Bryce Harper has a swing that sends baseballs sailing past green fences and deep into the stands of right field. But on May 8, 2016, he didn’t swing once. In seven at-bats, he was hit by a pitch once, and walked six times, thrice intentionally. The Nationals were playing the Cubs, and Harper might as well have not been out there. Over the course of the four-game series, the Cubs stole the bat right out of his hands, issuing him 13 walks, breaking a 1913 record.
When Harper came up to bat for his seventh plate appearance on May 8, with runners on first and second and two outs, the catcher stood up, placed a hand on his chest, and stretched his glove outside the box to signal the walk. I hung my head in agony. Four pitches, a death knell ringing in my ears with every clap the ball made in the back of the glove. This was before Harper fell into his 2016 slump, back when the Nationals’ season still seemed bright and full of promise. But that series was a warning sign. The next batter, Ryan Zimmerman, grounded out, and the game would soon be over. The Nationals lost every single game that series.
On Wednesday morning, Major League Baseball announced a change to the walk rule. Instead of throwing four pitches outside the box, a dugout signal will be used and the batter will simply take his base. The goal is to change the pace of the game. Major League Baseball wants to speed things up, presumably so it can appeal to those with wandering attention spans. Eliminating those four pitches will save the league about a minute per walk. Last season, there were 932 intentional walks, so they’ll save one minute every 2.6 games.
There are plenty of reasons to use an intentional walk, but its most explicit, most undeniable purpose is to avoid the long ball. A pitcher who is either strategic or cowardly (depending on your point of view) can avoid a rockstar hitter by intentionally walking him, never risking anything.
Major League Baseball isn’t getting rid of the intentional walk (at least not yet), but by trying to save a few minutes, the league is stripping away its true purpose: creating deep, unavoidable shame. When children mess up, we tell them to go sit in the corner and think about what they’ve done. And that is what those four pitches do. Fans are forced to watch the pitcher refuse to give their guy a chance to hit over, and over, and over, and over again.
And with each ball lobbed in, the shame grows. When the Cubs intentionally walked Harper in May of last year, I wasn’t angry. Whether the strategy worked was irrelevant to me. Right behind Harper was an out they thought they could get so easily that they were willing to load the bases. The minute it takes to throw away four pitches is a protracted demonstration that the opposing team thinks it can beat you, and it knows exactly how.
“Make ‘em pay for it,” my dad used to tell me when I came up to bat after a walk. “If they don’t have to pay, they’ll keep doing it.” The agony of the intentional walk isn’t in the potential for drama that could happen. Sure, a player could steal a base during those pitches, or a ball could pass, or a batter could swing at the pitch anyway. But that’s not why those four long pitches are important to me. They matter because they remind me that my team, no matter how strong I think it is, has weaknesses that can not only be exploited, but flaunted in front of my face without consequence.
Without those four pitches, the shame of the intentional walk dissipates. There’s no time to worry about the next man up or the strategy for the rest of the inning, because that next batter is already in the box missing the first strike.
Baseball is a team sport. There are nine slots in a batting lineup, nine positions on the field, and every single one of those players has to show up to get the win. The intentional walk is a reminder that you can't hang your hat on one great batter, or even two. Bryce Harper or Nelson Cruz or Miguel Cabrera can’t win a game for you all alone.
In an age when homers and strikeouts dominate the game, an intentional walk puts the fear of God in fans about who is hitting sixth and seventh in a lineup. If it's your player being walked, those four slow, treacherous pitches remind you of the value of depth, of batting order, of base-hit players. And if it's your team doing the walking, the intentional walk is a minute’s solace that one player can't beat you, ever.