In Defense of the Old-Fashioned Intentional Walk by Nicolas Stellini February 6, 2017 Commissioner Rob Manfred has clearly made a priority of improving baseball’s “pace of play.” The theory goes that, since today’s youngsters supposedly have shorter attention spans than ever and aren’t all that inclined to watch players stand around between bursts of actions, the game should move at a brisker pace and the bursts of action should feature less time between them. This theory has already led to some practice, including the introduction of a between-innings clock and a rule requiring hitters to keep their feet in the batter’s box. Baseball is an old game with an old audience, and Manfred would like to see a younger audience consuming his product. ESPN’s Jayson Stark reports that the league has submitted two new proposals to the league: one which would raise the bottom of the strike zone and another that would eliminate the need to throw four lob pitches to intentionally walk a batter. The strike-zone proposal aims to create more balls in play, while the intentional-walk proposal would simply speed up the game. These things make sense in a vacuum. Of course, baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, but in real time and with human beings, and that makes the game a very interesting collection of circumstance, accidents, and general madness. We won’t touch on the strike-zone proposal now, although it certainly merits discussion. Stark says in his report that it’s less likely to get a green light for the coming season than the intentional-walk proposal. So, about the intentional walk, then. It’s a trivial part of the game, really. Barry Bonds has come to the plate, and you, in your wisdom, do not wish to pitch to Barry Bonds with a man on and two outs. You present Bonds with first base instead of a potential home-run ball, and then you work to get the next batter out. All you have to do is play catch with your catcher for a few moments. If Baseball with a capital B wants to speed up the game, why not eliminate the game of catch? It’s dead weight. Because, once again, baseball is played by human beings. The man on the mound isn’t a robot, but a pitcher. Intentional walks almost always go off without a hitch. When they don’t, it’s impactful to the game. More importantly, botched intentional walks almost always make for good entertainment. Here’s Miguel Cabrera doing something hilarious. And, more recently, here’s Gary Sanchez nearly going deep during an attempted intentional walk. These are once-in-a-blue-moon events, of course. You’re not going to see contact during an intentional walk very often. But there are occasionally wild pitches during intentional walks. These are routine plays, yes, but the pitcher still has to make the routine play. The slim chance of error is there, and those mistakes can easily lead to runs. Eliminating those four tosses takes away some of the natural fun of the game, all in the name of shaving off a relative fraction of the time of play. Is making the game a minute shorter really worth eliminating even the faintest chance of pure chaos? Are intentional walks even that big an issue? There were 1410 intentional walks in 2006, and just 932 in 2016. It’s a tactic that’s becoming rarer as teams put more of a premium on limiting baserunners at all costs, and as bullpens grow larger and more specialized. Manfred may be tilting at a shrinking windmill here. This would be a silly rule with almost no effect but taking away one of the smallest and rarest pleasures of the game. If the league is concerned with pace of play, why not just institute the pitch clock? It’s already been in effect in the minors for a while now, and it’s almost unnoticeable. If it takes away the maddening doldrums of watching someone like Pedro Baez pitch, then it isn’t hard to imagine that the fans would be all for it. Intentional walks aren’t slowing the game down so much that something needs to be done about them. Overly long replay reviews are slowing baseball down. Endless pitching changes and clown cars full of relievers that only grow larger when the games are most important are slowing baseball down. Pitchers staring in for signs for what feels like years at a time are slowing baseball down. Improving the pace of play of the game isn’t a cause without merit. Overreaching and overreacting by cracking down on intentional walks of all things is perhaps a bit overzealous, and removes one more chance for unexpected fun. No, Miggy isn’t going to get a hit every time he’s intentionally walked, and no, the pitcher isn’t always going to lob one to the backstop. But why would we want to remove that slim chance?