No Such Thing as a Free Pass

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about Barry Bonds and the intentional walk. Bonds had walked 54 times through Sunday; 29 times intentionally, 37 times on four pitches. While Bonds’ .628 on-base percentage is undoubtedly a good thing for the Giants, it’s a fair question whether or not the almost universal practice of pitching around the game’s best hitter is good for the game itself.

Many have dismissed the idea of changing the rules in regards to intentional walks by saying that you shouldn’t change the rules for one player, especially one who will have retired in a couple of seasons. But the issue is not whether Bonds should be pitched to, it’s a question of whether not pitching to certain batters as a matter of course is a detriment to the popularity of Major League Baseball.

Fans, particularly casual fans, want to see Bonds hit home runs, or at least try to. While putting Bonds on base improves the Giants’ chances of winning, it’s also incredibly boring, and people aren’t willing to put down their money to watch someone walk. There will be no fireworks or on-field ceremony when Bonds sets the career walks record, impressive though it is. Fans would rather see Bonds strikeout than walk, because it at least carries with it the possibility of a home run.

Even more, it doesn’t really matter if this rule is put in place when Bonds is still playing or not. All Bonds has done is highlight a stupid exploit of the rules, one that should be removed. This wouldn’t be a new thing, but it is something that hasn’t been done in a long time, because people have since viewed the game as “perfect.”

The original Cartwright Rules stated: “Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught is a hand out; if not caught, is considered fair, the striker bound to run.” A batter could take all the pitches he wanted until he got one he wanted to hit. A pitcher could throw the ball wide of the batter all afternoon if he wanted. It’s not hard to see how this would slow down the game.

In 1858, the rules were changed so that the umpire could call a strike when the batter refused to swing at a “good ball,” what exactly a “good ball” was being left up to the judgment of the umpire. This did nothing to prevent the pitcher from throwing wide, though, and in 1863, the “ball” was invented, and batters awarded first base when, in the judgment of the umpire, and after a warning, the pitcher had thrown three unfair balls before the batter had struck out.

The rule changes were made because the exploit was obviously being widely abused. But the abuse was the symptom, not the disease. Other exploits, like the stolen base, were kept in the game because they added something to it. Wide pitches and overly selective batters did not, and neither does the intentional walk. It doesn’t matter if it’s only being overdone on Barry Bonds, it’s a bad exploit, and it should be removed.

If the intentional walk was banned, pitchers could get around it by throwing pitches wide of the plate, or in the dirt, accomplishing the same result. In a recent online chat, Rob Neyer suggested that all four-pitch walks be considered “intentional” in certain situations, but that creates problems of it’s own. Sometimes a pitcher will walk a batter on four pitches because he has no control, not because he’s trying to pitch around him.

I would recommend making this something of a judgment call for the umpire, just as balls and strikes originally were, but more in the mode of the modern strike zone. My proposal:

1) A pitch striking the ground in front of home plate, passing home plate over the batter’s shoulders, behind the batter, or in or wide of the batter’s box opposite the batter, shall be considered an “intentional ball” by the umpire, unless a previous pitch shall have been a strike or foul, or two unintentional balls have been pitched. An umpire shall audibly call such a pitch an “intentional ball.”

2) If a pitcher walks a batter on four pitches, three of which are called “intentional balls,” the umpire shall declare the at-bat an “intentional walk.”

3) If a batter walks and the fourth ball is thrown in such a manner as to obviously be intentionally wide of the plate, the umpire shall declare the at-bat and “intentional walk,” regardless of the pitches that preceded it.

This rule would prevent teams from “pitching around” Bonds. Teams could still not try to get him out — but they’d have to give him two pitches that he might be able to hit. There would be pitchers who’d try to pitch to Bonds but be so wild that they can’t throw a ball that would be considered “unintentional,” but in those situations, the penalty of an intentional walk is probably the least of your worries.

But what should be the penalty for the intentional walk? More importantly, should that penalty always be applied? The intentional walk has it’s utility, there are situations where it’s a good idea to use it, and it shouldn’t necessarily be eliminated because it’s being exploited.

So I recommend limiting its use, not totally banning it. Rather than limit it to one per batter, or forbid it in certain situations (which will undoubtedly lead to much confusion and several mistakes by umpires), limit it to, say, two or three times a game per team, perhaps with teams allowed to issue an additional intentional walk for every three extra innings. You could use it on Bonds, but eventually you’d have to pitch to him. And by limiting them in such a fashion, it would encourage teams to not intentionally walk a batter until they really needed to.

As for the penalty, I would recommend that the batter be awarded second base, with all baserunners advancing at least one base. A runner on third would always score, and walking a batter with the bases loaded would score two runs.

It’s a not a rule change that’s likely to impact the game very much, but it would put the bat back in Bonds’ hands. Bonds will still walk 150 times a year, but pitchers will be put in situations where they have to throw pitches that, if they miss, could end up in McCovey Cove.

It’ll hurt the Giants’ offense, and Bonds probably won’t hit that many more home runs than he does now. But at least he’ll have a chance, which is better than what the fans are getting now.

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