Intentional walks are not strategy
[caption id="attachment_22637" align="aligncenter" width="488"] You tell me: Does this look at all exciting?[/caption]
Mike Trout has 20 intentional walks this year — and I’m about to go on another intentional walk rant — but this time I want to make my complaint clear. I sometimes feel that even though I have gone down this road dozens of times, people still misunderstand. They talk about how the intentional walk is STRATEGY … and it’s PART OF THE GAME … and it WORKS SOMETIMES and so on.
I disagree with none of these things.
I just think that the intentional walk is fundamentally evil and should be vanquished from the face of the earth. It’s a different argument.
Let’s start with a conversation I had a few months ago with a prominent baseball person. He was saying that he doesn’t concern himself with specific issues, such as defensive shifts or the rise of the strikeout. What bothers him is that he believes there’s no concerted effort to think about what a baseball game should look like.
“I don’t understand why we don’t ask ourselves: ‘What's the best version of the game?’” he said. “‘What's the ideal length of a game? How many pitchers should be used? How do stolen bases fit in? Triples? Home runs? Strikeouts? On and on.’ And we should work toward building that game.”
I’ve thought a lot about that over the last few months: What should baseball look like? We would all have different views, I suspect, but there would be some agreement. I haven’t heard anybody say that they want more strikeouts, or more pitchers used, or fewer stolen bases. I don’t think there are many people who would object to more balls in play, more chances for great defensive plays, more triples hit into the gap. I don’t think there's a silent majority out there that would object to a brisker pace of play.
But with baseball — more than any other sport — we are prisoners to tradition and history. I certainly get that: I’m a prisoner to baseball tradition and history. And because of that, we balk at changes to the game, we object to (as the baseball person above suggested) having MLB “put a hand on the wheel.” This is the game of Ruth! Of Mathewson! Of DiMaggio! Everything from the distance between the bases, to the number of games played per season, to the rules that allow virtually unlimited pitching changes is considered sacred.
And this stuff seems to matter more to us than how much fun it is to watch the game.
Think about it this way: Right now, there’s someone out there trying to stop every single thing you love about sports from happening. That’s their job. You like long touchdown passes? Defensive coordinators want them stopped. You like fast break basketball? Coaches talk ceaselessly about getting players back and preventing it. Hockey goals? Soccer goals? Sacks? Home runs? Dunks? There are people working night and day, using all their brain power in an effort to eliminate such things.
And that’s what you need. None of the cool things in sports would be cool unless someone was trying to stop them. If there weren’t absurdly talented athletes trying to tackle Le'Veon Bell, or block Steph Curry’s shot, or contain Alexander Ovechkin, there would be nothing special about them.
But what if those opposing forces succeeded? What if, using perfectly legal means, they figured out a way to stop long touchdown passes, to permanently prevent goals from being scored? This is not a hypothetical question. There was a time in the NFL when defensive backs were allowed to grab, tackle and harass wide receivers all the way down the field. They didn’t entirely STOP long passes from happening, but they came pretty close.
And so the NFL — which is not tied to its history in the same way that baseball is — changed the rules, made it so receivers couldn't be tackled, or held or technically even touched after five yards. The quality of the game mattered more than the history of the rules or the timelessness of the game. Very, very, very few people (maybe nobody) care that Jerry Rice and Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr. have played a different game than Otis Taylor or Paul Warfield. There are numerous examples of this, including in early baseball, when the rules were fungible and there was a whole lot of trial and error.
[caption id="attachment_22636" align="aligncenter" width="495"] I don't want someone taking the bat out of Trout's hands in a big spot.[/caption]
OK, so now let’s talk Mike Trout. He’s the best player in baseball. He’s a gigantic reason to come to the games, to tune in on television, to check in online. He’s someone that people like to talk about, argue about, put in historical perspective.
Mike Trout will usually come to the plate four or five times per game. He will, on average, make two outs per game. This makes baseball different from other team sports; Trout can only impact the game when it comes to him, when the timing's right, when a ball is thrown or hit his way. There's no real way for the Angels to adjust their strategy and make Trout more prominent. They can’t give him an extra shift. They can’t give him the ball more. They can’t ask him to shoot more. All they can do is put him in center field, put him in the best lineup spot, and hope for the best.
Now put those two things together:
Mike Trout is a reason — maybe even THE reason — to watch baseball.
Mike Trout will not get many chances to impact the game.
And now consider the following:
• On May 3, with the Angels playing at home against the Orioles, Mike Trout was intentionally walked three times. The first time, there were runners on second and third. The second and third times, there was a runner on second. Trout was also walked in the ninth, with runners on first and second, though that was a real at-bat that went to a full count.
If you were a kid who goes to one baseball game all year, and Mike Trout is your alltime favorite player, how much would that game stink?
• On June 13, in Seattle, Trout was intentionally walked twice. The first time was with a man on first, so there wasn’t even a base open. The second time was with nobody on.
• On the Fourth of July — God Bless America — Trout was again walked twice by the Mariners, the first time with a man on second, the second time with runners on first and third.
• On July 26 against the White Sox — the bleeping White Sox, who were 30 games under .500 at the time — Trout was twice intentionally walked with a man on third.
Add 11 more of these scenarios and you get what I’m saying.
Managers are freely exploiting the rules and tradition to make baseball a lesser game. They will say that it's in the name of “strategy,” but that isn’t it. If the rules stated (I do not propose this rule) that if you walk a hitter, every runner on base scores, NOBODY would intentionally walk Mike Trout with men on base. That so-called strategy would go right out the window. That’s because it isn’t a strategy. It’s a loophole in the rules. It’s a scenario in which the penalty for doing something harmful to your team isn't strong enough to restrain people from doing it.
I don't want to promote any new rules here, though I will again mention Bill James’ elegant suggestion that hitters should be allowed to turn down walks (everything is reset, and another walk would mean two bases instead of one, and so on). I think proposed rule changes distract from the main idea, which is that intentional walks are bad for baseball. I cannot imagine an ideal version of the game — the one that my friend in baseball was talking about — that would include intentional walks. I cannot imagine a sport being OK with its biggest moments getting stolen like this on a consistent basis.
I don’t know about you, but I watch baseball in part to see the best go up against the best. It doesn’t happen often. We only get so many chances to see Mike Trout or Jose Ramirez or Mookie Betts or Freddie Freeman or Joey Votto or Nolan Arenado or Jose Altuve or Aaron Judge come up against a terrific pitcher with the game on the line. Managers shouldn't have the power to take any of those moments away from us. They're too rare as it is.