In support of the new IBB rule

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Last Saturday, word broke that Major League Baseball was considering altering the intentional walk rules by allowing the manager to signal an intentional walk, thereby allowing the batter to take first base, without having the pitcher actually throw four pitches outside the strike zone.

Here’s how ESPN led off its article covering the proposed changes:

A new strike zone could be on baseball’s horizon and the old-fashioned intentional walk could be a thing of the past after both were agreed to by the competition committee at Major League Baseball’s owners meetings this week, sources said.

The potentially dramatic changes could be in effect by next season.

For purposes of this article, let’s focus on the “intentional walk” portion of the quote, which is incredibly misleading.  The rule change described above is not a “potentially dramatic change,” nor does it make the old-fashioned intentional walk “a thing of the past.”  The intentional base on balls (IBB) has been around since 1870 and isn’t going anywhere.  It’s still a thing under the proposed rule, and the batters will be recorded as reaching base on an IBB.  The proposed rule doesn’t even burden managers any more than usual, as managers already signal an IBB to their pitchers.  Literally the only change is that a pitcher doesn’t need to throw four “pitches” that more closely resemble soft tosses.

Maybe it’s ESPN’s hyperbole, maybe it’s that the gut reaction of baseball aficionados to any type of rules change seems to fall somewhere between disgust and paranoia, but there’s been an awful lot of criticism of the new IBB rule.  Bob Uecker and Bill Schroeder spent about an hour combined during last Saturday’s game broadcasts complaining about the proposed change.  There wasn’t a whole lot of reasoning there, just a general kind of grumping.  As best I can tell, their principal objection is that under the current rule there’s a chance a pitcher might throw a wild pitch, or the catcher might allow a passed ball.

That’s true … but so what?  The notion of the intentional walk itself isn’t under attack (although some arguments have been made toward that end previously).  Rather, these are attacks on the manner in which the IBB is achieved.  But isn’t it important that the procedure comport with the game’s strategic objectives?  If we regard a batter reaching base as a strictly averse outcome to the defending team, why shouldn’t that team be able to concede any old base it wants to a batter?

This actually creates a distinction between the IBB and the vanilla walk.  Under the old rule, the mechanism of achieving a BB and an IBB was the same: throw four balls outside the strike zone.  The only difference was the subjective intention of the pitcher, which, admittedly, was often pretty easy to discern.  Under the new rule, an IBB actually denotes a specific way in which the batter reaches base.  The new rule creates a clear distinction and gives the IBB added significance:  An IBB signifies that the opposing manager has chosen to award the batter a base, whereas a BB signifies that the batter has reached base on four balls thrown outside of the strike zone.

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