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How to think about intentional walks

We're getting ripped off.


Bill James, a couple years ago:

American airline carriers carry about 800 million passengers a year. Let us estimate that the security apparatus wastes 10 minutes of each passenger’s time per flight ... the loss of 10 minutes of life for each flying customer, those 10 minutes being both unproductive and unpleasant. That is a gross loss of 8 billion minutes.

And how many minutes are a lifetime? Assuming that the average traveler would live another 40 years and not counting the time spent sleeping, we could say that each 14 million minutes would be a lifetime. The TSA is, in effect, killing about 570 people a year, ten minutes at a time.

Every year in Major League Baseball, 1,200 players, give or take, are intentionally walked. Well, Prince Fielder was intentionally walked 50 times the last two seasons, so fewer than that, but you know what I mean. Twelve-hundred times a season, a pitcher or manager (usually a manager) decides that discretion is the better part of valor.

A regular player, a starter, steps up to the plate about 600 times a season, a little more than 600. Put another way, every year, two players are lost—not to injury, but to intentional walks. And not just any players. Intentional walks are not perfectly distributed among the baseball-playing population. They are disproportionately given to Prince Fielder and Joey Votto and Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen, i.e. baseball's biggest stars, the players fans most want to see.*

* and National League catchers who bat in front of the pitcher

Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 688 times in his career. That is, an entire Barry Bonds season was wiped out, stolen from baseball fans, because of a selfish strategy that obviously would have been outlawed a century and a half ago if anyone had imagined some jackass might actually employ it. Think about it this way: Why is there a limit on the number of balls a pitcher can throw outside the strike zone? Why do walks exist in the first place? A free base is the penalty a pitcher pays for not throwing reachable pitches (a.k.a. strikes) to his opponent. The walk says to the pitcher, This is your punishment for failing to give the batter a fair chance for a hit, for not challenging him. That managers are only too happy to incur such a penalty 1,200 times a year is proof enough that the penalty isn't great enough.

Say you're a Marlins fan. Marlins fans have been kicked around so much lately they're starting to envy Expos fans. Nevertheless, about 20,000 masochists people, on average, attended each of the Marlins' four games with the Cubs last week. I'll bet if you polled those people about why they went to the ballpark, a lot of them would probably say, "I just love baseball," or "I'm still a fan, this is what being a fan is," or, "Stanton might do something amazing." And he did! Stanton was awesome. He had one of those series that makes you think, "This guy has solved baseball." I'm a Cub fan, and by the end of the series I was ready to trade half our roster for him.

Anyway, imagine you're a Marlins fan, months from now, and you've just shelled out fifty bucks for the chance to see Stanton activate that home-run "sculpture" we'll all decide is charming fifty years from now. Stanton comes up in the late innings with the game on the line and ... the opposing manager holds up four fingers. Because first base was open, and that's what managers do. Setting aside whether or not it's good strategy, you have just been ripped off. You paid top dollar for the best baseball-related entertainment available in South Florida, and Fredi Gonzalez or Terry Collins or someone robbed you of that opportunity. You wanted to see a battle between Stanton and the other team's closer. You wanted to see baseball. Baseball is what happens between the pitcher and the batter, or the batter and the fielders. The intentional walk isn't baseball, it's the avoidance of baseball.

In basketball, you can double-team the opposing team's best player, but you can't keep him off the court, you can't keep him from shooting the ball. But in baseball, you can take the bat out of the hands of the other team's best player. Regardless of whether or not the intentional walk is good strategy, is it good for the fans? Is it fun to watch? Let's ask the Moneyball question: If we weren't already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?