An open letter to Sandy Alderson:
Dear Mr. Alderson,
We've spoken on the phone a few times and so I should probably call you "Sandy," but the truth is that you intimidate me. You're smart, it's pretty apparent that you don't have much use for those of my ilk (not that I blame you), plus you led an infantry platoon in Vietnam and I suspect you could still break my skinny frame like a dry twig if given a good reason.
No, I don't have any doubt whatsoever that you're smarter than me ... but I've got something that you don't have. I've got hundreds of readers who are, collectively, smarter than you and me and the entire membership of the World Umpires Association put together. Now, I don't know if you have any actual interest in limiting intentional walks, but in case you are interested, there are two popular options floating around out there among the fans.
The first would allow a batter to spurn a walk. That is, upon the completion of the walk he could simply start his plate appearance over again. There's a huge problem with this proposal, though, which is that if the pitcher wants to walk the batter once, why wouldn't he just do it again? There's another problem, too, one that I know you've already spotted ... We're trying to speed the games up, not slow them down. And while it's true that the biggest reason for long games is all the commercial time -- which MLB isn't complaining -- it's also true that allowing hitters to call "Do-over!" isn't going to help, either.
The second would force the catcher to remain crouched in his little catcher's box until the pitch has been caught. If he stands up or leaves the box, all baserunners move up, as if there'd been a wild pitch. Again, though, there are big problems with this. What's a catcher supposed to do if the pitch is right down the middle, but six feet off the ground? He might as well not even bother trying to catch it, but that slows down the game and also presents something of a safety hazard for the umpire. What's more, now we're asking the ump to determine whether or not the catcher is officially "crouched"? This just isn't practical. And more to the point, if a pitcher wants to walk the hitter, he can still throw four fastballs a foot outside.
No, those just won't work. But Mr. Alderson, I do have something that will work. It's relatively simple and it won't end the intentional walk as we know it, but it will eliminate some of them, especially to the big boppers that people pay to see.
This rule will, however, require an addition to the official, in-game record-keeping. For every walk, the official scorer must note whether or not the plate appearance included a strike. If there was not a strike, that walk will be recorded as a "BB4," which is shorthand for "four-pitch walk." And here's the catch: if the same hitter is walked on four pitches later in the game, he gets two bases rather than one, with any runners forced forward as necessary. If there's a runner on second, he moves to third. If there are runners on second and third, the runner on second moves to third and the runner on third scores. Etc.
I don't know that I really care to argue for this rule. It's the best of a bad lot, but it adds a level of complexity for everybody involved, from the manager and the players to the fans at home. Do we really want to worry, in the ninth inning, whether that first-inning walk included a strike or not?
No, we probably don't. We're probably stuck with the rules exactly as they are, because the negatives that come with the alternative outweigh the positives.
The situation isn't hopeless, though. There wouldn't be so many intentional walks if the hitters weren't so dangerous, and the hitters wouldn't be so dangerous if some existing rules were enforced more than they've been. Body armor for batters was supposedly restricted last year, but then we see Barry Bonds wearing a gauntlet that looks like it could deflect bullets. Umpires are supposed to be calling the high strike, but most of them still have a ways to go. And hitters continue to abuse the batter's box, either destroying the lines or simply ignoring them. There's supposed to be a policy that prevents players from bulking up on steroids, but there's little reason to think the policy will be effective, even if it's enforced.
I know you're working on all of these things, Mr. Alderson. And I suspect you realize that there's no point in making new rules until we find out if the old ones will do the trick. Which they might, if given half a chance.
Master Rob Neyer
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is email@example.com.