Baseball, why, it's all things to all people. If you're a member of the George Will wing of baseball fans, it's tradition, from the Latin traditio, which is the verb for "handing over for housekeeping," perfectly explaining our relationship to the American soul, the memories entrusted to us. For other people, baseball is a place for dingers, tubed meats, $8 beers and dingers. These worldviews are not mutually exclusive.
But there's one thing that everyone shares, from the traditionalists to the nerds to the casual fans, and it goes something like this: Baseball is fascinated with the idea of the hyper-rare, the 1-in-1,000, the 1-in-10,000, the 1-in-a-million. It's why the purists insist that you watch every awful at-bat from every pitcher, just to feel rewarded when one of them gets a hit. It's why there are still people who know the name Bill Wambsganss. It's why we remember the squirrels on the field, the mitts thrown to first with baseballs in them, and the hitters who swing at a pitchout to protect a hit-and-run.
It's why baseball fans will take up arms if you try to take the freaks and the flukes away from them. Call it the Church of Youneverknow, and it holds that nothing is more sacred in baseball than the slightest possibility of a fluke occurrence. And this faction is currently angry because the rules of baseball are changing , and intentional walks are going away.
That means no more of this:
No more of this:
No more of this:
And, of course, as you'll be reminded several times between now and the new rule being enforced, no more of this:
That's the gold standard, the default sermon from the Church of Youneverknow. What about the players who get hits during their intentional walks? Having watched that video 16 times just now, it's a compelling argument. Getting rid of the silly IBBs is an awful side effect.
However, allow me to flash my credentials as Giants fan at the turn of the century. Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004. That's more combined intentional walks than the Blue Jays have received since 2011, and it was as tedious to watch as it sounds. Here's a game in which Bonds was walked intentionally four times, most of them in crucial game situations. The Dodgers won the game with the help of those walks, but they turned Barry Bonds at-bats into Cody Ransom at-bats, which is a strategy that should be covered under the Geneva Convention. So I'm no friend of the intentional walk. The minute spent on them is a minute longer until the real baseball comes back.
It's this balance, then, that's at the heart of the new rule. We know two unassailable truths:
- Weird things can happen during intentional walks, and weird things are a part of baseball's soul
- Intentional walks are boring and awful
How much boring and awful would we have to keep around just to give us a chance at the odd things? The odd, wondrous events that run through baseball's veins and give it life? Let's count the boring and awful.
In the 2015 season, there were 951 intentional walks in all of Major League Baseball, or 31.7 per team. That means that on average, teams would be issued an intentional walk about every five games. That's a minute of awful and boring mixed into 900 minutes of baseball. To get rid of that minute, baseball would take away some of our weird.
And intentional walks are going down, too, which makes the timing extra weird:
There were fewer intentional walks last season than there were in the strike-shortened season of 1994. There were fewer intentional walks last season than there were in 1990, when there were just 26 teams. It might be the depressed offense (fewer rallies where a walk would make sense), or it might just be a league-wide aversion to free baserunners that's become something of a trend. It's probably a blip, and the pendulum will swing back the other way, but why not wait until then?
There also isn't a Barry Bonds right now. There might not be one for 50 years, if ever. He was an outlier's outlier, a concept you might not even want to consider when discussing the topic. It's like designing a prison with Gargo the Rock Eater in mind, when you should probably just build the prison without worrying about concrete-eating supervillains who don't exist. If an anomalous superstar like Bonds shows up again, and the walks are ruining fan enjoyment of the sport, revisit the conversation.
Until then, baseball is trying to fix a problem that I'm not sure we should be concerned with.
Both changes are designed to address concerns by commissioner Rob Manfred and others about pace of play and one of the commissioner's favorite terms, "pace of action."
This is again, every five games, on average. In the National League, with the pitcher hitting, the average was still just below every five games last year. The pace of action is improved slightly, but we would miss out on a smattering of weird spread over the decades.
The way to look at it is through the eyes of the demographic that baseball is trying to capture, the social-media-addled youngster who can't go for six seconds without checking his Straptandle account, who might not be so sure about a languidly paced sport that demands three hours of his or her time. Which scenario is more likely?
Scenario A: The young, curious semi-fan is watching a game, and he or she is completely turned off by the minute it takes to issue an intentional walk, where absolutely nothing happens, even by baseball standards.
Scenario B: The young, curious semi-fan has a weird intentional walk brought to his or her attention because of something unusual that gets shared on social media.
Before you dismiss scenario A, remember that we're talking hundreds and hundreds of possible chances for it to occur, whereas we might go a year or five between scenarios B. If the goal is to prove baseball isn't boring, intentional walks run counter to that goal.
But the weird is what baseball needs. There's no way to strip the boring completely out of baseball, at least not in a way that's going to make it an easy sell to short attention spans. That's not to say baseball should stop trying. Every little bit helps, from eliminating the batting-glove dance that hitters do between pitches, to timing the pitching coach's walk to the mound.
The sport's future has a lot more to do with kids realizing that baseball is a progressive jackpot that builds and builds. Sometimes the jackpot is a pitcher home run at just the right time. Sometimes the jackpot is the first triple play you've ever seen live. And sometimes the jackpot is watching a professional pitcher who can't throw four baseballs just to the side of home plate.
Some boring would be shaved off the game. But it would take way too much weird with it. The parishioners of the Church of Youneverknow are not happy, and hopefully they'll squawk long and hard before next season. Intentional walks are the worst. Long live intentional walks.
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