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June 1, 2011

BP Unfiltered

Walk of Life

by Colin Wyers

As any parent will tell you, it's damned hard to get another human being to do exactly what you want them to. You can threaten to punish them if they misbehave, or reward them if they do as they're told. But sometimes they will inevitably decide that the consequences you are proposing are less interesting to them than whatever it is they want to be doing otherwise, and they will defy you.

On a larger scale, we call rewards and punishments "incentives" - everyone from parents to teachers to spouses to governments use them to try and alter the behavior of others. What's important to note is that people will tend to react to incentives in the way that best serves their interests, which is not always the way the people doing the incentivizing envisioned on intended. Take, for instance, the concept of rent control - putting a ceiling on how much money a landlord can charge a tenant. The point of rent control is to make housing more affordable; the effect of rent control is to make housing more scarce. That's because high rents are an incentive to build more housing in order to create greater income. By reducing the amount of profit in renting housing to people, you limit the number of people willing to rent housing to others.

This is what economists call perverse incentives - in this case, by attempting to make housing more available to people, rent controls make housing less available. The incentives, in this case, run contrary to the intention of the one making the rules.

I got to thinking about this because of Joe Posnanski's crusade against intentional walks. Posnanski hates the intentional walk, saying "is no killjoy in football, basketball, hockey or soccer quite like" it. It robs the moment of its drama, allowing a team to pitch around the other side's better hitters in favor of pitching to the weaker ones. On his podcast (which, admittedly, I have not yet listened to) he and Bill James bat around ideas on how to discourage pitchers from intentionally walking batters. There's a problem with this line of thinking, though - Posnanski comes very, very close to seeing it, but instead walks (heh, heh) right on by, when he says:

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.

(Emphasis mine.)

What Posnanski doesn't notice, however, is that hitters - as you would expect them to do - were letting pitchers throw them as many balls as it took to take a walk. Because by creating incentives for pitchers, they were creating incentives for hitters as well. We can boil this down to two very simple facts:

  1. You cannot decrease the number of walks pitchers intend to issue without making the walk more valuable;
  2. You cannot make the walk more valuable without giving the hitter more reasons to try and take a walk.

In attempting to change the game of baseball to reduce the number of intentional walks, you are going to end up changing the game of baseball - and not all of the changes will be ones you intend, or even ones you forsee. There is absolutely no guarantee that in doing so you will end up changing the game for the better. So before deciding to change the game of baseball, you have to be absolutely certain that the intentional walk is a problem. And I'm not sure that it is, at least not to the extent that Posnanski says it is. This is what he says:

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.

This is, of course, the sort of thing that can pretty much come only come from a sportswritier - Posnanski is far more gifted with words than your typical sportswriter, of course, but he is one and they are the sorts of people who can say things like that. For most of us, we decide which team to support (mostly during childhood) and are chained to them for the rest of our lives; even if we can't abide by "'til death do us part" in our wedding vows, we'll sure do it for our baseball teams. I mean, look, I'm a Cubs fan. Over the years that franchise has done things far frustrating than intentionally walking a batter. But I - and quite a few others, I gather - are totally incapable of rooting against them, though, or rooting for any other team. It's only sportswriters, mercenaries willing to change home teams for their jobs, who can conceive of doing otherwise.

Or to put it another way - Posnanski talks about Jose Bautista getting an intentional walk in a key spot. And yeah, that boy can play. Ask any baseball fan if they'd like to see him hit a home run, in the abstract, and they'll say sure.

Now ask them if they want to see Bautista hit a home run against their team.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

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