Monday, March 28, 2005

The Best Laid Plans of Mice: Baseball's Intentional Walk

During the past few baseball seasons, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants has taken the proverbial red pen to the record books: 73 homeruns and a slugging average of .863 in 2001; 232 walks and an on-base percentage of .609 in 2004 . Because of his annihilation of the many records, opposing teams rarely afford him desirable pitches, often thinking it wiser simply to award him first base. This historically unprecedented technique is justified by managers, players, and fans alike, claiming that a team’s sole responsibility is to win ballgames.

Though this argument may seem reasonable, the opposing viewpoint is stronger, not only upon statistical analysis, but also through logical reflection. Excessive use of the intentional walk bores the fans, unfairly limits a proficient player’s participation in the game and, preposterously, most often fails in its implied objectives of preventing runs and assuring victory. This ineffective and numbing strategy should be curtailed through the imposition of a new rule that limits the number of walks and/or presents greater penalties for those who persist in the practice.

In baseball’s original rules, pitchers faced no penalty for throwing outside the strike zone, as neither “walks” nor “balls” existed. Pitchers eventually learned to use this freedom to their advantage by throwing intentionally wide in hope of finally coaxing the batter into swinging at an undesirable pitch. To combat this devious maneuver, the National Association of Base Ball Players decided in 1863 that pitches outside the strike zone be designated as “balls,” and that after two warning pitches, nine balls thrown to one batter would constitute a “walk,” or an award of first base. Over time, fans grew weary of the often lengthy at-bats; the two warning pitches were eliminated and the number of balls required for a walk was reduced to four.

Directly after its introduction, receiving a walk was considered unmanly; it was thought that real men should make gains only through work. To avoid this subtle disgrace, hitters would swing at borderline pitches. Drawing a walk was not considered a talent as it is today, but rather the unfortunate if necessary product of a devious pitching approach. (Until 1909, walks were counted as errors, specifically “battery errors,” or those committed by either the pitcher or catcher. In the modern game, a great hitter may be rendered practically impotent by the walk; originally a safeguard against intentionally poor pitching and a guarantee for equal batting opportunity, the walk has now become yet another weapon in the pitcher’s arsenal.

As a defensive ploy, the intentional walk has two main uses: it may be used to bypass a greater hitter with hopes of confronting a lesser one, or it may function to create a force play, or an out not requiring a tag. The earliest printed reference to an intentional walk occurs in the Washington Post on May 2, 1894 in an account of a game between the Boston Beaneaters and Washington Senators played on the previous day (“A Comedy Of Errors”). Washington Manager Gus Schmelz instructed his pitcher, Ben Stephens, to give an “intentional base on balls” to George Treadway, “with the object in view of retiring the side on a double play.” A more intriguing reference, however, took place only three days later in the same paper, recounting a game between the same teams (“Their Tenth Defeat”). “[Billy] Nash was given an intentional base on balls, and, as is the case nine times out of ten on this move, the next man up swatted the ball good and hard and brought two runs home.” This sentence not only tells us that the intentional walk had been practiced widely before 1894, but also shows the skepticism that had already arisen for the move as a defensive strategy. Why and when did this once dubious tactic become an article of blind faith?

By 1955, the intentional base on balls had become sufficiently commonplace to necessitate scoring it independently of conventional walks; in 1977, the practice was finally recognized and defined in the Major League Rulebook.

Often during early baseball, one of a team’s players would function also as its manager. This role was assigned to an experienced player who had a comprehensive understanding of the game’s intricacies. Eventually, the manager controlled player substitutions and strategies, but was by no means the most important man on the team; throughout baseball history, the players have always been not only the central attraction but also the prime determinant of a team’s success. With the recent intentional-walk craze, the function of the manager has appeared to become more important and, more alarmingly, the duties of the player seem dramatically reduced. The role of the pitcher, particularly, has been reduced to that of a pawn, submitting to his manager’s strategic whims. A characteristic exclusive to baseball among major sports has been the players’ levels of responsibility and independence; while football and basketball have frequent gaps in the action in which the coaches relay the players’ roles for ensuing plays, baseball players essentially rely upon their own judgment. Plays such as the intentional walk assign the roles of transmitter and receiver to the manager and player, respectively, thereby tarnishing one of baseball’s unique qualities.

Let us not forget that baseball is a spectator sport; one of its prime functions is entertainment. Should fans who come to the park anticipating the excitement of a Bonds swing be forced to endure a managerial chess game? While managers are supposed to apply their powers wholly to winning games, do they hold no responsibility to the fans who supply their and their players’ salaries? The answer became apparent when many fans of the teams opposing the Giants booed their managers’ decisions to bypass Bonds; at some level, they felt that the importance of their teams’ victories was outweighed by the diluted entertainment and cowardly spectacle of the intentional walk. "What does it say about this sport," asked Jayson Stark, "that it's considered perfectly acceptable to charge people negotiable American money to see the best player alive play — and then essentially prevent him from participating in any meaningful situation?”

Still more ludicrously, teams with no hope of late-season contention now abide by this unwritten code of unmanliness. It seems that since the technique’s introduction, it has slowly become the normal, acceptable way to face hitters such as Barry Bonds. Absurdly, the once extreme technique has become the conservative approach; it now seems an incredible display of audacity merely to pitch to Bonds at any time.

Many liken Bonds’s situation to events in other sports, namely the “Hack-a-Shaq” technique in basketball, which is intended to reduce Shaquille O’Neal’s scoring ability. When Shaq receives the ball, the nearest opposing player will foul him immediately, sending Shaq to the free-throw line, at which he is relatively powerless. This analogy, however, neglected two important considerations. While the “Hack-a-Shaq” method limited O’Neal’s offensive influence to his ability to make foul shots, the intentional walking of Bonds denied him any impact unless those who batted behind him in the lineup drove him in. Secondly, a basketball team receives a penalty for each foul exceeding the designated limit, while baseball provides no punishment for excessive walks; perhaps a comparable penalty in baseball would persuade managers and pitchers to confront Bonds. “Only…in baseball,” wrote Dan Daly in The Washington Times, “you can literally take an opposing player out of the game - and be hailed as a brilliant strategist for it.”

Managers justify the liberal use of the intentional walk by claiming that their only allegiance is to victory; as Marlins manager Jack McKeon related the consensus, “I know the fans come to see Bonds, but I want to come in after the game and say we won the game because we didn't just give in to what the fans want.” Managers like McKeon presume that the intentional walk is an effective defensive stratagem—but is this faith misplaced? Statistical analysts concluded that while an intentional walk may prevent a run or two in the inning of its use, its transient success is outweighed by its negative cumulative effect. The most precious commodity in baseball is the out—even the best hitters, including Barry Bonds, make outs roughly half of the time. By frequently awarding a player first base, let us say 192 times—the average for Bonds over the last three seasons—the teams opposing him concede roughly 96 outs over the course of a season; these non-outs translate into minimally 96, but actually far more, additional plate appearances for Giants, many for Bonds himself, that naturally materialize into runs and subsequent victories.

To combat the excessive use of the intentional walk, several baseball players, managers and analysts have made legislative propositions. Among the leaders of this movement is ESPN baseball analyst Jayson Stark, who collected the various suggestions circulating through the league and, along with his view on the subject, put them to paper. While all of the five proposed rule changes discussed in his column are interesting, they require classification into two distinct groups: the practical and the idealistic. The White Sox general manager, Kenny Williams, simply suggested a prohibition of the intentional walk altogether. In a perfect world, yes, this would alleviate the conflict; however, in the current situation in which players and their techniques are certainly less than straightforward, this rule would make for easy circumvention. Pitchers could simply resort to the “unintentional intentional” walk with no fear of punishment. The same loophole exists in two other of Stark’s five proposed strategies, including (a) limiting teams to one intentional walk per player per game and (b) advancing all runners on base upon an intentional walk. Another of Stark’s proposed remedies is to grant hitters the ability to decline walks. Unfortunately, this practice would exacerbate another current baseball problem—the games’ excessive durations. Allowing hitters to decline walks could yield fifty-pitch at-bats and subsequent six-hour games, and would essentially transform baseball to an inversion of its 1850s pre-walk state: tiresome at-bats in which the batter would finally cajole the pitcher into throwing a desirable pitch. The most practical of Stark’s solutions is to award the batter an additional base for each intentional walk he receives during that game. To prevent circumvention through the “unintentional intentional” walk, umpires would judge the pitcher’s intent and rule accordingly.

To avoid the cumbersome amendment process, there are several actions that the Giants organization can take to counteract this underhanded pitching approach. By placing him fourth in the lineup, current Giants’ manager Felipe Alou did not capitalize fully on Bonds’ misfortune; had he batted Bonds in the lead-off position, he would have exponentially increased his team’s offensive production, both by allowing the heart of the Giants’ lineup to bat with Bonds on base and by granting Bonds approximately eighty more plate appearances over the course of a season. Another option for the Giants, although requiring money, would be to acquire several other strong hitters who would bat behind Bonds, thereby providing pitchers with greater incentive to keep Bonds off the bases.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: what is sport? Is there a criterion that irrefutably qualifies an activity as a sport, as opposed to a game or a spectacle? Perhaps etymology will lend a clue. While in its traditional usage, sport refers to recreation, it can be used also as in the phrase, “sport of the litter,” to mean “the unexpected.” And that is the essence of sport—the unexpected. Its unscripted, fickle nature not only provides excitement, but creates an environment with a true element of risk, an environment contrary to planned actions such as the intentional walk. The more baseball abandons its unscripted nature, the more it dilutes the sense of authenticity, of danger, the further it betrays the notion of sport.

Barry Bonds holds the all-time record for intentional walks with 604, while the runner-up, Hank Aaron, has merely 293. Are Bonds’ recent exploits truly dominant enough to elicit such a level of caution? Some claim that the tactic is a product of racial prejudice, as white players such as Mark McGwire received many more hittable pitches during their seasons that were comparable with Bonds’ recent performance. While this theory should probably be dismissed as unworthy, it is probable that Major League Baseball would have hastened its amendment process had a white player been the recipient of Bonds’ misfortune.
--Mark Thorn


My membership in SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, provided me with access to databases of newspapers tracing back into the early nineteenth century. While searching for references to the intentional walk from different time periods, hoping to decipher its level of popularity (or notoriety) throughout baseball history, I stumbled upon the May 2, 1894, Washington Post reference to the “intentional base on balls.” This entry refutes the previous theory of the first intentional walk, which credited Kid Gleason of the New York Giants as the first manager to use the walk as a defensive strategy in the 1895-1896 seasons.


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