says again in this week’s Poscast) — was supposed to be penance for a pitcher not throwing strikes to the hitter. In 1879, it took nine balls for a walk, and in 1880 it was reduced to eight balls. It became six balls in 1884 and five balls in 1885. As you can tell by the year-by-year rule chances, pitchers — as you would expect them to do — were using as many balls as they had to get hitters to swing at bad pitches.
In 1887, walks qualified as hits. Baseball’s rules-makers were trying to do everything they could to get pitchers to throw the damn ball over the plate. Finally in 1888, four balls equaled a walk. In those years, the feeling was that a walk was something entirely controlled by the pitcher. In the years since then, we have come to see that the batter, more than the pitcher, is responsible for walks. Bill explains this too on the Poscast.
In any case, the walk in most situations is a suitable sanction for the pitcher (or reward for the hitter). A walk, after all, is almost as good as a hit.* Most of the time, the pitcher wants to avoid the walk and this will get him to attempt to put the ball over the plate
*One more aside: While in Toronto, I saw Adam Dunn come to the plate eight times. He struck out four times. He walked four times. So I asked Bill the question: If you had a player like Adam Dunn who did that for a whole season — struck out half the time and walked half the time — would it be worth having that player in the lineup. Bill said that even if the player played defense like Adam Dunn and ran like Adam Dunn, it would STILL be worth having him in the lineup with his .500 on-base percentage.
But there are obviously situations where the walk IS NOT much of a deterrent . These are times when the pitcher or an especially weak hitter is coming up next, when the hitter at the plate is so good that a walk seems better than the alternative, when the manager just decides it’s time impose his will on the game. In these situations, the team would prefer to simply take the punishment — like a corporation accepting the fine rather than facing the situation.
As I told Bill, I ALWAYS root against a team that intentionally walks a hitter. Always. If my best friend was on the mound, and he intentionally walked Jose Bautista with the game on the line, I would root for him to give up 100 runs. If the Indians teams of my childhood would somehow be put back together, and they reached the World Series, and they were one out away from winning the World Series, and first base was open, and the man at the plate was Hank Aaron, and the man on deck was Yuni Betancourt, and my hero Duane Kuiper was standing in his position at second base with tears rolling down his eyes because he was so close to winning a championship … well, OK, let’s not get ridiculous ridiculous, then I would accept the intentional walk. But only then.
All that said, I don’t really know what to do about the intentional walk. I have suggested the idea of four straight balls being a two-base walk, but I know that can’t work. And I don’t really have any other great ideas. But on the Poscast, Bill James recommends a whole different way of eliminating the intentional walk. How is that?
I understand this, in the business, is known as a tease. Come on, I’m trying to push up those iTunes numbers. Plus if you tune in you will get to hear Bill James on blocking the plate, expanded playoffs and Charles Manson (with a little Barry Bonds thrown in).