The Instant Intentional Walk
OK, I'm trying to think of a single good thing about the proposed new rule to eliminate the actual process of intentionally walking a hitter. I might have one, but it probably isn't the positive that the competition committee had in mind.
By now you probably have read Jayson Stark's sourced story that says baseball's competition committee -- in an effort to deal with two of baseball's bigger problems -- made a couple of recommendations. The first of those recommendations is the major one: They want to raise the bottom of the strike zone a bit (to the top of the knees) to help counter baseball's runaway strikeout trend.
And second, in an effort to speed up a slowing game, they want to change the intentional walk so that pitchers no longer have to throw the actual four pitches. Apparently the pitcher would emphatically point to first base or something like that, and the hitter would be instantly walked.
We'll get to that bizarre recommendation in a minute.
The strike zone change makes some sense. Baseball probably should do something about the strikeout. Teams are whiffing eight times per game for the first time in baseball history -- that means almost one-third of all outs are by strikeout. That does make the game less exciting. Baseball is a pendulum, with the advantage swinging from hitter to pitcher, back to hitter and back to pitcher, and right now I think most people would agree that the game is too tilted toward pitching. Taking away the low strike (and the even lower pitches that umpires inevitably call strikes) is a sensible thought.
That said: I don't know if the rule change would have the desired impact. A lot of this is guesswork. Small -- almost imperceptible -- adjustments to the rules or even to the baseballs themselves can massively change the game. Will the strike zone change force pitchers to bring up their pitches, giving hitters better opportunities top put the ball in play? Maybe. Then again, it might lead to the skyrocketing of walks, which would only make the lack-of-action problem worse. It might lead to an enormous power surge in the game, where players again start hitting 60 and 70 home runs. Any time you make changes, you are opening up the game any number of unforeseeable consequences.
But THAT said: I'm all for doing something. The low strike isn't great for the game. Umpires these days often call strikes on low pitches that most hitters simply cannot hit with any authority. I can see how a slightly revised strike zone is worth trying.
The second rule, the no-pitch intentional walk rule, well, I have no idea how that absurdity made it out of committee. I have no idea how that makes the game any better. No one despises the intentional walk more than I do. But my problem with it has nothing to do with how much time it takes up -- what are we even talking about here? Thirty seconds? A minute? And how many intentional walks are there, anyway? This year, baseball averages about one intentional walk every THREE GAMES.* This is like trying to reduce the high cost of college by making pizza cheaper.
*I do have this theory that intentional walks will go up because -- with strikeouts at an all-time high and batting averages at historic lows -- I think the intentional walk becomes a more optimal strategy in today's game. But so far, thankfully, the intentional walk is not being used all that much.
So what good would this rule do? It would save almost no time. It would alter one of the more fundamental rules of baseball -- four balls equaling a walk. It would take away the fans' opportunity to express protest by booing the pitcher and manager every pitch. It would inspire equally silly and pointless time-saving options such as Brandon McCarthy's wise guy idea of eliminating the home run trot.
So how would this rule improve the game in ANY way? The only way I can think of is if you made the signal for the intentional walk something entertaining.
Example: Make the pitcher and/or manager fulfill some sort of reality TV challenge -- eat a live bug, sing the school song, avoid a live jaguar for 30 seconds --- before he could order the intentional walk.
Well, that's not the only way. I suppose it might improve the game if the hitter that is intentionally passed walks backward around the bases -- from third to second then to first -- and gets to mock each of the fielders as he goes by.
Or, wait, I suppose it might improve the game if, after the pitcher points to first base to to launch the intentional walk, the hitter is then allowed to point to any fielder and have him taken out for the rest of the inning. I would be all for this, sort of a power play type of thing.
Alas, none of these are likely a part of the competition committee's recommendation, so what good could possibly come from this new intentional walk rule?
I mentioned above that I came up with one advantage: if they actually institute this rule -- and I am predicting right here that they will not -- it might highlight just how ridiculous and anti-competitive and bad for baseball the intentional walk really is. Maybe the visual of seeing a pitcher simply point to first base to avoid the game's best hitters in key moments will make clear that this is a hole in the game, a too-easy way to evade the tension that helps make the game great.
Errrr, probably not. So, no, there's nothing good about the idea.