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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.