You’re Gosh Darn Right We’ve Got More Intentional Walks

I thought that with the advent of the World Series, the intentional walk beat was probably done for. The Astros famously didn’t intentionally walk anyone all year, and Dave Martinez seems to use intentional walks sparingly, albeit at wild times — his intentional walk of Max Muncy was one of the worst of the playoffs.

Imagine my surprise, then, when both managers intentionally walked players last night. The Nationals are always a threat to do that, sure, but the Astros?? If the Astros are intentionally walking someone, you know it’s serious. Let’s dive in.

First, the Nats walk. This one was a classic spot — Yordan Alvarez was at the plate in the sixth with a man on second in a tie game. With Carlos Correa on deck, it’s not as though it got a lot easier, but intentionally walking someone with first base open to switch the platoon matchup is a tactic as old as time.

Being as old as time doesn’t mean a tactic is good, though. Intentionally walking someone with only one out is almost never a good decision — there are just so many ways the inning can go wrong. Indeed, the walk bumped Houston’s win percentage from 60.5% to 62.8%. That 2.3% of a win is a lot to give up with a walk — could it possibly be worth it?

Alvarez has only a tiny platoon split, but with so few plate appearances, he looks like a basically average hitter when it comes to the platoon advantage after regressing his stats. He’s a good hitter overall, though, regardless of handedness. How good of a hitter? Well, Depth Charts doesn’t quite buy the hype; it projects him as a .363 wOBA hitter overall, which works out to .372 against righties. Pretty solid, if not quite Alvarez’s .437 wOBA against righties this year.

How about Correa? He’s a good hitter in his own right; a .355 wOBA per our projections. After applying platoon splits, that works out to .350 against righties. This decision doesn’t look merited unless Strasburg has huge platoon splits — and he emphatically does not. Strasburg has a huge sample of split-less pitching — so much of one, in fact, that even after regressing his line, he’s hardly worse against lefties than righties. Overall, he projects to allow a .278 wOBA to righties and .282 to lefties — basically a scratch.

After working out the batter/pitcher confrontations, there’s only a 10-point wOBA advantage to facing Correa rather than Alvarez. That’s not going to cut it; using some rough math, you’d want between a 130 and 140 point advantage in wOBA to consider making this walk. Yeesh!

Looking at the outcomes on a more granular level, it doesn’t get much better. Even accounting for the added chances for a double play, it just doesn’t work. After looking at each potential outcome weighted by projected likelihood, the Astros were 60.1% to win when Alvarez stepped to the plate, and 62.1% when Correa stepped in. Martinez lowered the Nationals’ chances of winning by 2.0% with that walk.

I suggested taking riskier lines as the underdog in the series, but this one wasn’t close enough to choose the high-variance play. You would have to believe Alvarez is a far better hitter than our projections — better than his career numbers, even — to make this one close. Bad walk!

Next, we’ve got a juicier one. A.J. Hinch made it all the way to the World Series without an intentional walk. Unfortunately for him, he also made it all the way to the World Series without a left-handed pitcher on his roster, which leaves only uncomfortable decisions when it comes to facing Juan Soto.

With runners on second and third, Soto stepped to the plate in the seventh with two outs. It was a high-leverage spot, a chance to put the game out of reach. Hinch raised four fingers — the Astros were down by one, and they couldn’t afford to give up anything here.

This one, it won’t surprise you, is closer. The Astros were down a run, so Soto’s run represented a four-run deficit. They also picked up the platoon advantage while facing a worse hitter; Soto’s projected .391 wOBA dwarfs Kendrick’s .350. Our naive win expectancy dropped Houston’s odds from 30% to 28.8%. Right from the jump, that’s not a bad situation; the wOBA difference only needs to be around 60 points to make this walk a smart play.

Juan Soto against a righty over Howie Kendrick against a righty? That’s worth 60 points of wOBA for sure. To be precise, it’s worth about 69 — Soto projects to a .369 wOBA and Kendrick a .300 wOBA after accounting for pitcher Ryan Pressly. So on the surface, A.J. Hinch’s first intentional walk was a good one.

But if you account for the particulars of each batter, rather than merely using wOBA, the math falls apart. The best part of Soto’s game is his patience. He’s reached base via unintentional walk or HBP in 17% of his plate appearances against righties, and I project him for a pretty similar 16.6% going forward (before accounting for Pressly). That boosts his wOBA significantly — and also shouldn’t matter to the Astros, since an unintentional walk counts the same as an intentional walk here.

This is oversimplifying, but one way of considering it is to compare Soto’s batting average to Kendrick’s on-base percentage. The walks simply aren’t relevant here; a downside of not intentionally walking someone can’t be that you end up walking them anyway. Want another way to think about it? If the Astros didn’t walk Soto, the inning would end with no further runs 73% of the time, after accounting for what happens on the plate appearances where Soto walks and Kendrick then bats. After walking Soto, the inning only projected to end with no further runs 70% of the time, because a walk to Kendrick now scores runs. Overall, the Astros’ odds of winning fell from 30.5% to 29.5% as a result of this decision per my math.

This isn’t the end-all be-all of analysis, of course. My numbers on walks could probably use a tune-up when it comes to bases loaded situations, to name but one example. But I think that even if those numbers are adjusted slightly, it’s unlikely that walking Soto was the right decision. It might have made sense on first appraisal, and I could feel myself nodding as Hinch did it, but the numbers simply don’t bear it out.

When it’s the Astros, there’s always a chance that they’ve thought through the numbers better than some puny internet analyst, that I’m missing some fancified factor they dreamt up that made the matchup with Kendrick clearly preferable. But I don’t think so. I think a spot came up where a surface-level examination made a walk make sense, and then Hinch let the human element come into play. Soto had probably been shuffling his way through Hinch’s brain all day after Tuesday’s heroics. Howie Kendrick is closer to being Hinch’s age (!!) than he is to being Juan Soto’s. Why face the bogeyman if you have a base open and an old dude up next?

You face him because he’s not the bogeyman — he’s merely a great baseball player, and great baseball players succeed more often than regular baseball players but not overwhelmingly so. You face him because this particular bogeyman’s greatest skill is drawing walks. This was still a close call, and inarguably a less egregious intentional walk than the one Martinez issued. But it was a bad walk all the same. It’s somehow very fitting that Houston’s first IBB all year would be in the World Series, and also be a bad decision. You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

The IBB of Yordan was after two balls; how does the count of 2-0 factor into the calculation of whether to go ahead and issue two more intentional balls or face Yordan in at least two straight hitter’s counts?

2 years ago
Reply to  Ben Clemens

Thanks, Ben!