MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently shed some light on the progress (or lack thereof) of rule changes that ownership submitted to the players’ union, noting that he had not received the “cooperation” that he would have liked. They did, however, agree on one proposal; eliminating the need to throw four pitches to initiate an intentional walk, opting instead for a signal from the manager.

There’s been a relatively muted uproar, if such a thing can exist. We’re in the doldrums of February where trucks full of equipment deliver hope and excitement. We watch videos of someone selecting which glove they’re going to use as they report early for spring training. We watch some club manager break it in for them. We yearn for and get blurry pictures from bad angles from beat reporters who, really, are just trying to justify their presence at this early a juncture. Shit is dire, is what I’m getting at.

So here we stand, knowing that a small but basic element of the game is being changed. There is now a mechanism for a manager to effect change on the game without execution by one of his wards. A signal is made, a batter is aboard. The supposed purpose of this change is to ease the pace-of-play issues that some insist are plaguing the game. Is this a realistic solution to a pace-of-game problem? In the larger picture, it’s certainly not. If you assume an intentional walk takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 seconds to affect, the infrequency of an intentional free pass means that you’re not even making a scratch—much less a dent—in the issue at hand.

Still, on a micro level, it’s easy to see how not spending 30-40 seconds for something fait accompli would be a benefit. You’ll see the per-game averages of “time saved” bandied about, and they will be miniscule to the point of irrelevance. But it’s important to remember how rarely intentional walks occur, and thus that a per-game average will obfuscate the impact of such a change on pace of play within any given game—though even this change will be admittedly small.

Additionally, there is the contingent—perhaps a majority—who feels that the bigger loss at hand is the chance, the opportunity for something variable. This presumption of the pitcher’s success and thus elimination of his execution means that we bypass the chance for mistakes, for misfortune, for failure—and in so doing, we bypass the chance for something fundamentally weird. While this argument relies on the existence of the four-pitch intentional walk for something funky to happen going forward, it might be instructive to look through the archives and discover exactly what it is we might be missing out on due to this rule change.

Fortunately, the kind folks at SABR (specifically Bill Deane) have compiled just such a list:

We started tracking intentional walks in 1955. Since then 10 intentional balls have been put in play, meaning that the fundamental weirdness we seek occurs in approximately .01 percent of intentional walks. SABR counts six more dating back to 1892—which accounts for the image above having 16 lines—but lacking an accurate denominator for those years, we can’t reasonably include them in our percentage. It’s difficult to imagine that it would move the needle in any appreciable manner, anyway.

This might seem like an attempt to minimize the effect of removing the aspect of actually executing the intentional walk, but it’s not meant to be so. Much like a miraculous comeback victory doesn’t invalidate win expectancy numbers, the overwhelming likelihood of a successful intentional walk doesn’t invalidate the anticipation of something weird; it only makes the payoff that much sweeter. Still, it’s inescapable that, as far as making a change that… minimizes change… goes, the elimination of actually executing an intentional walk is about as safe as it gets.

On the other hand, we’re averaging 956 intentional walks per season over the last three years. If we allot 35 seconds to each intentional walk, and use this rule to calculate time saved, we end up with .12 percent*[1] of each season being avoided by implementing this rule. This is a hilariously small impact in terms of effect over the course of a season, and even if you wanted to grant some sort of amplifier to cover for the at-the-time effect described above, it’s at least matched by whatever amplifier you might assign to the rarity, and impact of the effect of any attempted intentional walk pitch that was put in play.

While .12 percent is miniscule, it dwarfs the percentage of times anything interesting happens[2] during an intentional walk. Whether your internal weighting system can make up the gap there is going to be highly dependent on the individual doing the weighting, but it seems fair to say given the absurdly small percentages at stake, MLB has chosen an issue with minimal effect in either, or perhaps any regard.

It’s not exactly intransigence for someone to vigorously oppose this rule change. Stripping the game of its unpredictability shouldn’t be taken lightly, no matter the odds. Similarly, applauding the change doesn’t mean a lack of respect for the game, but could instead be an acknowledgment that at some point, the odds do matter, and they’re just not big enough to make a compelling case to save the four-pitch intentional walk, even if the payoff in terms of time saved is relatively minimal. The goal here was never to change hearts or minds. Those were made up before anyone clicked on this article, but perhaps now we have some greater context for what exactly we’re talking when we’re discussing this rule change.

Thanks to the incredible Rob McQuown for his research assistance, and to Michael Baumann and Meg Rowley for their thinking assistance.

[1] 558 minutes (35 seconds x 956 IBBs) saved, out of 448,991 minutes a season (2430 games played at 184.77 minutes per game (average game length in 2016))


[2] Anything interesting being defined as a ball being put in play by the batter.


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Excellent article. It kind of follows my own sentiment, but is actually researched and informative.
Do you have info on how the "negotiation" will likely proceed for Manfred's attempt to institute a pitch clock and to limit the number of catcher mound visits? I am ambivalent about a pitch clock but I do feel that catcher visits need to be limited.
Recent reports indicate that MLB has unilateral authority to make decisions on rule changes beginning next year, so I expect we'll see one or the other front and center in a year's time.
For the purposes of this article, a wild pitch would be "interesting". Any data on how often that happens, if ever?
Gah, I meant to include a caveat on that. Wild pitches during pitch outs *are* another component of the argument against eliminating this rule and my suspicion is they'd be more common than balls in play, but not enough to move the needle appreciably in terms of percentages of intentional walks that got messed up. That said, they do fall into that _weird_ area that people enjoy, too.
Follow up since I didn't answer your question: I did not look into that data so unfortunately I don't have any.
The other thing is BBs following IBBs. This is the idea that a pitcher loses effectiveness after an IBB. It will be interesting to see pitchers are more effective against the next batter following this change. This could be extended to compare BA, too. Will pitchers give up fewer BBs and base hits to the next batter, now.

Much like the DH - this takes away a player having to execute an element of the game. Far less impactful, obviously, but also a "really - this is your solution" moment. I prefer making pitchers throw, but I won't lose any sleep over it.
This was discussed on Effectively Wild recently and they mentioned our own Russell Carleton looked at this within the last few years and found there was no meaningful change in a pitcher's ability to find the zone post-intentional walk, so I'm afraid that argument doesn't hold much water.
This is that article if you wanted to check out what Russell did rather than just take my word for it (I realized that wasn't particularly helpful):
If managers really believed that throwing four balls for an IBB affected the pitcher the manager could have the pitcher switch with the SS or some other non-catcher player and have that player throw the four balls.
I was at a game about 10 years ago between the Astros and Bucs at PNC, where Mike Gallo lost the game in the bottom of the 18th inning a on a WP attempting a IBB.

I think the Astros had actually taken the lead in the top of the 18th before Gallo came in to give up a lead off HR followed eventually by the epic failed IBB attempt.
I was at that game. What a way to end it!
Further to this topic, an article in today's Boston Globe...

I don't understand why one of the most memorable events in World Series history is not referenced in this article. In 1972 the Oakland A’s were playing the Cincinnati Reds. In the third game, with Oakland having won the first two, the Reds were ahead 1-0 going into the eighth inning. With one out in the top of the eighth, future announcing great Joe Morgan walked and moved to third on a Bobby Tolan single to center. That was it for Oakland’s starter, Vida Blue.

Manager Dick Williams brought in Rollie Fingers to face Johnny Bench with runners at the corners and only one out. Tolan stole second, which dictated an intentional pass to the second greatest catcher in baseball history, but Dick Williams marched to his own tune. He had Fingers pitch to Bench, with Tony Perez on deck.

Forget the potential inning-ending double play. Forget about the potential force out at home. Pitch to Bench.

The count went full when Williams had a change of heart. He strolled to the mound, made the signal to give Bench ball four, and had a brief conference with Fingers and catcher Gene Tenace. Tenace went back behind home plate, stood tall, and signaled for ball four as he moved to the right.

Fingers nodded assent and went into his delivery, but Tenace quickly jumped back behind the plate as Fingers was delivering the ball. Fingers fired a slider that caught Bench sleeping as it caught the outside corner for a called third strike.

It was a play that is thought about often, but that is rarely executed. Williams had the guts to pull it off in the World Series. Turn an "intentional" ball four into strike three.
There are a couple of a things that aren't being talked about in the excitement (?) of saving 40 seconds of playing time. Say what you will about intentional walks being pro forma, they actually are a baseball event which happens - that is, a pitcher throws four pitches, the hitter takes four pitches (almost always), and the umpire calls them balls. If the pitcher never throws a pitch, will he be charged with a walk? Will the hitter be given credit for a walk? That is a logical absurdity. In what way is that different than "defensive indifference" negating a stolen base.
Even more significant is the LOOGY situation, where the pitcher comes in to face a lefty, there's a pinch hitter, he walks him, then the pitcher is removed. Again, he threw four balls to the PH, so he did face a batter. But if he doesn't throw a pitch, did he face a batter? Because if he hasn't, he can't be taken out.
I am envisioning this absurd sequence:
Pitcher takes the long walk from the bullpen. Pitcher throws eight warmup pitches. Manager sends up a pinch-hitter (in the NL, this could also include a trip to home plate by the manager to explain a double-switch). Manager goes back to the dugout and the other manager makes a gesture. The umpire then sends the batter to first base. The other manager then goes to the mound and removes the pitcher, who leaves the mound, tips his hat to the crowd, and probably gets credit for a hold, depending on which definition is used.
Sports at its finest.
That would be awesome. I totally hope it happens (and it probably will) in the first week that this rule is in place. Then maybe cooler heads will realize what a pointless change they've made.
While I am in favor of not throwing the four pitches, I think that the key to improving the pacing is to reduce the time between pitches. From what I have read in social science, small changes in the gap between events, while sometimes imperceptible to the viewer, dramatically affects the feeling of pacing. The analogy is to just watch how you would feel if each time you typed the keyboard, it took an extra tenth of a second for your character to show up. It would drive you crazy, and you wouldn't know why, and getting rid of that tenth would make you feel so much better. Shave a second off between pitches and I think games will look like they are moving much more crisply.