Karthik’s Take: Intentional walks are ruining baseball

Venezuela’s Herlis Rodriguez waits his turn to bat during a Caribbean Series baseball game against the Dominican Republic at the Teodoro Mariscal stadium in Mazatlan, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Photo by Moises Castillo/AP Photo.

At their most fundamental level, sports are an entertainment venue. All financial incentives to operate a professional sports league are predicted on the sport’s ability to create a spectacle that fans are willing to pay for. Baseball is no exception. That is why the MLB needs to ban the intentional walk.  

According to the MLB, an intentional walk is defined as when “the defending team elects to walk a batter on purpose, putting him on first base instead of letting him try to hit.” It is a low risk high reward maneuver that deprives the fans of seeing their favorite big name stars in the most pivotal moments of games. This so-called strategic maneuver is the single most boring let down of a tactic in all of sports.  

For all the baseball aficionados ready to rage about this take, consider the following scenario. Imagine that Kobe Bryant has the ball with 10 seconds left with the Lakers down by one to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in Staples Center. The crowd is amped up as the game reaches its finale. The anticipation builds as the Lakers inbound the ball to Bryant at the top of the 3-point-line, but suddenly the Spurs call timeout and decide having him shoot the potential game winning shot is too risky. They’d rather have anyone but Bryant shoot the ball so he is taken out of the play and, as a result, the Lakers lose.  

As a fan that paid hard earned money to go to the game and witness one of the greatest NBA players in history in his element, is that a satisfying outcome? Sports are about witnessing the best compete against each other in high leverage moments. Allowing the intentional walk tactic to contaminate baseball is not only a disservice to the fans and the players, but to the league itself as evident by league attendance declining by over 7% since 2015.  

The key aspect to understand about baseball and other bat and ball games is that offense drives up viewership. It is very difficult for a casual fan to appreciate great pitching and subtle defensive shifts by the fielders. This is evident in basketball itself  — from 1995 to 2001 during the peak of the Steroid Era, before the league implemented performance enhancing drug testing in 2003, MLB game attendance was up 44%. Fans loved seeing their favorite players Hulk smash the ball out of the park at record rates. Consequently, the average ticket price of an MLB game rose 78% in this span and baseball revenue increased as a result by 115%. This statistic only accounts for money earned from strictly the games themselves, not outside corporate sponsorships. While steroid use is not something that should be championed, it proved that the status quo for sports entertainment has changed. High scoring is more exciting to casual fans than sound fundamentals. With increased competition from faster growing sports that have more effectively engaged younger audiences and other entertainment outlets, like the growing E sports industry, baseball now faces the dilemma of whether to keep the game traditional or evolve to attract a younger, more casual support base. Like in Darwin’s principle of natural selection, economic success in the entertainment industry is survival of the fittest, and baseball has not been adapting to the changing demographic markets fast enough.  

The intentional walk is the most jarring example of how baseball as a sport has not understood that cultivating a casual fandom is the key to league success. Cricket is actually the most comparable example to analyze when discerning how to transition baseball into being more exciting. It went from a game that could only be enjoyed by people with five days of time to spare to a global cultural phenomenon that drew in 462 million viewers for the Indian Premier League alone in 2019. Cricket shortened the game significantly to raise the stakes of every ball bowled (the equivalent of balls pitched in baseball). A shorter game rewards and incentivizes aggressive batting which is exactly what the fans come to see.  

In baseball, the best batters only hit the ball at a .400 batting average which is only 40% of the time. When you consider that each player only typically gets three to four batting attempts per game, it becomes even more egregious for pitchers to have the option to bypass one of these chances to stir up fan excitement. This tactic makes baseball  inferior compared to sports  like basketball, which is dominated by the stars and even cricket where the rules are that a batter hits until the fielding team can get him out.  

In a four-game set in 2016, the Chicago Cubs intentionally walked Washington Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper 13 times, four of which were intentional, out of 19 plate appearances. Players on the Nationals such as pitcher Tanner Roark called it “scared baseball” in response to the Cubs franchise saying that walking Harper was an integral part of their success. That is the problem that intentional walks pose in a nutshell. They are uncompetitive since they literally eliminate any opportunity for a team’s players to influence the game in critical situations and rob the fans of seeing quality professional baseball. Jason Brannan of SB nation, a popular sports blogging network, summed up intentional walks best when he said “Baseball is what happens between the pitcher and the batter, or the batter and the fielders. The intentional walk isn’t baseball, it’s the avoidance of baseball.”  

While there are measures in other sports to limit star players like double teams in basketball and football, nothing neutralizes a player’s ability to help his team like the intentional walk. The tactic is cowardly, lame for the fans and pitchers these days don’t need it. Strikeout rates are at an all-time high at 17.5% and the total number of them has been rising every year since 2008, oftentimes being very close to outpacing total hits. Baseball as a league cannot afford to continue allowing intentional walking. Unfortunately, managers have realized that pitchers throwing intentional balls eliminates risk associated with having to throw a wild pitch. In fact, this caused the usage of the intentional walk to increase in 2017 league wide

There must be an incentive implemented to not intentionally walk the game’s greatest players. If the MLB doesn’t remove the intentional walk, more and more young fans will make the choice to remove MLB coverage from their preferred list of entertainment options. 

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