As I’m sure you’ve heard, intentional walks are a thing of the past. Not the actual “giving up a free base, probably because of bad strategy” intentional walk; only the process — where a pitcher lobs four pitches to a standing catcher, while the batter watches disinterestedly — has been eliminated. Now, managers will be able to “signal” from the dugout that they would like to issue an intentional walk, and the batter will proceed to first, without any of the intervening theater.
First things first: this is a minuscule change. There were
a whopping only 932 intentional walks in 2016, spread across 2,428 games (or one every two-and-a-half games) and 184,578 PAs (or one every 200 batters). Intentional walks are not a frequent event; even cumulatively, they make up a tiny fraction of a season.
You wouldn’t know that from how people reacted, though. When I think of cherished, hallowed baseball institutions, I think of Fenway Park, or Wrigley Field, but apparently IBBs rank pretty highly on that list for some folks. For some, the problem was that IBBs are actually good (???); for others, this was Rob Manfred meddling, trying to fix a version of baseball that isn’t broken; for still others, this was also meddling, but bad because it didn’t do enough to fix baseball.
To each their own, I guess, but this isn’t a change I can imagine having a very strong opinion about. How long would it have taken you to notice if MLB had made this change and not made an announcement in the middle of February, when everyone is starved for any piece of news and ready to react to the smallest tidbit of something new like it’s the death of an era? I honestly think I would’ve made it to June, at which point I would’ve said, “Huh!” and moved on with my life.
“But,” you ask; “but why are you writing this article, Mr. Above-the-fray-of-your-petty-concerns?” Because I have a bit of a thing for rule changes. Earlier this winter, for example, I advocated semi-seriously for shortening the basepaths. The summary version: small ball is fun, and teams will enact the fun strategies more often if they’re also the good strategies. Make the good strategies and the fun strategies overlap, and they’ll happen more often. Shorter basepaths means more bunting, more stolen bases, more slap hitters, more trick plays: a more fun baseball.
Of course, you can disagree with my conclusions, but I firmly believe that’s the way to think about baseball’s rules. There is nothing special about the way baseball works at this given moment in time, and no inherent reason to value the current set of rules over any other alternative. That’s not to say that continuity can’t have value; simply that continuity has no value independent of its effect on the way we enjoy (or don’t enjoy) the game. The question we should always be asking is whether changing the rules might make baseball better.
Naturally, that can’t be the only question we ask. “Better” is going to mean a lot of different things to different people, and predicting the impacts of changes can be tough. (Replay, for example, seemed like it was likely to be a net positive, but if someone had predicted the bouncing-off-the-bag problem, I probably would’ve changed my opinion.) It is, however, the fundamental question we should be trying to get at. When we’re considering a change, it doesn’t matter whether baseball is broken or not; whether it’s growing and getting more popular, or regionalizing and getting older. The only thing that matters is whether the change will make it better.
If we all agree that our goal is to make baseball as good as possible, then the conversation at least can progress in a semi-reasonable way. I think this change is a positive, because I agree with Manfred (shudder) that, while length of game isn’t a big deal, pace of game kind of is. Not in every situation, to be sure, but IBBs tend to happen in exactly the kind of high-tension situations that should never be paused. When there are runners on second and third with two outs, and the fielding team decides to walk the current batter, I don’t want to wait a minute for the pitcher to play a bit of catch while everyone else checks their phones or pees or whatever. I want to get right to the two-outs, bases-loaded situation that I know is coming up. Eliminating home run trots might save more time than eliminating IBBs, but they pause the game at a moment where a pause is totally appropriate and awesome.
You might disagree! You might think the one-in-a-thousand event — when Miguel Cabrera reaches out and slaps an attempted intentional ball into the outfield — makes the other 999 times worth it.
Or maybe you think the pause in the action that an IBB causes is actually good! You can think that, and if we both agree that the question is how to make baseball as good as possible, the rule changes become a question of personal preference. I can’t fault you for liking your baseball different than I like my baseball.
But if you like your baseball exactly how it currently exists, for no reason other than this is the way it exists in the year 2017, then I definitely can, and do, fault you. Rule changes aren’t evil; there’s nothing special or ordained about baseball’s current set-up. They were decided upon using trial-and-error; the errors certainly haven’t stopped, so the trials shouldn’t either. Let’s keep trying new things, if they seem likely to improve the game.
IBBs being streamlined might be a small change, but it’s an attempt at a new, good thing, and that should be encouraged.
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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.