Are Managers Getting Smarter About Intentional Walks?

Billy Heywood never actually managed the Minnesota Twins. Billy Heywood was a movie character, the titular character from the movie Little Big League. When you think about it, he was technically more of a manager than any of us will be, in that he got to wear a uniform and sit in actual major-league dugouts. The idea behind Little Big League is that Heywood is bequeathed the Minnesota Twins from his grandfather. The Twins stink and Heywood decides to fire the manager and instill himself into the position. The Twins start winning and all the players and Heywood himself find out a lot about themselves in the process. It’s a fairly dumb movie.

We are still quite a ways away from quantifying just to what extent a manager can affect a team, and perhaps further away from quantifying to what extent a manager who is a child can affect a team. There are so many variables, so many anecdotes from players about how managers can influence a winning attitude, that we really can’t put a number on most things. Some we can, like bunting, since a manager is largely responsible for calling those plays. He’s also responsible for initiating intentional walks.

Intentional walks are perhaps less of a lightning rod in our community than something like sacrifice bunts, but there is still a general idea that intentional walks are largely unnecessary, and can even be counterproductive at times, since they are allowing one of the things teams do not want — opponents on base. But as it happens, managers — or perhaps others in front offices that influence managers — appear to be getting smarter about intentional walks.

Foremost, a note on the research. I looked at play-by-play data from 1974 forward, the period in which we have the most accurate data of that kind. Obviously, this only entails an official four-finger, standing catcher type of intentional walks. There are certainly times when pitchers intentionally pitch around a player, but that isn’t really something we can look up definitively.

The first chart shows simply intentional walks per plate appearance. There was a sharp drop in the 90s, followed by a large spike in the early 2000s. The easy answer for that spike is that it was a reaction to the power surge showing among hitters that began in the late 90s — managers simply thought it to be more beneficial to put the big sluggers on base rather than have them hit. This, of course, culminated in 2004 when Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times, accounting for almost 9% of the total intentional walks that year. We don’t know if that’s the reason for sure, but it seems like a fairly good bet. Nevertheless, that craziness has subsided, and we now see that IBB levels have leveled off back to the levels seen in the late 90s.

But something else has also happened, as the dirty cheaters who clicked on the other tabs have already figured out. Intentional walks are being used in more high-leverage situations than ever before. They now occur with more outs, tighter scores, and in later innings.

Without breaking down each base/out scenario, we can make a broad statement that intentional walks, if they make sense at all, usually make more sense in the later innings. Walking guys in the fifth or sixth is fairly poor strategy, in fact. Right now, we see that the average IBB happens in the 7th inning, and that is probably skewed a little low thanks the the NL’s always-make-the-pitcher-hit strategy.

More outs when putting a guy on is also a good thing — two outs being ideal, of course — since giving a free pass with fewer outs can lead to more runs for the batting team. In 2013, major league teams were averaging 1.5 outs when issuing a free pass. This ostensibly means that just as many teams issued a free pass with one out as they did with two. And while it’s historically high, that number hasn’t fluctuated all that much since 1974. Teams still need to work on this a bit, it seems.

The average score difference — about 1.38 runs in 2013 — is also trending downward, meaning the managers are using intentional walks when the games are closer. This also points to high-leverage usage. Teams are looking to keep the game close, or maintain their slim leads by bypassing the other team’s biggest threats. On the whole, if you’re going to just walk a guy, that’s probably the best time.

Without getting incredibly granular, it’s hard to make a mountaintop-worthy announcement that teams are figuring out how to use the intentional walk properly. There’s more research to be done here.We do know that the overall frequency of the IBB is down, which is good. We also know that when they do happen, they are happening in higher-leverage situations than five, ten, or 15 years ago. This is almost certainly good. I don’t remember if Billy Heywood every issued an intentional walk, but the fact that he was supposed to exist in a world just like ours save for the fact that a kid ran a baseball team, it seems safe to say he probably did. He may have done it in the fifth inning of a game his team was winning with one out and a man on. If so, that would have been a poor move. He may get a pass because he was 12 years old. Perhaps a petition campaign to teach run expectancies in elementary school is in order.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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John Bourke
10 years ago

I agree, it is interesting that SBs draw so much more attention than IBBs, when they are complementary faux pas with regards to outs and base-runners. I don’t know the current wisdom on IBBs, but with regards to the number of outs I hear the justification of “keep[ing] the double play in order” when first base is open and there are fewer than 2 outs. I would happily accept this is bunk, but would need a better argument than “giving a free pass with fewer outs can lead to more runs” (which seems to say you should never use them).

As for the score difference, the peaks look like they match pretty well with high run-scoring years. The reduction in runs scored (and hence tighter games) likely explains some of that improvement, as well as any move towards higher leverage usage.