In 2008 Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington led all of baseball with 20 Intentional Walks that bombed. Bill has been keeping this intentional walk stat for a while now. He breaks down all intentional walks into three categories:
1. Good — these are the intentional walks that “work.”
2. Not Good — these are the intentional walks that don’t quite “work” — a run scores — but doesn’t lead to a big inning.
3. Bomb — big innings.
There is a more detailed explanation in the Bill James Handbook, but for our purposes that’s enough. Washington led the league with 20 intentional walk bombs in 2008, which was more or less in line with his philosophy on the subject. He intentionally walked his team into 11 bombs in 2007 which was also a very high number. I would not try to explain how Ron Washington manages baseball teams — it seems to me some combination of feel, improvisational jazz, likability and Wile E. Coyote — but it seemed pretty clear that he did not want other teams best players to beat him. This seemed to be a core philosophy. And this led to baseball disaster quite often.
Then last year, all of a sudden, without warning, Ron Washington basically stopped intentionally walking people. His total intentional walks dropped from 44 to 14. And his bombs dropped all the way to three. This actually led the American League in FEWEST bombs. This year, though Washington intentionally walked a few more guys (from 14 up to 24) he became the first manager since Bill has been tracking this stuff to not have a single intentional walk blow up in his face. Not even one.
That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. So … what happened? We both figured that Wash probably had a heart-to-heart with the Rangers front office folks, who are savvy people, and they probably came to the conclusion that the intentional walk was hurting the team more than it was helping them.
But more … we both figured that it spoke well of Washington that after getting burned a few times he stopped sticking his hand in the fire. One of the striking things we both have sensed after years of writing about sports is that it is absurdly rare that people actually CHANGE in sports.
Oh, people change in subtle ways all the time. They mature. They start laying off the in-the-dirt slider. They learn to sometimes throw the ball away. They learn use screens better to set up their shots. And so on. There are a million small changes like this.
But in core ways … well, here’s the funny thing: It sometimes feels like some people would rather be wrong than admit they are wrong. There are a million examples. A manager or general manager will pay someone a lot of money, realize quickly that it was a mistake, and keep playing that person even if it hurts the team. A player will decide a play can’t work, go at it half-heartedly, and blow a play that MIGHT HAVE WORKED. A coach will stick with his conservative style even when he has players lose and are clearly better suited to aggressive and non-conservative play*.
*Why do we call a coach who punts the ball on fourth and 1 “conservative” but not call the coach who tries crazy stuff like onside kicking to start the game “liberal?”
More, people really don’t change the core philosophies much. A manager who likes the sacrifice bunt usually sticks with it. A coach who enjoys wide open offenses usually coaches the team to play wide open. I always thought Don Shula was unusual because his 1972 Dolphins were about as conservative as a team can be — two 1,000-yard rushers, 24th out of 26 teams in pass attempts, defense and field position — and his Dan Marino Dolphins were about as wide open as a team can be.
But even then, Shula didn’t change so much as he adapted to his surroundings — a great trait for a coach but not exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s possible that Ron Washington was simply ordered to stop walking people. But I don’t think so. And I don’t think he adapted to his environment either, not exactly. I think he listened to what people said, drew off his experience, and did a 180 (at least a 150) on something I suspect he had pretty strong feelings about. It is human nature to rebel against change, I think. It is human nature to say, “Well, these intentional walks are bombing on me, but I know they are right and they’ll even out in the end.” But Ron Washington didn’t do that. He instead became extremely selective in when he used to the intentional walk. He challenged his pitchers to get out of jams without walks. And it worked for him.
And then, in the World Series, as you no doubt are screaming right now, he did NOT intentionally walk Edgar Renteria. I don’t think he should have intentionally walked Renteria, but what I think doesn’t matter — Renteria homered, and I suppose that would have to go down as an anti-matter bomb, an non-intentional walk that failed.
And it’s worth asking: Will that experience change Ron Washington again?