The intentional walk brings with it great controversy. I know, I Googled it in every way I could imagine for this piece. Deciding when, or if, to use it is part statistics, part opinion plus situations. I’ll try to get through it the best way I know: how we applied it when I was coaching, and how I look at it when watching a ball game.
But first, let’s get past all those who want to get rid of it, including Bill James.
There are several reasons for wanting to get rid of the intentional base on balls:
- First, it takes time and it’s boring.
- Second, it’s not in the nature of the game
- Third, “We just don’t like it. We want to see the big boys swing the bat.”
OK, there are probably many more reasons than those I’ve given, but I don’t want to make this calculus. I never got that far in math. So let’s start with why a batter is given a free pass in the first place.
Generally speaking, it’s not of value to walk a hitter. It gives the opposition a free base runner, which adds to the opportunity to score runs. It raises a hitter’s on-base percentage – OBP – and his on-base plus slugging – OPS. Both of these stats play largely into figuring the effectiveness of a hitter.
Why, then, would anyone want to put someone on base for free? Again, there are a number of factors:
- Setting up a double-play opportunity
- Setting up a force situation
- Putting a good hitter on base to pitch to a lesser hitter
There are a great number of stats out there that point to avoiding the intentional pass, but there is always a proper time and place.
- I doubt that trying to set up a double-play with an intentional walk would generally work to the defense’s purpose, but certainly trying to set up the DP when there is one out and a man on third – generally second and third – could make sense. It’s just that DPs aren’t that easy to turn, and there’s no guarantee the ball put into play would off DP potential. It would usually be in a game-saving/loss-avoiding situation, and probably be late in the game.
- Setting up the force situation is easier to do – after all, it’s easier to get one out than two. So, with two outs, this could play to the defense’s strength. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen slow roller, and high hoppers dictate that only one out can be gained, and that it can only be gained by a force play.
- The most effective time to use the intentional walk is when you’re putting a high quality hitter on base to get to a lesser hitter. Walking Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Ted Williams and the like could often sound like a good idea. Even so, the situation at hand is what is of greatest importance. You don’t just walk a hitter because of his name. I do know this from experience: as a pitching coach, I was asked on rare occasion to “pitch carefully” or “pitch around” a hitter. Tough to do. The pitcher has to execute every pitch to perfection, keeping it out of the hitting zone, and even a bloop hit is a failure. In this situation, it’s often better to just put the hitter on.
Ultimately, the intentional base on balls should be used when the situation dictates in the favor of the defense. What is the importance of the batter or base runner/base runners regarding the score? Who is the hitter, and what is his history against the pitcher? What is the pitcher’s strong point? Does he roll out a lot of ground balls, or does he give up fly balls? OK, that’s beginning to sound a bit like baseball calculus!
The fact is, there is no perfect answer regarding the intentional free pass. However, armed with all the statistics available, plus knowing the pulse of the people involved, a manager should be able to make a reasonable decision regarding the IBB. Of course, most of the highlights you will see or read about in the media will be when the manager’s decision blows up in his face.
Allow me to revisit those three reasons I gave for those who wish to get rid of the intentional walk:
- It takes time and it’s boring: I like the pitcher having to throw the four pitches – or whatever number is needed when the IBB decision is made. Why? Because no pitcher is used to throwing the ball that far out of the zone, to a catcher who is standing up. Thus, the pitcher has to re-set his focus to make quality pitches to the next hitter. As a result, some pitchers can’t make that adjustment: advantage hitter. So, this is a calculated risk by the team on defense. It may take a little time – not but a minute or so – but it involves risk, which isn’t boring to me.
- It’s not the nature of the game. OK, it used to be that pitchers were supposed to offer up pitches to be hit. But the game has evolved, and the last I heard, baseball is a game that each team is obligated to attempt to win.
- “We just don’t like it. We want to see the big boys swing the bat.” Well, none of us likes every rule of the game. Plus, you can’t please every fan. So, let’s just deal with the IBB. And sorry, but baseball doesn’t say it’s all about the hitter. The object is to keep the opposition from scoring, while attempting to score with your at bats. I love good hitting, and have been blessed to coach a number of guys who could swing the lumber – or aluminum. But if you’re going to win as a team at a high level, you’re going to need to have someone step up besides your 3-4 hitters.
And if you want to look only at statistics regarding the intentional free pass, remember what Mark Twain said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Or, if you want a baseball quote on stats:
“They both (statistics and bikinis) show a lot, but not everything.” Toby Harrah, former MLB player
Have a baseball question you would like a coach’s opinion on? Leave it in the comments or send it via Twitter to @Aerys_MLB or @WayneTyson11.
Our coach is Wayne Tyson, who was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays.