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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

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Jason Wojciechowski

My intentional walk reform, completely orthogonal to Posnanski's: make it like Little League, where the pitcher doesn't even have to throw the four pitches. The manager can just signal the guy on down to first.

Half of my frustration (and my frustration is dwarfed by Posnanski's -- I don't really care THAT much) with the intentional walk is is having to watch a pitcher come set, check the baserunner, and lob a 75 mph toss to the catcher. And then do it again. And again. And again.

Sure, once in a long long long while, someone will do something goofy and the game will end on a wild pitch or a runner still steal third or a batter will take a swing on a pitch that doesn't get far outside enough, but for the most part, intentional walks are dull and only serve to delay the good stuff. (I guess one could argue that they build tension? I'm not on that train.)

Jun 01, 2011 19:26 PM
rating: 0

Sometimes, though, you'll get great outcomes by forcing the pitcher to throw. I don't recall the precise game, but I remember seeing Miguel Cabrera hit a double off the third intentional walk.

Jun 02, 2011 09:39 AM
rating: 0

I am sorry, but I have to be "that guy", but what is the point of this article? You admit that you did not listen to Posnanski's podcast, but you can quote 3 sentences and divine for us what Posnanski does and does not realize? If we are allowed to play that game, I would argue that walks and intentional walks are not the same thing. A batter fights for a walk, works the count and fouls off hard to hit pitches. An intentional walk is the pitcher giving up before the fight. Facts 1 and 2 have nothing to do with his argument.
I am sorry to be directing this at you personally. This type of article (take a quote out of context, show why they person saying it is dumb) seems to appear a lot more frequently on this website and it frustrates me to no end.

Jun 01, 2011 20:40 PM
rating: 0

the quote is not taken out of context; Posnanski summarizes the IBB portion of the podcast, and spends his entire blog post writing about the IBB

Jun 02, 2011 08:38 AM
rating: 1

I think the team loyalty thing is a bit of a red herring, as long as the playing field is level. I've never thought, "thank god for the intentional walk so i don't have to see Player X hit a home run against my team." Fans want to win, which makes them sometimes accept the IBB but if it were structurally eliminated across baseball, there wouldn't be any widespread nostalgia for it, i don't think. the first part of the article is more on point - i don't see how you can eliminate it without influencing a lot of other things. I have listened to the podcast (forgive me Kevin Goldstein!) and Bill James' idea was to allow the batter to decline the walk, with increasing penalties to the pitcher if he was walked again. But by making the walk a potentially much stiffer penalty, this might tilt the baseball playing field back towards offense, potentially dramatically.

Jun 02, 2011 05:45 AM
rating: 0

Your team is up 1 run on the road in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series. There's a runner on 2d, 1 out, and Jose Bautista's at bat.

I'll bet you and your fellow fans would suddenly have a great deal of nostalgia for the IBB.

Jun 02, 2011 10:30 AM
rating: 0

Humorously enough, the answer to the problem of intentional walks has already been solved by COED SOFTBALL! When a male player is walked, he - and all runners already on base - get TWO bases, not one. This prevents the defensive strategy of walking the male and pitching to the (often) inferior female batter who is next. (Coed softball alternates genders in the batting order).

No automatic IBB in the situation where first base is open and runner(s) occupy second and/or third - that's a run. No automatic IBB when Pujols is hitting in front of the pitcher's spot after a double-switch - it puts a runner in scoring position.

Still, I prefer the IBB: four waste pitches each of which could be: wild, a Vladdy swing out of the zone, or a chance for the baserunner to sprint madly for the next base.

Jun 02, 2011 08:17 AM
rating: 0

I'm really just sad that JoPo is slowly following Bill Simmons into the "write less", "podcast more" model.

Jun 02, 2011 08:25 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

You must be joking. The dude publishes at least 10,000 words a week, if not more. There isn't anyone of his caliber in the industry who can keep up with his productivity. Plus he's working on a book. So cut him some slack.

Jun 02, 2011 12:33 PM

Just prohibit the catcher from standing in the catcher's box. Make it a balk.

Jun 02, 2011 08:42 AM
rating: 0

A small quibble: Rent controls do not attempt to make housing more available. They are designed to make housing artificially cheap for some people.

The result, as you note, is artificially high rent for everyone else lucky enough to find a place to live.

Jun 02, 2011 10:35 AM
rating: 0
Jason Wojciechowski

I think "more available to people" is still accurate, if we read charitably (esp. in light of the previous paragraph) and understand Colin to mean "more available to [the] people [who could not afford market rates]" as opposed to "more available to people [in general]".

But now I'm just quibbling about your quibble, I guess.

Jun 03, 2011 17:11 PM
rating: 0

If baseball made a rule prohibiting the intentional walk, I bet you would just end up seeing a bunch of "unintentional" walks to great hitters with first base open. It wouldn't really change much to get rid of it.

Jun 03, 2011 09:32 AM
rating: 0

The implication is that you'd have to apply the rule to all 4-pitch walks (and likely no-strike hit batters).

Jun 03, 2011 11:51 AM
rating: 0

Yes, and might that mean fewer green lights for good hitters on 3-0 counts, making the game less interesting, prolonging games with lots of 'automatic' takes on 3-0 counts, etc.?

Jun 03, 2011 19:29 PM
rating: 0
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2011-06-09 - BP Unfiltered: Human Sacrifice
2011-06-08 - Between The Numbers: Another look at ZiPS
2011-06-06 - BP Unfiltered: In-season PECOTA updates
2011-06-01 - BP Unfiltered: Walk of Life
2011-05-29 - Between The Numbers: The Emptiest Batting Av...
2011-05-28 - BP Unfiltered: Sacrifice Walks
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2011-06-03 - BP Unfiltered: The Paper Trail 6/3
2011-06-02 - Premium Article BP Unfiltered: The Paper Trail 6/2
2011-06-01 - BP Unfiltered: The Paper Trail 6/1
2011-06-01 - BP Unfiltered: Walk of Life
2011-05-31 - BP Unfiltered: The Paper Trail 5/31
2011-05-30 - BP Unfiltered: The Paper Trail 5/30
2011-05-29 - BP Unfiltered: The Paper Trail 5/29