That is curious, to say the least, because the intentional walk had neither the frequency of use nor the potential time savings to make it an obvious target of league officials, led by Commissioner Rob Manfred, who want to speed up the pace of play. Last year, intentional walks occurred at a rate of one every 2.6 games. Their elimination would save perhaps a minute with each instance – a statistically insignificant improvement for a sport that averaged a record-high 3 hours 6 minutes per game in 2016.
Instead, the intentional walk was chosen as the starting point for pace-of-play reform because it was the only thing the league and the union could agree to. In dueling news conferences over the past few days, Manfred and union chief Tony Clark have made it clear they have radically diverging views on the necessity for stronger reforms. And Manfred, in particular, made it clear this is an area he sees as being worth fighting for – threatening to use unilateral powers to make changes beginning in 2018.
“I have great respect for the labor-relations process,” Manfred said. “… But I have to admit I’m disappointed we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to even modest rule changes,” such as pitch clocks to force pitchers to work faster and a limit on trips to the mound.
“I believe it’s a mistake to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the fact that our game has changed and continues to change.”
Clark, meantime, argued that the game is just fine as it is, and the reaction to Wednesday’s change to the intentional-walk rule reinforced that stance. Players, for the most part, didn’t like it.
Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin spoke to reporters about the change Wednesday and wondered, sarcastically, why baseball just doesn’t eliminate the trot around the bases after home runs.
“When a guy hits a home run, to speed up the game should he – just like in softball – just walk to the dugout? It would save time,” he said. “I’m just wondering, at what point do we just keep the game, the game?”
The problem with change, as Manfred surely knows, is that baseball is a sport of deep tradition and continuity that, unlike other sports, has been played almost exactly the same way for more than 100 years.
Even something as seemingly innocuous and frivolous as the intentional walk has a long history, full of occasional mishaps (pitchers lobbing the ball to the backstop), sneaky swings (as when a batter reaches across the plate and pokes a wide pitch into the outfield for a hit) and even the famous fake intentional walk in the 1972 World Series, when Oakland A’s reliever Rollie Fingers struck out Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench with a pitch over the plate after the A’s feigned walking him intentionally.
In many of those instances, the intentional walk was the most exciting and memorable thing that happened in that particular game. Sure, those zany plays were infrequent, and in the vast majority of instances, the intentional walk was simply a banal, goofy and sometimes counterintuitive exercise in run-prevention.
And now we will never see another one. Admittedly, baseball isn’t losing much by killing off the four-pitch intentional walk, but it losing something. And what it is gaining – about one minute a couple of times per week, per team – can’t possibly make up for what is being lost.