Look, sometimes the intentional walk “works.” No matter how much I might despise the thing, I cannot deny that basic reality. One job of a manager is to, best of his ability, put his team in position to prevent the other team from scoring runs. And there’s no question that walking to avoid the other team’s best hitters, or walking a batter with the pitcher coming up, or walking to set up a double play … these things will often accomplish the goal. I hate the intentional walk so much that I sometimes fail to mention this. So I’ll start with it here. Sometimes, the damned thing works.
See, the intentional walk is not like a regular walk. It’s not as valuable. The Hardball Times did a fascinating bit on this a couple of years ago when they used linear weights to show how the intentional walk played out from 2005-2008.
Intentional Walk Situations 2005
Original situation: 932 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,148 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,038 actual runs.
Intentional Walk Situations 2006
Original situation: 1067 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,318 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,217 actual runs.
Intentional Walk Situations 2007
Original situation: 1,016 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,249 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,129 actual runs.
Intentional Walk Situations 2008
Original situation: 974 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,220 expected runs.
After IBB: 1,065 actual runs.
There’s quite a lot that you can take from these numbers, I think, but the main two are these:
1. After an intentional walk, teams as a whole score more runs than the original expectation … which is probably obvious since you are putting another man on base.
2. While that’s true, they score quite a bit less — almost 10% less — than the NEW expectation.*
*In other words, let’s say the opposing team has a man on 2nd with one out. According to Baseball Prospectus’ run matrix, in 2010 they would be expected, on average, to score .68 runs for the rest of the inning.
Now, let’s say your pitcher unintentionally walks a guy. Now there are runners on first and second with one out. So the expectation changes. Now your opponent would be expected, on average, to score .88 runs in the inning. The expectation obviously goes up.
But if it’s an INTENTIONAL WALK, the expected runs doesn’t go up quite as much. The new run expectation would land somewhere in the middle, somewhere between .68 and .88. The other team would not score as much as they would on a normal walk because there’s usually at least some logic behind the intentional walk — it’s usually done for reasonable match-up purposes.
So yes, absolutely, sometimes the intentional walk works. Sometimes it minimizes damage. Sometimes it helps your pitcher get out of the inning unscathed. Sometimes …
But I still despise it — as I’ve written many times — for two basic reasons. One is more of a gut reaction: I think the intentional walk basically wimpy and anti-competition. When you intentionally walk the other team’s best hitter, for instance, are you making it a better game? Absolutely not. In my opinion, you are doing the opposite. You are showing no confidence in your pitcher or team. You are taking away a potentially exciting moment from the fans. You are refusing to take the game head on. You are inviting bad karma. And you are bringing a boring, negative, final inning of The Bad News Bears vibe to the game. An intentional walk is like the prevent defense squared.
Two, in the larger sense, it doesn’t work. The intentional walk works just enough to keep the illusion going, but as you can see by The Hardball Times numbers above, teams, over a whole season, will allow more runs after an intentional walk than they would have been expected to allow otherwise. I do realize that managers don’t really care about the larger sense — they only care about the moment, and in the moment it seems to make a whole lot of sense to walk Albert Pujols, to walk Josh Hamilton, to walk to the pitchers spot. If it works in the moment, the manager and the fans certainly won’t care that, in the long run, walking somebody will make matters worse. People who win at blackjack don’t care that most people lose. I understand. But it’s still a negative strategy.
Tuesday, Texas vs. New York, was a glorious game for anti-intentional walk people like myself. Twice, pronounced intentional walk situations came up. One manager walked. One manager trusted his team. And, for one night at least, the baseball gods provided justice.
The intentional walk you will remember instantly — when an intentional walk backfires, there’s no hiding. I still have absolutely no idea why Joe Girardi intentionally walked David Murphy in the sixth inning. Even if if put on my “OK, let’s talk reasonably about intentional walks” hat, I have no idea why Joe Girardi walked David Murphy. I thought it was bizarre.
Let’s set it up again. Sixth inning. Yankees led Texas 3-2. Texas’ Nelson Cruz was on second base — he had hustled to second base on a long fly ball to center. A.J. Burnett was still pitching for the Yankees*.
*We can question that one too, but let’s stay focused.
OK, David Murphy came to the plate. David Murphy is a pretty good hitter, especially against righties. He’s not a great hitter, understand. He has never gotten 500 plate appearances in a season. But he’s a pretty good hitter. This year he hit .291/.358/.449 which is good. Over his whole career, he has been about that good against right-handed pitchers. In 22 plate appearances against A.J. Burnett — if you care about such things — he has been about that good: He hit .294/.455/.471 against Burnett.
On deck was Bengie Molina. And Molina had a dreadful offensive season. He hit .249/.297/.326 this year. Against righties over his whole career he has hit .265/.296/.384 — that on-base percentage, whew, it’s fair to say that Bengie doesn’t believe in walking (or running). He had only faced Burnett five times, and only managed one hit, so that doesn’t really tell us anything.
There’s no question that, in a vacuum, the Yankees would rather face Molina there. If baseball changed the rules (don’t tempt Bud) and allowed the opposing team to choose which hitter was sent to the plate, the Yankees would and should always pick Molina instead of Murphy. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. What we’re dealing with here is:
— Facing David Murphy with the tying run on second.
— Facing Bengie Molina with the tying run on second AND the go-ahead run on first.
That’s a big difference in situation. Is it that big of a difference in hitter? I don’t think so. You know what the difference between a .249 hitter and a .291 hitter? You should know this from repeated viewings of Bull Durham. Over 500 at-bats, it’s 20 hits. The season is 21 weeks long. It is about one hit a week. One guy will get about seven hits in a 24-at-bat week. One guy will get about six.
To me, it’s a bad, bad bet — even if you believe in the intentional walk. Yes, in the Molina situation you have a slightly better chance of getting out of the inning without giving up a run. But you have a better chance of giving up MORE runs.*
*For fun (I did this once before with Albert Pujols) let’s look at typical Molina vs. Murphy in those situations — we’ll use the last two years as our guide. In parenthesis, I’ll put how many runs each outcome would produce over 500 plate appearances.
Murphy — runner on second, two outs.
— 65% of the time he will make an out (0 runs).
— 16% of the time he single (81 runs over 500 PAs)
— 5% of the time he will double (26 runs)
— Less than 1% of the time he will triple (2 runs)
— 3% of the time he will homer (30 runs).
— About 10% of the time he will walk or get hit by pitch (0 runs but extends the inning).
That’s a total of 139 runs. The inning continues 35% of the time.
Molina — runner on first and second, two outs.
— 71% of the time he will make an out (0 runs)
— 17% of the time he will single (85 runs)
— 4% of the time he will double (20 certain runs, add however many runs you get from Murphy scoring from first … I added 7 runs. So that’s 27).
— Less than 1% of the time he will triple (how Bengie Molina hit two triples the last two years I’ll never know — add 2 runs).
— 2.5% of the time he will homer (39 runs runs).
— About 5% of the time he will walk or get hit by pitch (0 runs but extends the inning).
That is a total of 153 runs. The inning continues 29% of the time.
So there’s your tradeoff. Are you willing to increase your chances of giving up ZERO runs by five or six percent by also increasing your chances of giving up more runs? I honestly do not see why you would. Not in this situation. I mean ninth inning, tie score, you have to get out of it to force extra innings, I get it. But here? You’re at home. You’re up a run. Why would you put the go-ahead run on base? Why would you walk David Murphy who, no disrespect, ain’t exactly Dale Murphy? And it’s not like Bengie Molina is incapable of heroics — the guy did hit three home runs against the Yankees in the 2005 ALCS. They showed those home runs back-to-back-to-back on TBS just before the at-bat, which led to a cool television moment …
… because, of course, Molina crushed Burnett’s first pitch into the left-field stands for a three-run homer that may have ended the Yankees World Series dreams. Baseball, as a game, isn’t really about justice, but everything about THAT home run felt just. You’re the manager of THE New York Yankees, for crying out loud, and you’re at home, and you’re up a run, and you intentionally walk David Murphy in the sixth inning? Yes, for us Intentional Walk Bashers, that Molina home run was like Mardi Gras.
But there was another, perhaps less-noticed situation just a half inning earlier. The Yankees had runners on first and second with one out. Lefty Derek Holland was on the mound. Alex Rodriguez was at the plate.
Now, here was a potential intentional walk situation — if such a thing exists. A-Rod, a righty, was at the plate. Robinson Cano, a lefty, was on deck. It is true that A-Rod throughout his career has hit lefties slightly WORSE than righties — and this year he hit only .217 against lefties. It is also true that Cano, while he does not hit lefties quite as well, does hit them well enough.
But you don’t need me to list off all the reasons why an intentional walk there is a bad choice. The point is, some managers would seriously consider an intentional walk here. Last year, teams walked A-Rod eight times to face Cano though it’s interesting to note that this year it only happened once*. When the situation came up I got a couple of emails and Twitter responses wondering why the Rangers would not intentionally walk A-Rod.
*It’s somewhat telling — both about the development of A-Rod and Cano — that Rodriguez was only intentionally walked once all year.
But, say what you will about Ron Washington’s, um, sometimes unconventional managing — he does not believe in the intentional walk. Only my guy Gardy in Minnesota intentionally walked fewer batters than Wash in 2010. I don’t know if Washington avoids the intentional walk for statistical reasons, for personal reasons, because he doesn’t want to back down — and I don’t care. The Rangers pitched to A-Rod. And A-Rod certainly could have hit a long home run, which would have left Washington forced to answer some hard questions. He could have drilled a double that scored two runs and left people shaking their heads.
But on this good intentional walk day, A-Rod hit into the inning-ending double play, setting up Girardi and the Yankees for their fateful meeting with intentional walk destiny.