ST. LOUIS -- To walk, or not to walk? It’s the question that keeps managers up at night and provides armchair managers ammunition for debate.
And there’s been plenty of material for the latter already this postseason.
In a year that saw the fewest intentional walks across baseball (753) since 1961, the free pass has had its fingerprints all over October … well, in one league, at least. With three more intentional walks issued on Friday, the Cardinals, who dropped Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, 2-0, to the Nationals, have issued a playoff-most six this month. Add in the five the Braves tallied in the Division Series, along with five more combined from the Nationals and Dodgers in their best-of-five tilt, and that’s 16 through the first 11 NL playoff games.
The American League, in contrast, is still looking for its first.
|Game ||Date ||Time ||Matchup/ |
|Gm 1 ||Oct. 11 || ||WSH 2, STL 0 ||Watch |
|Gm 2 ||Oct. 12 || ||WSH 3, STL 1 ||Watch |
|Gm 3 ||Oct. 14 ||7:30 p.m. ||STL vs. WSH ||TBS |
|Gm 4 ||Oct. 15 ||8 p.m. ||STL vs. WSH ||TBS |
|*Gm 5 ||Oct. 16 ||4 p.m. ||STL vs. WSH ||TBS |
|*Gm 6 ||Oct. 18 ||8 p.m. ||WSH vs. STL ||TBS |
|*Gm 7 ||Oct. 19 ||8 p.m. ||WSH vs. STL ||TBS |
That discrepancy can be partly explained by the designated hitter. But in a game some fear is trending toward predictability because of how much decision-making is based on analytics, there still remain divergent philosophies on the four-finger walk.
Take the Astros, for instance, who did not intentionally walk a batter all season.
“I don’t believe in putting baserunners on for free,” Houston manager AJ Hinch told reporters at the end of the season.
This year’s NLCS matchup, however, pits two clubs that each issued 41 such free passes during the season. Only the Marlins (with 52) had more. And so it should come as no surprise that the topic found its way to the forefront in Game 1, hours after Cardinals manager Mike Shildt defended his use of the strategy.
(For reference: Of the three intentional walks the Cards issued in the NLDS, only one led to a scoreless inning. The Braves scored a combined five runs in the other two frames.)
“Listen, we have had a lot of success doing it,” Shildt said. “It gets more magnified when it doesn't work, right? But you do it to create the best matchup you think you have.”
When it comes to success rate, Shildt is onto something. Not only was he one of the most liberal in issuing intentional walks, but the Cardinals were also among the most successful in not allowing a run to score once he did. The club allowed a run after an intentional walk 29.3 percent of the time, the 10th lowest such percentage in the Majors.
Other playoff teams -- the Twins (10 percent), Braves (18.2 percent), Brewers (22.2 percent), Nationals (24.4 percent) and Yankees (25 percent) -- were even stingier.
One of Shildt’s first managerial decisions of the night came in the second, when, with a runner in scoring position and two out, eight-hole hitter Yan Gomes stepped in. With first base open, Shildt had starter Miles Mikolas go at Gomes.
“He was crisp against [Ryan] Zimmerman, [and made] really good pitches with [Michael A.] Taylor,” Shildt noted, referencing the two outs Mikolas recorded just ahead of Gomes’ at-bat. “And then we felt good about him being able to execute.”
Gomes countered with an RBI double to plate the Nationals’ first run.
So when Gomes, by then 2-for-2, came up in a similar spot in the sixth, Shildt shifted strategy. He put Gomes on and watched as Mikolas induced a groundout from opposing pitcher Aníbal Sánchez to end the frame.
The decision didn’t come without data, though Shildt admitted afterward that he wasn’t sure he actually followed it in this instance. For years, the Cardinals have studied such a scenario, trying to glean whether intentionally walking the No. 8 hitter provides any statistical edge.
Their conclusion? Not really. While the numbers say it’s more likely to help a team escape an inning, it simultaneously increases the probability of the opponent scoring in the following frame. That’s because instead of leading off with the nine-hole hitter, the top of the order looms.
“We’ve gone back and forth here for years, and it’s basically no different,” Shildt explained. “Now, the variables can be different. If you have an accomplished eight-hole hitter or a good-hitting pitcher, someone like [Madison] Bumgarner, it can be a tossup. But after that, it’s about matchups, and that’s hard to quantify.”
The topic of matchups is key here, too, and while Shildt is among the managers who insists he tries not to manage differently in October than he does in May, circumstances can allow him to in this arena.
With a nine-man bullpen and plenty of off-days to keep just about everyone available, the opportunity to create the most desirable matchups is available in a way it can’t always be during the regular season, when managers are factoring in freshness and workload. It means an inning like the seventh, where Shildt used an intentional walk to set up a one-batter matchup for Andrew Miller, doesn’t always afford such flexibility.
“There’s no question that you want to maximize your bullpen by getting the matchups that you want,” Shildt said. “I’ve studied a lot of games, a lot of playoff games in particular. I can’t imagine managing the game much differently, but I think the biggest thing is you create an open spot for the matchup.”
That the intentional walk to Anthony Rendon didn’t help the Cardinals escape unscathed won’t deter Shildt from aggressively calling to do it again. Nationals manager Dave Martinez, based on his regular-season tendencies, likely will, too, before this series is over.
“I'm not going to not do something for fear of worrying about how that's perceived or looks,” Shildt said. “We'll do it when it's appropriate and know there's always a risk either way, right? There's a risk of pitching to the guy, and there's a risk of putting a guy on and pitching to the next guy. We're just trying to take our best shot and give us the best chance to compete.”
Jenifer Langosch is a senior content manager at MLB.com. She previously covered the Pirates (2007-11) and Cardinals (2012-19). Follow her on Twitter.