Some Quick Thoughts on the Intentional Walk

Russell Martin
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I’m hardly a baseball traditionalist, and I assure you I couldn’t give two shits about the sacredness of the intentional walk. But, oh man, this new rule is horrifically fucking dumb.

In case you’ve missed all of the way too many words spilled over the intentional fucking walk (about which I’m going to spill a few hundred more), MLB has now decreed that clubs can signal from the dugout for an intentional walk, rather than having their pitcher lob four balls to home plate.

I’d say that this is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, in terms of speeding up the game, but that would actually be generous. We know what actually slows down the game: the lengthy breaks for TV commercials between innings. And the league sure as fuck won’t be doing anything about those. Yet, until they do, all they’re doing is paying lip service to pace of play — and honestly, I don’t even know why.

Baseball games are sometimes long. It’s OK.

The uselessness of this particular rule is especially obvious, both anecdotally — like, do we all sit there tapping our watches yelling “Get on with it!” when an intentional walk is in progress? — and in terms of good old raw data.

There were 932 intentional walks in the Majors last season. There were 2,430 regular season games played, each of which averaged about three hours. So about 7,290 hours of baseball was played in the regular season in 2016. If the new rule shaved a minute off of the length of a game for every intentional walk — a number that seems high, but who actually cares? — that number creeps way down to about 7,275 hours.

The time lost to intentional walks is therefore just a drop in the bucket, for one. And, for two, there really doesn’t seem to be anything that’s going to stop teams from continuing to issue intentional walks the same way they always have.

Frankly, based on the way that Russell Martin has reacted to the new rule, I kinda hope that’s exactly what happens.

But let’s go back to the anecdotal stuff for a second. 

I mean, I won’t sit here and pretend that there will be some intentional walk-sized hole in my heart if it really does go away, but there is a kind of beauty in it. It’s an expression of strategy in a form as raw as the game has. And it gives us a brief moment to think and talk about that strategy.

Intentional walks almost always happen in crucial moments, and almost always serve to ratchet up tension. Rather than turn fans off, they engage fans — not unlike arguments between managers and umpires, which the league has also dumbly attempted to curb in recent years. When a visiting team does this, they hear about it. When a home team does it, you can feel your nerves tighten. And while those aspects of the spectacle aren’t going to go away entirely with this rule change, such moments will be shortened. You’re fast forwarding through some of the game’s most basic drama! And one wonders what the unintended consequences might be.

For example, had José Bautista actually, y’know, done something when Edwin Encarnación was intentionally walked in the ninth inning of the Wild Card play-in game last October, think of what the narrative might have been! Bautista standing there, being openly disrespected for four pitches, then coming into the game for a walk-off. Would this completely made up walk-off have happened if Bautista hadn’t been forced to endure such disrespect? PROBABLY NOT!

Hahaha. I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess, ultimately, what I’ll say is this: I’m not afraid of change when it comes to baseball. I’d like to think I’m exactly the kind of person who’d be receptive to something radical, if it was clear that it was going to make the game better. Starting extra innings in the regular season with a runner on second base? Sure! Fuck! I’d try it! But fixing something that isn’t a problem just so you can claim that you’re trying to be progressive and try to keep fans from looking at the interminable commercial breaks in the corner seems, y’know, a little bit dumb and disingenuous as fuck.

I’m not asking MLB to be run by its version of the sorts of musty old dinosaurs that are the keepers of the NHL’s flame, but there has to be a happy medium. And if you’re trying to be forward-thinking and help with the pace of play, how about getting serious about guys throwing at each other and eliminating all the bullshit that surrounds that — and the potential for genuine injury that goes along with it.

No? Not interested? Well then fuck, by all means, do something utterly pointless just for the sake of it, I guess.