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Eliminating The Intentional Walk Is A Really Bad Idea

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If MLB wants to speed up games, this is the worst way to do it.

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

Commissioner Rob Manfred wants to speed up the pace of play in major-league games.

As you know, I think this is a good idea, in general.

What isn’t a good idea is how Manfred wants to go about it. At ESPN.com, Jayson Stark reports that eliminating the intentional walk and shrinking the strike zone are two rule-change ideas that could take effect this year:

Neither side is certain yet how players will respond to the new proposals, but sources indicate that the change in the intentional-walk rule is more likely to be approved for this season than the raising of the strike zone. Players have mixed feelings about the redefined strike zone; shrinking the zone helps hitters and hurts pitchers, so if there is a path to a consensus among players, it is difficult for either side to see one developing in the next couple of weeks.

I’m not going to get into the strike-zone thing here, although based on what the article says about it (raising the bottom of the zone to above the knee), not only would that not speed up the pace of play, it would likely make games longer. A smaller strike zone would almost certainly lead to more walks.

Regarding the intentional-walk proposal, I wrote about this last May when it first was mentioned:

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 the article, I posted several video examples from recent years in which intentional balls went awry, leading to wild pitches that in one case lost a game. Here’s one of the most famous such incidents, from a Marlins/Mariners game in 2011:

There’s really no reason to eliminate this possibility. First, as Stark points out:

Getting rid of the old-fashioned intentional walk would eliminate about a minute of dead time per walk. In an age in which intentional walks actually have been declining -- there were just 932 all last season (or one every 5.2 games) -- that time savings would be minimal.

So really, what’s the point? 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.

Stark further writes:

But MLB sees the practice of lobbing four meaningless pitches as antiquated, so eliminating them would serve as much as a statement as it would a practical attempt to speed up the game.

A statement of what? That we don’t like “antiquated” things? Baseball is a game that is well-served by its traditions and rules, for the most part. Four balls for a walk has been a baseball rule since 1889, with no differentiation between unintentional and intentional walks. I see no compelling reason to change that, and if this makes a statement, the statement is, “We’re doing something meaningless that won’t really change anything, but look! We’re doing something!” Scrapping a rule that’s been in place for 127 years in order to save a tiny fraction of time is pointless, in my view.

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.

In terms of the pace of play, it’s still really a matter of getting batters to stop stepping out so often, and enforcing the 12-second pitch rule. (If the latter has to be done by pitch clock, do it.)

Fortunately for us:

Neither of those innovations can be implemented without approval of the Major League Baseball Players Association. The union is currently in the process of feeling out players on the proposed changes, sources said. For either or both to take effect this season, an agreement would have to be reached "sooner rather than later," said one source, because spring training games begin in just two and a half weeks.

I hope the Players Association says “no” to the intentional-walk proposal. It’s just unnecessary. To the shrinking of the strike zone, I think more research is needed to figure out any unintended consequences. And with only two and a half weeks until spring-training games begin, perhaps the intentional-walk proposal can be locked up in MLB’s Closet of Bad Ideas... forever.