When A Strike Ain't Comin'

November 3, 2011
Joe Posnanski recently posted an article expressing his dislike of the intentional walk, and promulgating Bill’s idea that batters should be able to refuse an intentional walk, and get a ‘double-walk’ if they are walked a second time.
I’m optimistic that the larger baseball world, having endured a World Series made stupefyingly boring by all of the intentional walks, will start earnest discussions about how to banish the four-finger sign from ever being flashed by Leyland, Washington, or John McGraw. I think that Bud Selig will realize that it is in the best interests of baseball that Jose Bautista (24 intentional walks, 30 (unofficially) intentional walks) see at least one strike per at-bat.
I’m glad people are talking about the intentional walk, because it gives me an excuse to ask a question that has bugged me every time I see an intentional walk: why doesn’t the batter swing at a few of the pitches?
I’m serious.
People who complain about the intentional walk generally operate under a belief that the batter has no control over the situation; that a hitter like Jose Bautista has no choice but to watch the four pitches go past. This is obviously false….a batter being intentionally walked does not have to take the intentional walk. They can swing.
I think there’s a good argument to be made that batters should swing, at least in certain circumstances. What follows are two scenarios where I think it makes sense to swing when a strike ain’t coming.
The Case For Swinging at 3-0 (and maybe 3-1)
There are at least five reasons for every batters to swing at ball four in an intentional walk:
1. You are forcing the pitcher to throw more pitches. This is highly advantageous because a pitch two feet off the plate is still a pitch. And studies have shown that the more pitches a pitcher throws, the more tired he gets. (Note: these studies exclude Justin Verlander.) Plus, the more pitches a pitcher has to make outside the strike zone, the more difficult it will be for him to throw strikes to the next guy. Hacking away at two extra pitches is one of those 1% strategies that no one is currently taking advantage of.
2. You are increasing the chances that the pitcher or catcher will screw up by 50%. Sometimes a pitcher has trouble just making the throw to the catcher…something they pull a Knoblauch. Sometimes the pitcher balks. Sometimes the catcher balks: it is a balk if the catcher leaves his spot behind home plate before the pitch is released. Sometimes a catcher lets one go by. Might as well make it more stressful for everyone.
3. You might actually hit the ball. This is a long shot, of course, but not all pitches are so drastically off the plate that the batter couldn’t reach them. You would obviously have the element of surprise on your side… why not try for that opposite-field single?
4. It would be awesomely entertaining. This is selfish, but I would love to see a major league hitter taking a hack at a hanger in the opposite batter’s box. Honestly, I’m amazed that Vladimir Guerrero hasn’t tried this yet.
5. You might piss the pitcher off enough to make him throw a strike. And…you might piss him off enough to want to throw at you. But….with runners on, that’s not such a bad thing, either.
Swinging at Ball 5 is a little riskier a proposal. On the one hand, you are giving the pitcher another chance to throw a wild pitch (and, if anything, he’s apt to be more wild, as you swung at the last one). On the other hand, a swing-and-miss makes the count 3-2, which is close enough to neutral that he might try to get you out. I’m not as sold on swinging at 3-1, but I’m not totally against it, either.  
The (Less Obvious) Case for Swinging at 0-0
Let’s say you’re Prince Fielder (who led the majors in intentional walks this year). Let’s say there’s one out in the late innings of a tie ballgame. Let’s say that Ryan Braun has doubled ahead of you, and the guy behind you is mired in a 2-for-77 slump. You know what’s coming: you are going to be intentionally walked.
What should you do?
You should take the walk, of course. That is the obvious thing to do; the logical thing to do. Free base? Take it.
But…it is not the most you could do.
An intentional walk is a conversation…when a manager decides to issue an intentional walk, they are saying: “We’ve looked at the numbers, Prince, and we’d rather have you on first base than give you a pitch to hit. We just think that given all the possible outcomes, we’re happy with a walk.’
The batter’s response, in all levels of professional baseball, is, “Okay. Thanks for the walk. I appreciate the difficulty of your situation, and though it’s been proven that intentional walks are a dangerous strategy that typically backfires, conventional wisdom is on your side and I respect your decision.”
What the batter could say is: “You made this decision at 0-0. What about 0-1? Do you still want to walk me?”
No batter, in my recollection, has ever done this. And 99.9% of the time, that’s as it should be: if the opposing team wants to put a guy on first, it’s probably a good idea to let them.
But…it is a false assumption that the intentional walk takes all strategy out of the hands of the hitter. Hitter can still do something during an intentional walk; they still control some aspect of play, some options for strategy. That they continue to do nothing, ever, when greeted with an intentional walk is at least partially on them.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. And contrary to paragraph 2, he found the World Series to be very exciting.

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Two bases on a four-and-oh walk. Problem solved.
2:37 PM Nov 13th
Well, if there is a batter which could chase a pitch during an intentional walk, that would be Vladimir Guerrero, wouldn't be? However, I have never seen him doing that.
9:43 PM Nov 8th
The rare 'catcher balk,' called against a left-handed catcher, in a German league game:

1:22 AM Nov 6th
You get an automatic strike if you leave the batter's box during a pitch.
2:07 AM Nov 5th
What I've always wanted to see someone do is jump *across* the plate into the other batter's box to take a swing...that's not against the rules, is it?
3:52 PM Nov 4th
When I played co-ed softball we had a rule that can be used here. If the pitcher walked a guy to get at the girl, the girl was automatically walked too. So, if in the umpire's judgment the pitcher just threw 4 pitches intentionally wide, the batter AND THE NEXT ONE should get free passes.
12:51 PM Nov 4th
The problem is you're swinging at bad pitches. If you do put one in play, it's more likely to be an out. You're doing little to increase the chances of reaching base, but doing a lot to decrease that chance.

However, if Larry Anderson or Octavio Dotel is pitching, prolong the at-bat at all costs. Neither was ever comfortable. I can remember Will Clark doubling when an IW pitch got too close.
9:55 AM Nov 4th
Hey, it worked for Kelly Leak ...
6:13 AM Nov 4th
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