Anticipated rule could continue decline of IBB

February 22nd, 2017

The intentional walk is slowly dying. Last year, there were only 0.38 intentional walks per game, the lowest total since statisticians started counting intentional walks back in 1955. This is a clear trend, by the way -- the five lowest totals for intentional walks per game are, in order, the past five years.

This is a reason to rejoice. Managers are coming to realize that the intentional walk is, more often than not, a poor strategic choice.

And what's even better is that managers are intentionally walking great hitters less often. In 2006, for instance, 15 players were intentionally walked 15 or more times, and they were all the great hitters -- Barry Bonds, , Lance Berkman, Vladimir Guerrero, , Manny Ramirez, and so on. Last year, only six players were intentionally walked 15 times.

With all that in mind, it's hard to predict exactly what impact -- if any -- the anticipated new rule to point hitters to first base rather than throwing four balls will have. Best I can tell, the arguments on both sides are somewhat leaky.

Those arguing for the new rule say that it will save a little time, and it will eliminate what is basically a pointless exercise of a pitcher playing catch with a catcher. As my co-worker and baseball guru Mike Petriello tweets:

Like this (by the way, I don't think the Fingers pitch was a strike):

Or this:

Or this:

Or all of these:

To be honest, I didn't expect to find that many intentional walk mishaps -- there might be a little more to that "fun things happen sometimes" argument than I first thought.

Anyway, I think both arguments have their points, and both arguments have their flaws.

On the one hand, I agree with Mike that we won't miss seeing pitchers throw the four intentional walk pitches. It's boring and kind of a waste of time.

On the other hand, I don't think the four pitches were particularly a problem. Yes, every now and again, someone would say, "Aw, they should just let the guy go to first base without those pitches." But I don't think many people cared all that much. It's like the kneel-downs at the end of football games. They're boring and generally pointless, but I don't think anyone would want a coach to be able to just point at the clock and make the last 90 seconds disappear.

So it's a wash. The real question is: Will this rule have any unexpected effect?

Rule changes, even minor ones, often do have unintended consequences. Replay has changed every sport in ways no one could see coming -- overturning NFL catches that were always catches, eliminating basestealers whose foot bounces a millimeter off the bag at sliding impact, etc. This rule seems so straightforward, it doesn't seem likely to change the game very much.

But we don't know. The one thing I don't like about it is that, in a way, it legitimizes the intentional walk. True, the intentional walk was never illegitimate, but now there will be something in the official rules that makes it easier, that gives the manager direct control of the game. He doesn't have to go to the mound anymore, order a walk, have a pitcher scream, "I can get this guy." Now, he just points to first base.

(Someone suggested that the signal for the intentional walk should be for the manager to wave a white flag, and I'm 100 percent for this.)

Will this inspire managers to order more intentional walks? Probably not. But maybe it will motivate managers to order fewer intentional walks -- I doubt it, but it's possible (and if it does, then I will love it).

Will this rule take something out of the baseball reverie? One thing about baseball is that every play follows an action. Every single player in the history of baseball who has been walked has seen four balls thrown. Now, that won't be the case. Will it feel a bit too recreation softball-ish? Or maybe we will see batters intentionally walked with a point and think, "Man, this is so much better than the old way."

Or maybe we won't even notice it after a short while. This, I would say, is the most likely outcome.

But the crazy thing about rules changes, even minor ones, is that we don't really know. I certainly won't miss watching pitchers lob the ball to catchers standing outside the strike zone. I just hope that whatever impact the new rule has, it allows the intentional walk to keep dying a slow death.