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Fun with the new intentional walk rule

Come for the intentional walks, stay for the quirks.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

One of my favorite things about Beyond the Box Score is the people. Everyone here loves baseball, and not just the stat-y, sabermetric version of baseball that requires one to have a working knowledge of (at least) Excel and a copy of Tom Tango’s ‘The Book’. There isn’t a place in which this is better manifested, in my mind, than our site-wide Slack chat. It is fun, interesting, insightful. All that jazz. I could go on and on about how much of what I have learned in my time at Beyond the Box Score comes from this little app, but there was one thing that happened on Slack last week that we wanted to share with you nice folks of the inter-webs.

About two weeks ago, Major League Baseball passed a new rule which would allow coaches to signal intentional walks from the dugout now, rather than requiring the pitcher to throw four balls in a row. With that in mind, last Tuesday Audrey Stark posed this question:

Audrey is, of course, referencing this Adam Wainwright take on the new intentional walk rule. Could we now have a two-pitch inning? Could we have a one-pitch inning? Could we have an inning where there is not a single pitch thrown? Could we now see an immaculate inning where a runner reaches base? As you can imagine, this sparked a conversation: how many weird instances are possible now that pitchers do not have to throw a pitch for a runner to reach base, and, most importantly, what are the weirdest ones we could come up with? It’s a fun thought exercise, and we certainly hope you enjoy it.

Audrey Stark:

Adam Wainwright, actual cinnamon roll who is too good for this world, asked who will be the first pitcher to throw a 2-pitch inning:

Well, Waino, the new intentional walk rules make this a lot easier than it was previously. I think it'll be something along the lines of a one-pitch groundout, a zero-pitch IBB, and the next batter grounding into a double-play on the first pitch. My example is Jake Arrieta pitching against the Nats. It'll go something like this:

Adam Eaton leads off an inning for the Washington Nationals. He swings at the first pitch from Jake Arrieta and flies out. One pitch in and one batter out.

The Cubs intentionally walk Bryce Harper. They walked him thirteen times in a four-game series last season, literally not allowing him to swing the bat. At one point, Arrieta actually walked Harper to load the bases rather than pitch to him with two outs, so another intentional base-on-balls to Bryce is entirely plausible. Except this time, Jake won't have to throw a single pitch. Once Joe Maddon signals the IBB in the dugout, we have one pitch, one out, and one baserunner.

Then, up comes missed-the-batting-title-by-one-point-because-he-hurt-his-butt Daniel Murphy. While he only grounded into four double plays last season, Jake Arrieta is so fabulous we're going to overlook that stat and focus on his 52.6 percent ground ball rate. Arrieta throws one pitch to Daniel Murphy, who swings and grounds into a double play. Harper is out at second and Murphy is out at first.

Three batters, two pitches, one intentional walk, and no runners left on base.

Rob Rogacki:

The new intentional walk rule was created to facilitate an increased pace of play, but what if managers use it to do the opposite? Tigers manager Brad Ausmus detailed one potential stalling tactic that the new walk rule facilitates. In theory, a manager could grab any pitcher from his bullpen — say, a starter not scheduled to pitch that day — and bring him in to “intentionally walk” a batter. This would give another reliever ample time to warm up, helping to create a better matchup for the pitching team.

Now, there isn’t a rule stopping managers from doing the same thing already — said starting pitcher could come in and lob four intentional balls before departing — but the new rule takes any risk of injury or a Miguel Cabrera line drive single out of the equation. Will it significantly affect games? Probably not. Major League Baseball would likely step in if this particular practice got out of hand. But it would lead to some interesting statistical anomalies involving pitchers with an appearance but zero pitches thrown.

Shawn Brody:

Baseball is at its absolute best when it is quirky. There’s no other way to put it. I’m talking about the mesmerizing plays that take a couple minutes to wrap your mind around. The weird plays that stick with you for days. Those are the fun ones.

Certainly, a one pitch inning alone would fall under this category, but we can do better.

What if we threw in a stolen base before the pitch is even thrown? Nah, that’s too bland. What about a balk? Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. You think one intentional walk is good? Well, let’s throw in a second for good measure. Now for the icing on the cake, the weird-scenario equivalent of a bat-flip. A triple play.

Pitch all of that into this funky baseball batter and you’ve baked yourself an intentional walk, followed by a balk, then another intentional walk, finished off with a triple play on the first pitch of the inning.

But how would this all come about?

Imagine the game is tied in the bottom of the 9th inning. Coming up to the plate is none other than Hank Hitsalotta-dingers. Hank is not only quite the power threat, as his surname suggests, but he has also been on an absolute tear lately. He’s a guy who will end the game with one swing of the bat, and you can’t let him do it. You, the ‘smart’ MLB manager, signal from the dugout to put Hank on first. All is well, and you give your catcher the pitch to call. The plan is for Gabe Gapper to roll over a chang—*AAAAACCCHHHOOO*.

What now? Did that just happen? As the umpire signals for a balk, you put two and two together. Your pitcher just dropped the ball while sneezing. SNEEZING. Since the game is tied, you have to walk Gapper to keep a double play in order, as Hank now stands on second with no outs. You signal to the umpire, and there are now two runners on base without a single pitch being thrown.

Steve McSlow now steps to the plate. The first pitch Steve sees, he grounds sharply to the third baseman who steps on the bag for one, throws to second for two, and the ball finds a home in the first baseman’s mitt for the conclusion of a triple play!

Think this sounds like real a possibility?

Since 2000, only five times has a hitter been intentionally walked to lead off an inning, the last coming in 2007. Four of those occasions belong to a Mr. Barry Bonds, the fifth belongs to, you guessed it, Ryan Howard. Of course, I should also mention that three of Bonds’ IBB did not begin as intentional walks, rather a free pass issued after the pitcher fell behind 3-0. So, there have only been two instances from 2000 on where the leadoff hitter of an inning was intentionally walked. Both came in tie games, Howard’s in the 9th inning and Bonds’ in the 10th. Neither of those were followed by another intentional walk.

So, there’s an overwhelming chance that this will never happen, but who knows. I’ll be holding out hope.

Zachary Moser:

Count me among those skeptical that the elimination of the intentional walk will do anything to improve “pace of play” or shorten games, and even more staunchly among those who don’t think that these constitute problems at all.

However… the elimination of the intentional walk makes one particularly bizarre and fun scenario a possibility: the no-pitch inning. There are a few ways to get opposing players out on the basepaths, and now pitchers and the defense can take advantage of any unique skills they have regarding pickoffs and throwing out would-be basestealers.

A mediocre pitcher with a good pickoff move, facing a slate of hitters who strike fear into his heart, might choose to walk the first hitter — and subsequently try to pick him off. This might be a viable move for a lefty facing three consecutive lead-footed righties with power, for example.

Or, maybe the catcher is the one with the good arm. A catcher who loves to backpick to first base (R.I.P. David Ross) might encourage his ‘fraidy-cat pitcher to walk a guy in order to catch him waltzing off first base. This is perhaps a less-than-usual method, since baserunners are more likely to be wary of a pitcher with a great move than a catcher with a propensity to throw behind the runner at first. After all, the latter are fairly rare.

I’m now hearing this complaint that baserunners, managers, analysts, et al, will pick up on this after one or two hitters. Guys. It’s time for some game theory.

Yes, this ruse might only work once, if ever, for a pitcher or catcher. But the sort of mind games that occur on a baseball diamond usually happen within the duration of one at-bat, or across a few innings, where patterns might be the most applicable. If you’re a hitter, it’s unlikely that you’ll foresee an earnest pickoff move after being intentionally walked. If the pitcher or catcher nabs you, then it’s just your own fault for being slow.

If you’re the second hitter intentionally walked after the first is picked off, you might suspect a pitching change, since it appears that the pitcher wants nothing to do with you. Surprised, then, you would be, to find yourself the victim of another pickoff, after expecting some sort of managerial intervention.

There are now two outs, and you’re the third hitter in the box this inning after the first two have been walked and picked off. You’re highly suspicious at this point. When the pitcher puts you on base without throwing a pitch your way, you’re guarding your lead like you would your wallet in a mosh pit. And yet… could the pitcher really throw over again? Is he that confident in his move? That sure that a pickoff in this situation is a better strategy than just throwing to the hitter, or going to a better matchup?

But before you can think twice about whether or not he’ll throw over again, BAM--you’re the third out in the first no-pitch inning in major-league history.

Those are our hypothetical’s, but now we would love to hear some from you! Comment below with an interesting possibility that you think might happen because of the new intentional walk rule.