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The Intentional Walk Could Disappear. Here's Why That's A Bad Idea

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MLB's competition committee has recommended two rule changes.

This doesn't look like an intentional walk, but it happened after a wild pitch was thrown during one.
This doesn't look like an intentional walk, but it happened after a wild pitch was thrown during one.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

You might have read about this a few days ago, but I thought I'd put it out there for discussion as we await tonight's Cubs/Cardinals game.

Major League Baseball's competition committee recently recommended two rule changes: first, that the strike zone be raised to the top of the knee from its current location (bottom of the knee), and that intentional walks no longer need to have four pitches thrown outside the zone:

The change in the intentional-walk rule would end the traditional practice of requiring the pitcher to lob four balls outside the strike zone. Instead, a team could signify it wants to issue an intentional walk, and the hitter would be immediately sent to first base, sources said.

The two changes can't go into effect unless they are approved by baseball's playing rules committee, which is chaired by New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and made up of a cross-section of baseball executives. Sources said the changes would also be presented to the MLB Players Association as part of negotiations for a new labor agreement. However, the playing rules committee isn't required to have the union sign off on the changes. So they could take effect next season whether or not the union agrees to them.

Both of these changes, according to the linked article, are being proposed because Commissioner Rob Manfred is concerned about the pace of play. Games are running a bit longer this year than at the same time a year ago.

The point of raising the strike zone, says the article, would be to get more balls put in play. That might or might not happen; rule changes like this always seem to run into unintended consequences. One of those, if the zone is raised, could be more walks. If the strike zone is smaller, that would seem logical. There's also the matter of individual umpires having individual strike zones, which they do no matter how much they deny it. So what actually would happen with this change is still up in the air.

But the point of my article is to deal with the proposal regarding intentional walks. I'm opposed to it. It changes one of the fundamental rules of the game: four pitches outside the strike zone lead to a walk, not simply "signifying an intention" to issue an intentional pass. In 2011, Steve Cishek, then pitching for the Marlins, was issuing an intentional walk to Dustin Ackley with a runner on third base and one out in the 10th inning of a 1-1 game. He threw three intentional balls. Here's what happened on the fourth:

Part of the game, I'd say. It wound up scoring the winning run for the Mariners. I wouldn't want to see this eliminated from baseball.

A similar play happened in Game 4 of the Nationals/Giants division series in 2014:

It's possible that play might be ruled differently now, as fielders have to give a "lane" to the runner. Still -- with the new intentional-walk proposal, this play wouldn't even exist.

Perhaps the most famous example of an intentional walk that wasn't quite what it seemed was this play from the 1972 World Series:

The Athletics appeared to call for intentional ball four on a 3-2 count on Johnny Bench -- but then the catcher went into a normal crouch and Rollie Fingers threw strike three. Here's more on that almost-forgotten part of baseball history.

Those kinds of events might not happen often, or at all. But those things are part of how the game is played. I think the game would be worse for not having the intentional walk the way it is -- and it wouldn't save much time, either, as throwing four pitches intentionally outside the strike zone can't take more than 40 seconds or so. There were 951 intentional walks issued in 2015; if my 40-second estimate is correct, that would save approximately 634 minutes during an entire baseball season of 2,430 games. Hardly even noticeable.

So, MLB, go ahead and mess with the strike zone, though understand it might not have the result you want. But keep the intentional-walk rule the way it is.