Take Your Way-Off-Base

Baseball fans have now spent a week liberated from the tyranny of the intentional walk–or so the game’s rulers would have you believe.

If the question is viewed strictly in the mechanical terms of what MLB wanted to accomplish–shaving a few minutes off each game’s running time–then you may believe there’s nothing wrong with simply putting up four fingers and waving a batter to first base. But if you look deeper at the issue, you start to realize just how bad an idea this rule change is.

The DFR: BaseballFirst, you must ask yourself a basic question: what is a sport? Or, perhaps why does a sport exist?

Any sport, whether it be baseball, basketball, bowling, or bocce, has a certain component that rests at its foundation; that component is a physical activity–or, more precisely, a set of physical activites which define what the game is, how it is played, and–via the declared rules–how the game is not played.

Any movement of the body falls under the category of physical activity: gardening, digging a ditch, or just plain walking qualify. Tossing a ball or hitting it with a stick or catching it in the air also are, at their most basic, simply physical activities.

“Letting the pitcher off the hook from having to actually throw the four wide pitches…contravenes the very fundamental idea of sport: in order to win it, you have to do it.”

When does a physical activity move beyond that label and turn into a sport? As noted, the codification of rules helps that metamorphosis along. But there’s a key ingredient that turns a routine physical activity into an honest-to-goodness sport: competition. If you’re just walking down the street, on your own and with no particular goal in mind, you’re just getting exercise. But when you walk down the street with the intent of beating that other person who’s walking down the same street to the corner, then there’s competition, and there you have a sport.

To put that another way, a sport arises as such when someone walks out onto a field of play and seeks to demonstrate that he or she is better at a certain physical activity than everyone else–or at least everyone else who is on that field on that day. You think you’re better than me? Step out onto the court (field/pitch/rink) and beat me–and do so by doing this physical activity better than I can.

That formula lies at the heart of all sporting competition: in order to show that you’re better than anyone else at the game, you have to prove it by doing it. No one takes your word for it; words need to be backed up with actions. You’ve got to play the game–better than your opponent–if you want to be declared the winner.

That’s where the new intentional walk rule goes off the rails. Under the new set-up, the pitcher says, “I’m going to throw four wide pitches, because I don’t want this batter to hit anything, and then I’ll pitch to the next guy (or the guy after him, or the guy after him).” And the umpire says, “OK, I take your word for it,” and points the batter-runner along to first base.

But–no. We just said, right up there: in sports, no one takes your word for it. You have to do it. Letting the pitcher off the hook from having to actually throw the four wide pitches–without throwing one wild to the backstop, without balking in the process, without coming in too close to the plate so the batter can actually take a swing at the ball and hit it–all of which have happened on more than one occasion in the past–contravenes the very fundamental idea of sport: in order to win it, you have to do it.

Any one of the screw-ups mentioned above can and has happened in the process of issuing an intentional walk. At the very least, the pitcher who is forced to throw four balls must refocus on the strike zone for the next batter faced–and often enough, that’s too big a chore for the hurler in question.

Avoiding a sudden wild streak in the aftermath of purposefully missing the strike zone for four straight pitches has been a challenge for many less-than-stellar pitchers. Not forcing such a scatter-armed pitcher to issue the IW the old-fashioned way potentially rewards an inferior pitcher whose lack of control would otherwise make the intentional walk strategy much more perilous for the manager who orders it.

At the very least, allowing a pitcher to walk somebody without throwing the required pitches artificially holds down his pitch count, giving that pitcher’s team an unearned advantage.

Lastly, the practice of the no-pitch intentional walk is simply absurd. It is at least as absurd as a batter walking up to the plate, turning to the umpire and saying, “I can rake this guy. You should just let me take first base now and save us all the time,” and having the umpire nod and waving the hitter over to first without him ever having to swing the bat in anger.

And what is gained by undermining the very fundamentals of the spirit of competition that lie at the heart of all sports? A game that runs roughly one minute (per IW) quicker than it otherwise would. An exceptionally speedy game–by today’s standards–would last 2 hours and 28 minutes thanks to two new-style intentional walks, rather than 2:30. What a bonanza.

If there’s anyone thinking straight in the MLB offices in New York, this new rule will be rescinded after one pointless season. The gain is minimal; the cost is paid from the very heart of why we play–and watch–the game.


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