A disagreement on intentional walks

Rob gets into an e-mail discussion/argument with colleague Jim Caple concerning intentional walks.

Originally Published: February 10, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Jim Caple: Rob, what prompted all this recent focus on the "evil'' intentional walk? Other than (Barry) Bonds, are intentional walks up significantly? Had the Giants not reached the World Series, would anyone care about the issue? Isn't the solution for the Giants to bat someone better behind Bonds, such as (Jeff) Kent, which would eliminate the problem without forcing a change to a rule that's been in place for more than 100 years?

What am I missing?

Rob Neyer: I don't really understand this argument (which I've heard a few times today).

Just because we didn't start talking about it until now, it's not a problem?

My gut feeling is that the "solutions" are probably worse than the "problem." But just because there have been intentional walks for 100 years (which, by the way, I don't think is actually true) doesn't mean they're a positive part of the game.

Jim: I think we didn't start talking about it until now because until now, no one (or very close to no one) saw it as a problem. I mean, aside from the recent stories, I've never heard any fan complain about the intentional walk. Which means, to me at least, that the media considers it a problem now just because Bonds got walked so much.

The next logical step in your argument would be to require pitchers to throw all strikes to batters and not carefully pitch around the best, because that's what we come to see: batters hitting the ball. But I don't. I go to see two teams try to win a game. And if the other team has such weak batters behind their cleanup guy that my team would rather pitch to them instead, I see no reason to reward their lack of depth

Rob: "The next logical step" argument is a poor one, Jim. You can use that to argue against just about any sort of change, because there's always a "next logical step" that's truly silly.

The game was first designed as a battle between the hitter and the fielders, with the pitcher mostly there just to provide something for the hitter to hit. A few years later, everybody realized that the pitcher could be a weapon, too, and so it became a battle between the hitter and the defense (pitcher and fielders). But nobody ever intended for pitchers to just give up.

Think about it. The intentional walk is the only baseball event that can't be considered a "skill play." Hitting, pitching, fielding ... these are all very difficult things. Even a "routine fly ball" would be an adventure for the man on the street. Even the sacrifice bunt requires a great deal of skill. But the intentional walk ... what is that? It's nothing. You or I could easily "throw" an intentional walk.

You say you go to see two teams try to win a game. Fair enough. But don't you really go to see two teams of players trying to win a game?

As for fans complaining about the intentional walk, I've heard them complaining hundreds of times. Every time I'm at the ballpark and somebody walks the home team's hitter, the fans boo. I know you spend most of your time in the press box, but I can't believe you've missed that.

Jim: Well, I somehow have missed this enormous hatred of the intentional walk. It's simply a part of strategy, much like pitching around a batter carefully. Barry Bonds in the World Series aside, it simply doesn't bother me. And the fact that this idea has been proposed in any serious form only in the past couple of months indicates to me that it's a knee-jerk response to what happened in the World Series. And that's a bad way to decide whether to change the rule book.

Rob: I would agree that a knee-jerk response is generally a bad way to do anything. But you know, it's not really a knee-jerk response. The World Series ended nearly four months ago, so I think it's safe to assume that everybody's passions have cooled a bit.

And an intentional walk is not at all like "pitching around a batter carefully." Pitching around a batter carefully takes a certain amount of skill. If you mess up with just one pitch, it might end up bouncing off Waveland Avenue or floating in McCovey Cove. But not the intentional walk. As my friend Jason Brannon puts it, "The intentional walk isn't a baseball play, it's the avoidance of one. The reason we count balls at all is to force the pitcher to throw to the batter. To play ball."

Barry Bonds aside, I think the fans at Safeco Field enjoy the game a bit more if they get to see Ichiro actually hit. If they get to see him play ball. And you know what? I think most of the fans in Oakland and Anaheim and Arlington would rather see Ichiro play ball, too.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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