It’s been two years since the four-pitch intentional walk was offered as a sacrifice at the altar of efficiency. The effects of that change may have originally seemed small in theory—a few seconds, here and there—but they’ve been even smaller in practice. Why? There have been fewer intentional walks than ever, with the figure hitting a record low in 2018.
The trend isn’t exactly new. Intentional walks have been declining over the last decade, as front offices have grown savvier about the value of a free base. Here’s what their popularity has looked like since 1955, the earliest season with data on Baseball-Reference:
Until 2013, there had been just one team on record with fewer than ten intentional walks in a season. That would be the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers, with nine—but their no-free-pass strategy wasn’t pushed from the dugout. Manager Walter Alston had been with the team for two decades at that point, and he’d never been particularly averse to the intentional walk before. Some of his pitchers, though, weren’t so fond of them. Take Mike Marshall, who was in his first year with the team after being traded from Montreal. With 208 innings pitched as a reliever—a record that still stands—he issued just one intentional walk. As a newspaper later recounted: “Twice this year, for example, Alston has requested an intentional walk. Twice Marshall has refused ... ‘I’ve never seen an intentional walk work,’ he explained.”
At the time, Marshall’s belief wasn’t exactly mainstream. But if he had to argue with his skipper now, he’d have some pretty compelling company on his side. The ’74 Dodgers are no longer an extreme outlier. Since 2013, there have been seven teams to issue fewer than ten intentional walks. In 2018 alone, there were three—the same number that there were, combined, in the six decades from 1955 to 2015. This year’s trio? The New York Yankees (9 IBBs), Boston Red Sox (8) and, finally, the Houston Astros. Until 2018, no team had ever issued fewer than eight. The Astros, though, chose to give just four. Four! Less than one a month.
Of course, this strategy can’t be expected to be taken as a model for every club; unsurprisingly, all three of these teams in the American League, which has, logically, accounted for a big chunk of the recent decline here. In the NL, walking the eighth hitter to get to the pitcher is still alive and well. But there’s still something in here to look at. Here, then, is the context for the four intentional walks issued by the 2018 Astros—and what baseball can learn from them:
Intentional Walk #1: April 14 vs. Texas Rangers, top of the 10th
A Saturday afternoon had faded into early evening. An Astros lead had disappeared as its bullpen coughed up three runs in the eighth inning to the hapless Rangers, and so they headed to extra innings, 5-5.
Astros righty Will Harris was on the mound with the top of the order coming up. The leadoff batter, Shin-Soo Choo, grounded to second for an easy first out. But Jurickson Profar walked on five pitches, and Joey Gallo doubled to left. With runners on second and third, and one out, Houston had a decision to make. Adrián Beltré was up next, but there was a far less threatening option behind him: Ronald Guzmán, a rookie, playing the second game of his career.
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This didn’t represent one of the most popular situations for an intentional walk, but it wasn’t exactly uncommon, either. An intentional walk is, predictably, far more common with two outs than one out (62.3% of 2018’s IBBs versus 34.6%, with the tiny remainder taken up by those with no outs). Of all this season’s intentional walks, this specific situation—men on second and third with one out—made up 16.7%. But the principle at play here is just as much about the situation as it is about the hitters. It’s a pretty straightforward idea, and it’s been accepted for years: Walk a strong hitter in order to face a weaker one. Future Hall-of-Famer Beltré, followed by a rookie, would seem to fit the bill.
However, it’s a little more complicated than that. An intentional walk will set up a potentially easy double play. But! A team is still more likely to score with the bases loaded than with men at just second and third. In 2018, a team could expect 1.6 runs with one out in the former situation and 1.3 runs with one out in the latter. If you’re going to give up the extra base, you’ve got to be sure that the first hitter is substantially better than the second, in order to cover that difference.
What’s “substantially,” though? Turn to classic sabermetric volume The Book, and you’ll see that there’s no easy answer here. It depends on the situation, much like everything else when it comes to the intentional walk. Here, in the top of a late inning in a tie game, “substantially” isn’t that much at all: 3% better, roughly, by weighted on-base average. (Beltré finished the season as a slightly better hitter than Guzmán, by 5%.) On the other hand, if there were men at second and third with no outs, he’d have to be a much better hitter: 33% better. If there was just a runner at second base, still with one out, he’d have to be somewhere in the middle: 12% better. These specific percentage points have very likely shifted since The Book was first published in 2006, but it makes sense that the broad principles should shold true. If the man at the plate is even just a little stronger than the man on deck, this is a particularly smart place to go for an intentional walk to set up a double play—in the top of a late inning, in a tie game, with one out, runners on second and third.
A smart decision, of course, is not a guarantee. This one backfired. Guzmán singled, bringing home a run. The Astros couldn’t even the score in the bottom of the inning, and they lost, 6-5. By the book, however—and by The Book—they did this one right.
Intentional Walk #2: June 1 vs. Boston Red Sox, top of the 8th
This was a pitchers’ duel, Chris Sale vs. Gerrit Cole. By the eighth inning, though, Houston was winning, 4-3, and the relievers were in control.
The Astros’ Chris Devenski had the top of the order in front of him. He struck out Andrew Benintendi before allowing a single to Xander Bogaerts, who moved to second on a wild pitch. Next, Mitch Moreland hit a soft grounder to record the second out, but it was enough to advance Bogaerts. And then came the dilemma: J.D. Martinez was at the plate. As had been the case with the team’s first intentional walk, there was a capable-but-far-less-threatening youngster behind him. Here, 21-year-old Rafael Devers was on deck.
This is another intentional walk situation that’s familiar, but not prevalent. Of 2018’s IBBs, 11.5% came with a runner on third and two outs. Making this one a little more uncommon? Houston was winning. Only 11% of this season's intentional walks came when a team was winning.
A team is more likely to score with two outs if runners are at the corners than if there’s just a runner on third: 0.5 expected runs, versus 0.3. So, in order to make it worth it, how much better does the man at the plate have to be than the man on deck? Decidedly better. 37% better, per The Book. (Part of what makes that figure so high? The Astros’ one-run lead. Giving away an extra base carries more weight when a team’s ahead. Had Houston been losing by one, rather than winning, Martinez would have only needed to be 26% better than Devers.)
Again, the specific percentages here don’t matter so much. The principle does: When a team is winning, with two outs in the eighth inning and a man on third, an intentional walk is only going to make statistical sense if the hitter at the plate is much stronger than the man on deck.
This year, Martinez (173 OPS+) was much stronger than everyone, including Devers (94 OPS+). The Astros called for the intentional walk, and this time, it worked. Devers lined out to end the inning, and Houston held on to their lead to win.
Intentional Walk #3: June 22 vs. Kansas City Royals, top of the 8th
This one should have been easy. The Astros were playing the Royals, for one thing. They’d gotten six scoreless innings from starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, for another. Yet it was the eighth inning, and the game was tied, 0-0.
Houston’s Héctor Rondón was in to face the middle of Kansas City’s order. He recorded the first out quickly, a weak pop-up from Mike Moustakas. But then Salvador Pérez got aboard with a double. Rondón struck out Hunter Dozier to record the second out. With Alex Gordon at the plate and Alcides Escobar on deck, that put the team in the most popular situation for an intentional walk: two outs, and a man on second.
A third of all intentional walks this season came in this scenario, and it isn’t hard to see why. With two outs, a team is more likely to score with men on first and second than with just a man on second, but only minimally: 0.4 expected runs versus 0.3. It’s a small amount of extra risk to take on, particularly when you’re looking at Gordon (91 OPS+) over Escobar (63 OPS+).
The Astros’ call worked, though it didn’t go exactly as planned. After Gordon drew the IBB, Escobar (unintentionally) walked to load the bases. But Rondon was able to strike out the next hitter, Paulo Orlando, to get out of the inning unscathed. The Royals scored in the ninth, though, and Kansas City won, 1-0. Still: Here was the most ordinary intentional walk that you can get—man on second, two outs—and it played out in their favor.
Intentional Walk #4: August 17 @ Oakland A’s, bottom of the 9th
Houston took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning, but that quickly unraveled. With a runner on second base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the game was tied.
Now, here was the ideal scenario for an intentional walk. Given the upcoming hitters for the A's, though, it wasn’t quite so clear-cut. Jed Lowrie was at the plate; Khris Davis on deck. With this situation in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, the first hitter doesn’t have to be too much better than the second to make the walk worth considering: 4%. But … Lowrie (120 OPS+) and Davis (136 OPS+) are both solid hitters, and the second’s actually a bit better than the first. Platoon advantage, you might cry, noting that Rondón’s a righty, while Lowrie’s a switch-hitter who does best as a lefty and Davis is a righty. Except Davis is the rare righty who hits righthanded pitching better than lefthanded, and he actually hits righties better than Lowrie.
In other words, this intentional walk doesn’t make quite as much sense as the other three—on the surface, that is. Maybe Houston has an internal system that recommended this. Maybe Rondón had told his manager something relevant about what he was throwing or how he was feeling. Maybe Houston had seen something on Davis. The front office has all sorts of information that we don’t, and so, too, does the dugout. The Astros made the call, at any rate, and it worked: Davis flew out to end the inning. (The A’s later won in extras.)
The IBB is less popular, but it’s not exactly dying. It’s just being used more strategically—and even in a sample set of four, it still can surface as a surprise.