A friend of mine is, for reasons passing understanding, a Washington Nationals fan, and she emailed me Monday morning, understandably upset about her team’s performance over the weekend. Among her grievances was that Bryce Harper, the exquisitely coiffed hitter of baseballs and swearer-at-of-umpires, drew three intentional walks and came to the plate seven times without putting a ball in play.
So she suggested that MLB institute a rule against intentionally walking the same batter more than twice in the same game.
I’m against this idea, for several reasons, but nevertheless, I’m going to share with you everything I think about it.
1) I’m not in favor of intentional walks philosophically. I’m not one of those people who takes a deist view toward baseball, as if its rules were perfectly ordained by God. We marvel at how the bases are the perfect distance apart, or the mound is the perfect distance from the plate to place the game in a state of equilibrium, except those distances were only determined after people spent the 19th Century tinkering with the rules until they found a balance they liked. So I’m not against a little tinkering now and then to make the game more fun. Removing good players’ ability to impact the game is a little unsporting.
Now, you can sell out to shut down the other team’s best players in other sports. In football, you can put Darrelle Revis on Odell Beckham. In hockey, you can shadow the Sidney Crosby line with the Patrice Bergeron line. In soccer, you can man-mark…well, maybe not Lionel Messi, but you can man-mark, say, Alexis Sanchez out of the game. But in order to do that, you have to display a little bit of tactical initiative and/or creativity—you can’t just announce that you’re going to pass like you can in baseball. It’s cowardly, plus it’s another opportunity for everyone to stand around and watch someone canter from one base to the next, which already happens too often.
2) Plus it’s usually bad tactics. There are mountains of evidence in favor of this—Bill James wrote about it in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, but if that’s not your favorite book you can find someone else’s take. The solution to limiting intentional walks is not creating a new rule—it’s getting Ryan Zimmerman not to go 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and leave 14 runners on base. And I don’t think, deep down, that anyone really disagrees with this.
3) If I were going to limit intentional walks, I’d limit managers to one per batter per game, not two. Or limit them to one per game, period. Big-league managers are, in general and to their detriment, extremely conservative with scarce resources.
I remember a story Ryan Reynolds told when he was a guest on Top Gear. He was going skydiving, and his main parachute didn’t deploy. But rather than pull his backup immediately, he hesitated for a moment, because if he used his backup parachute, “Then I’ll have none left.”
That’s how managers operate. They hoard their challenges like Charlie Bucket’s candy. They’ll leave a backup catcher on the bench for 15 innings, rather than risk an injury forcing the emergency catcher into the game. It’s why the closer role exists the way it does. Limit managers to one free pass a game and most of them would be too scared of not having it later that they’d only use it extremely rarely. Except for one thing.
4) There’s no way to really prevent intentional walks. You don’t wave a flag or press a button to signal a free pass—you still have to throw four pitches. So if you tell managers they can only have the catcher-stands-up-and-sticks-his-arm-out routine once a game, how do you stop them from just calling for four pitchouts? Or if you outlaw pitchouts, just outside fastballs, or accidental-on-purpose breaking pitches in the dirt? I feel like it’d take big-league managers about 10 minutes to figure that out.
5) A glut of intentional walks to one player in one game is actually pretty rare—only 167 times since 1913 has one player drawn three free passes in one game, including Harper on Sunday. And in case you were in need of more evidence that intentionally walking guys is bad on the aggregate, teams that have had one player draw three free passes in a game since 1913 are 118-49, with 40 of those 49 losses coming by only one run. Players who drew three intentional walks in a game had a positive WPA 121 times in those 167 games.
And that makes sense—that’s like one of those fun facts where a team is X games over .500 when its leadoff hitter hits a home run, or how Nolan Ryan was however many games -and-0 when he entered the ninth inning with a lead. Of course the team with the player who drew three intentional walks is going to win most of the time—that means not only that the team had three free baserunners, it also means that a hitter good enough to walk intentionally came up with men on in a close game at least three times.
6) Except Harry Chiti and Mike Matheny. The list of players who have drawn three intentional walks in a game is exactly who you think it is—Hall of Famers and MVPs and multiple-all-stars and okay hitters with big power—plus two catchers who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. It should surprise no one, then, to learn that both Chiti and Matheny were hitting eighth, in front of the pitcher, and it worked every time.
7) Which brings up the final point—a three-intentional-walk game is extremely rare. Play Index goes back to 1913, but the earliest instance of a player being walked on purpose three times in a game that it could find was 1933, so let’s say that this happens twice a year, across the majors.
Is that really a frequent enough event to warrant a rule change?
Certainly there are events significant enough to warrant a rule change—even a sweeping rule change—if they happen even once. MLB started to care a great deal about keeping the baseball clean in 1920-1921, but only because Ray Chapman died on the field. But pitchers take line drives off the head with about the same frequency players get walked three times in a game, and they don’t even have to wear helmets or face masks.
This isn’t that serious. Players dying is a big enough deal to change the rules, but players almost dying isn’t, and intentional walks, while momentarily annoying, aren’t life-threatening the way a line drive to the face can be. If this were a common enough issue that it got in the way of normal gameplay, like hack-a is in the NBA, then we’d probably have a rule about it. But as of right now, it isn’t, so we don’t, and won’t.
Besides, if Ryan Zimmerman goes 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, that’s not the rulebook’s fault. It should be illegal to be that un-clutch, but unfortunately for Nats fans, it isn’t.
Thank you for reading
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