Richard Griffin goes deeper into the count on MLB’s decision to do away with pitches on intentional walks, and explains why it won’t make ball games any shorter in the end.
It’s not just outspoken Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin who doesn’t approve of the newest major-league rule change.
An intentional walk now simply requires a manager to signal the umpire that he wishes to place the batter at first base, rather than throw four lob pitches wide of the plate. An informal poll of Jays’ uniformed personnel in the clubhouse at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Wednesday indicated this is not a very good, or popular, decision by commissioner Rob Manfred and his executive group.
If people insist they are bored by the mere act of an intentional walk, then they really don’t understand the appeal of baseball as the most cerebral of sports. It is a ridiculously needless change to implement, and not just because I’m old school and stuck in the past.
Baseball is a game of mounting suspense and drama. Under the old four-ball rule, while the intentional walk was being issued it was a chance for fans to discuss and approve of the move, or second-guess the strategy.
The four-ball ritual was a chance for the on-deck hitter to ponder his upcoming at-bat — motivated by the insult of putting someone on intentionally to face him — or, conversely, to stop breathing and realize you are being counted on for the big hit (gulp!).
It’s as if you showed Psycho without the shower scene. Yes, you know what’s coming, but the anticipation grips you and won’t let go.
In 2016, there were 2,428 MLB games played by 30 teams with a total of 932 intentional walks issued. There is a random Twitter account called MLB Random Stats that estimated those intentional walks added up to 1,410 minutes. That’s an average of 90 seconds per intentional walk and 35 seconds per contest that commissioner Manfred believes will shorten games. However, that is not how the system will likely work in live conditions.
Here are some situations to show why this is a dumb change.
As the on-deck batter approaches the plate, the manager holds up four fingers. The next hitter was still down in the dugout and now needs to get loose with his usual on-deck ritual, rather than being expected to rush straight to bat. That hitter’s routine will all but negate any time saved by the rule change.
A significant number of intentional walks involve at-bats where a pitcher has been instructed to pitch carefully to the batter with first base open. When the count gets to 3and-0 or 3-and-1, the fourth ball becomes intentional. Under the new rule, the pitcher doesn’t need to throw ball four. Wave him on. Time saved? Zero.
In the next example, it’s a National League game and the manager decides to walk the eighth-place hitter to see who’s going to pinch hit in the pitcher’s spot. He brings in a starter not scheduled to pitch that day, then holds up four fingers. A right-handed pinch-hitter is announced and the manager goes to his bullpen for the real reliever. His interim pitcher never had to throw a pitch in the game, but gets an appearance.
The manager has started to warm up a reliever, but he needs more time. He brings in a decoy pitcher for the intentional finger wave, giving his reliever the time needed thanks to a second pitching change.
The last two examples actually make the game longer. Managers are already plotting to beat the rule.
Besides, it’s not like everything always went as planned on intentional walks when it was done the old-fashioned way. It may not happen often, but it happens. All of a sudden there are video examples of gaffes all over social media.
Some pitchers really have trouble with the simple act of issuing an intentional walk.
Then there’s also an occasional hitter who pays close attention. If one of the lobs gets too close, he jumps on it against a relaxed defence. Of course, none of that will happen again.
In Game 3 of the 1972 World Series, the A’s trailed 1-0 with men on first and third and one out. Bobby Tolan of the Reds stole second as Rollie Fingers delivered a ball to Johnny Bench, working the count full. Manager Dick Williams went to the mound and acted like he was ordering the intentional walk. Catcher Gene Tenace stood with his target right hand extended. As Fingers wound up, Tenace dropped down behind the plate. Fingers delivered strike three. That has zero chance of ever happening again.
I even have my own example of intentional walk misadventure. It was in the 2016 Ontario elims in Oshawa. My Oakville Junior A’s led Brampton 4-3 with one out in the sixth. I strolled to the mound to ask for an intentional walk. Before I could sit down in the dugout my pitcher, Greg Barbuto, had fired one off the backstop, advancing the tying run to third base. We completed the intentional walk and escaped the jam. Best-laid plans . . .
Besides, there are already MLB rules in place to help speed up the game, like hitters keeping one foot in the batter’s box between pitches.
How about legislating the number of mound visits by a catcher during an inning?
Maybe, for coaches, a total of two visits a game before a starting pitcher must be removed instead of two an inning. How about a 15-second clock on a manager’s challenge, and a 30-second clock on the actual review or the play stands?
Baseball has a flow and a rhythm, and waving a runner to first without making a pitch is not part of it. Let my people throw.