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How much time has MLB saved by taking away the intentional walk?

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It’s been nearly two years since MLB instituted this rule, which the league marketed as a way to speed up games.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball made headlines in February 2017 when they announced that they were doing away with the intentional walk. Instead of it taking four actual pitches for a batter to reach first base, managers would signal to the umpire that they would like to walk the hitter at the plate, and they would jog down to first as normal.

When the plan was first announced, most people were unhappy, arguing that MLB was changing the game for the worse. Removing the intentional walk, they argued, would not really shave that much time off each game. It would also potentially remove some uniqueness from the game, as plays like these are now no longer possible:

Right when the move was announced, I ran a Twitter poll on my account to try to understand the general populous’ point of view on the removal of the intentional walk. In short, most baseball fans were not in favor of MLB’s decision:

Here we are, nearly two seasons into MLB’s rule implementation. The backlash has quieted considerably, and it is finally time to figure out just about how much time the league has really saved from the rule.

The methodology behind this is pretty simple: using PITCHF/x data from FanGraphs, I was able to find the average amount of time between each pitch across the league. Of course, if a pitcher was intentionally walking a batter under the old rule, he probably wouldn’t take 20 seconds to throw each pitch, so this is already an overestimate. With that said, however, this is the best hard data that I have at my fingertips for the amount of time between each pitch, so it is what I have decided to go with.

Here are the intentional walk numbers from 2017 and 2018, with the estimated amount of time that it saved per game:

Time saved from intentional walks

Season IBB G IBB/G Pace (sec) Time Saved (sec)
Season IBB G IBB/G Pace (sec) Time Saved (sec)
2018 873 2288 0.38 24.1 36.8
2017 970 2430 0.40 24.3 38.8

Clearly, even with these numbers that are likely overestimates, MLB is not saving a significant amount of time per game with the new intentional walk rule. Games are about 40 seconds shorter, on average, because of this change. Not a huge difference indeed.

And, with average game time still trending upwards (though games in 2018 have been four minutes shorter than games in 2017), it appears that the intentional walk rule alone is not enough for baseball to seriously follow through on its pace-of-play initiatives.

I still do not think that removing the intentional walk was a bad idea, however. It truly became a question of what weighs more, the slight chance something crazy happens on a poorly-thrown intentional walk pitch or the slight amount of time saved as a result? Baseball never expected the intentional walk rule to be the difference in taking baseball games back under 3 hours, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

That’s why there are two sides to interpret this. There’s the one side that would argue that removing the intentional walk hasn’t saved enough time to account for the rare plays like Miguel Cabrera’s above, and there’s the other that says that any saved time is good saved time.

All I can give you are the numbers.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.