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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Intentional walks and limiting rules

Major League Baseball announced agreement on a rule change under which intentional walks will now require only a signal from the dugout, rather than the pitcher intentionally throwing four pitches wide of the plate and the catcher's box. The goal is to shorten games, although given how infrequent intentional walks are (one every 2.6 games last season), the effect will be minimal.

Intentional walks are one of the plays cited by critics of the Infield Fly Rule as an analogous play, with one team intentionally acting contrary to the game's ordinary expectations. My response has been twofold: 1) The cost-benefit imbalance is not one-sided and not disparate, as both teams incur costs and receive benefits (the batting team gets the benefit of a baserunner, at the cost of not having a good hitter bat, while the fielding team incurs the cost of a baserunner with the benefit of a more favorable batter and base-out situation), and 2) the batting team could counter the strategy by declining the intentional walk and trying to get a hit by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone (or if the pitcher mistakenly leaves a pitch too close to the plate).

The rule change eliminates the second piece--the batting team can do nothing to prevent the intentional walk. Nevertheless, because the play involves an equitable cost-benefit exchange, it is not analogous to the infield-fly situation and thus does not warrant a limiting rule (or undermine the existence of the Infield Fly Rule).

Update: This, on everything wrong with the rule change.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 22, 2017 at 08:38 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Here's a version of the fake intentional walk. The one on bench was priceless.

Posted by: Pete Wentz | Feb 23, 2017 4:56:07 PM

Sports are useful means to find common ground.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 22, 2017 7:18:32 PM

What a terrible rule change. Some pitchers have trouble throwing four balls. Just this season, a pitcher (I forget who) threw an intentional ball over the catcher's head. If the 3rd base runner had been paying attention, an easy score. What a terrible, terrible rule.

If they want to shorten games, they need to put something like a shot clock in the game. Call it a pitch clock. Pitchers have so many seconds to throw the next pitch. If he doesn't, automatic ball. If the hitter's not ready, automatic strike.

I'm sorry, but do your batting gloves really get so loose during one pitch that I have to watch you re-tighten them after each pitch? And does it really take that long to get the signal and go into the windup? I think not, personally.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Feb 22, 2017 5:35:06 PM

I agree with Joe. I haven't watched baseball since the Phillies stopped being a contender, but it's very sad to me that the children of the future will never get to see a real intentional walk. Will intentional walks even be charged to the pitcher anymore? How can they be if the pitcher doesn't throw them?

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Feb 22, 2017 4:29:24 PM

"count went full"

The ESPN article at one point speaks of the normal four pitch intentional walk, but intentional walks are not always of that nature. An intentional walk might be chosen when the count is 3-1 or whatever. I guess the rule change applies in all cases, but it's even less useful to change things there.

Thanks for the snapshot, well expressed.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 22, 2017 2:24:23 PM

Equitable does not mean equal. Each team is looking for an overall advantage and each gets something and gives something up; who "wins" the exchange depends on what happens next. The point was to contrast that with a situation in which all benefits go one way and all costs go the other.

Agree that it is foolish to take away the basic execution. And also agree that four an average of 14 seconds, it is unnecessary.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 22, 2017 1:57:39 PM

The news report on this change that I saw this morning said that the rule change will shorten the average game by 14 seconds. Given that the stated objective was to shorten games, the whole thing strikes me as very silly and unnecessary, to say the least.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Feb 22, 2017 1:41:16 PM

The new intentional walk rule trashes one of the most memorable events in World Series history. 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.

Posted by: Hmonrdick | Feb 22, 2017 12:23:26 PM

I think you've probably oversimplified this a bit. The fact that both sides incur a cost and receive a benefit does not mean that the exchange is equitable. The pitching team will only do this when the benefits substantially outweigh the costs. A football team taking a knee also incurs a cost (loss of yards and down) to gain a benefit (take time off the clock and eliminate the risk of a turnover), but no one would call that a fair exchange...

In baseball, you'll see intentional walks not just to get a very good batter off the plate as a form of risk mitigation, but in order to get another person on base to make getting a 3rd out easy. 2 outs, runner on first ...go ahead and walk to have another base to throw the ball to with the next batter.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Feb 22, 2017 11:51:18 AM

Intentional walks are by now expected strategy in various situations so the sense of surprise is not much from what I can tell.

Not a fan of this rule change as a fan myself. As you note, we aren't talking about much time. The ritual to me of tossing the four pitches is comfortable and there is always a chance for something quirky to occur. Some pitchers, e.g., have trouble throwing intentional balls. The time saved by ending the process net doesn't seem positive to me.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 22, 2017 11:08:38 AM

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