October 25, 2011
Rethinking the Intentional Walk
I've never been one to complain about the intentional walk. Sure, it's boring to watch and usually ill-advised, but it's never really bothered me as part of the game. I've always just viewed it as a tool that managers use sometimes.
I know there are plenty of smart, baseball-loving writers out there who hate the move. Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, and Tom Tango, for example, have all written about their hate of the intentional walk many times; they are certainly not alone. It's not a popular part of baseball, but, other than it being boring, I was never convinced that it needed to be fixed (the word "unsportsmanlike" is used a lot, and, frankly, that's not convincing). In fact, a couple of years ago I wrote an article called "The Intentional Walk Has to Stay." My main argument had two points: one, we harp so much on the value of getting on-base these days that a manager's willingness to give a team that positive outcome cannot be viewed as removing the offense's weapons and, two, that we shouldn't be removing something that's been around since the game's inception without good reason (and "I don't like it!" isn't a good reason).
I still believe in those points, but I've been re-thinking my intentional walk position recently. Then Tony LaRussa brought in Lance Lynn in Game 5 of the World Series to intentionally walk a batter for the sole purpose of giving his better pitcher an extra chance to warm-up - now I can't help but rethink that position.
Intentional walks, while a clear positive for the batting team, can be too easily used for reasons that aren't on the field. An "intentional stall tactic" is only the worst of these reasons. There should be a penalty issued to the pitching team - above and beyond the extra man on base - if they choose to intentionally walk someone. In that way, any ulterior motives for issuing a free pass will be pushed aside and the game can get back to where it belongs.
How can we do this? It's not as hard as it may seem. The rule I would like to see in place is this: for any four-pitch walk, the defensive team is issued a "pitched-ball balk". All balk rules apply (baserunners advance, if present). This change would flow seamlessly into the game (we all know what a balk is) and it wouldn't even go against the spirit of existing rules (balks are issued for pitching mistakes). In fact, I don't even think this would be all that different from current rules. We all know that a player can't bunt a ball foul with two strikes without a special penalty. How would it be so different to have a penalty for a pitcher throwing a ball on 3-0?
I'm not one to react strongly to a single moment and demand change. Usually those reactions are proven to be over the top and wrong-headed in the light of day. I've been thinking about this "pitched-ball balk" idea for two years now, though, and it just gets better and better in my head. The LaRussa/Lynn shenanigans from tonight's game just gave me another reason to favor it. It'll never happen, of course. Bud Selig and his pals are too busy changing divisional alignments, interleague play, and the Wild Card set-up to ever consider rule changes at this level, but I honestly think it could work. How am I wrong?