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MLB Is Eliminating The 4-Pitch Intentional Walk

This isn’t a big deal. And yet, in a way, it is.

Bryce Harper led the major leagues with 20 intentional walks in 2016
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Just hours after Commissioner Rob Manfred said at Cactus League Media Day that there wouldn’t be any rule changes for 2017 in part because the MLB Players Association wouldn’t agree, this happened:

As part of its initiative to improve pace-of-game play, Major League Baseball has approved a change to the intentional walk rule, going from the traditional four-pitch walk to a dugout signal, team and union sources told ESPN's Howard Bryant.

Well. You know how I feel about this, as I wrote on this very topic two weeks ago:

Rob Manfred seems to have the misguided idea that because games sometimes run long, young people won’t be engaged with the sport. That’s not the reason young people sometimes roll their eyes at MLB. I can think of a number of reasons that they do, none of which have to do with intentional walks: the ham-handed way they treat young people who want to share video on social media, for example.

Lest you think I’m making a big deal out of this, I’m really not. I’m writing about this again because MLB has, in fact (at least according to the ESPN report) made this change, and it is thus news.

In the grand scheme of things the intentional walk isn’t a big part of baseball. In fact, it’s become a much smaller part over the last couple of decades. Here’s a year-by-year chart of IBB from 1990-2016:

You can see a couple of anomalies there, but the overall trend is down. The dip in 1994-95 is due to the labor stoppage cutting down the number of games, and the slight bump from 2002-04 is almost singlehandedly attributable to Barry Bonds. No, seriously: Bonds alone accounted for 4.7 percent of IBB in 2002, 4.6 percent in 2003 and an astonishing 8.7 percent in 2004, when his 120 intentional walks was more than all but three other players drew in total walks. (By comparison, Bryce Harper’s MLB-leading total of 20 IBB in 2016 was just 2.1 percent of all intentional walks.)

The number of IBB (red) has dipped below the trend line (gray) since 2012, and last year there were just 932 intentional passes. As I wrote in the article two weeks ago, this is a typical "kill the fly with the elephant gun" move:

I’m not even sure it takes a minute to issue an intentional walk — 40 or 45 seconds is more like it. Even if it did take a full minute, that’s 932 minutes, or about 15½ hours. That’s the equivalent of approximately five games. Over a 2,430-game season, congratulations. You have now saved two-tenths of one percent of the total time played.

So they’re not really even accomplishing what they set out to do, which ostensibly is to pick up the pace of the game. I’m all in favor of that, as you know, but this isn’t the way to do it. I’ll say it again, and I’m pretty sure most of you agree: The way to pick up the pace of the game is to enforce two rules already on the books: make hitters stay in the batter’s box between pitches, or start calling strikes, and make pitchers pitch within 12 seconds with no one on base, or start calling balls.

Do that and I think everyone would be surprised at how much faster-paced each and every game would be.

Lastly, it does seem as if managers have been discovering that the intentional walk isn’t a good play, in general, as noted by the sharp decline in IBB over the last few years. Joe Posnanski, about three years ago, came up with what he termed The Intentional Walk Rage System, assigning "points" to an intentional walk based on factors such as how early in the game it was, whether a pitcher is coming up next, whether you’re setting up a double play, etc. An intentional pass could pile up as many as 25 points. This was in reaction to Ned Yost having Danny Duffy issue an intentional walk to Robinson Cano in the third inning of a scoreless game. This game, a game the Royals eventually lost 1-0.

Read Posnanski’s details and you’ll be as amazed as I was that Yost ordered this intentional walk. Many IBB backfire like this.

In practice, I suspect the new rule will drastically reduce the number of intentional walks. Managers have been doing that anyway, and this will speed along that process. Joe Maddon, in fact, is among the leaders in dropping this strategy. Cubs pitchers issued just 24 intentional walks in 2016, last in the National League. Seven A.L. teams had fewer, likely because pitchers don’t bat there. Ned Yost, interestingly enough, was dead last — Royals pitchers gave out just eight intentional walks last year.

I suppose if they wanted to, teams could actually use this new rule as strategy. If they don’t want to just put a runner on base, they could issue what baseball people have always called the "semi-intentional walk," pitch around a player by throwing him four unhittable pitches and hope he swings anyway and makes an out. But the rule change means we’ll never again see things like this:

Granted that those occurrences are extremely rare. But that’s what makes them an interesting and fun part of the game. Want to get people talking about baseball? Things like this do that. Signaling an IBB from the dugout doesn’t.

In the grand scheme of things, as I noted, this probably won’t matter much. With IBB on the decline even before this rule change, you might not even notice this at most games you attend, or watch. But it’s not going to make any real difference in the pace of play — as I noted in my earlier article, it’ll likely save about two-tenths of one percent of total game time, if that.

Rob Manfred and his crew need to re-evaluate what they’re trying to do in getting more young people engaged in baseball. Because this isn’t it.