A cutdown in cuts

The intentional unintentional pass has turned the bats of hot hitters Rod Carew and Jeff Burroughs into walking sticks
June 18, 1978

Don Drysdale did it in a World Series game; Sam McDowell did it to Frank Howard all the time; Robin Roberts never did it, but occasionally he should have. What these pitchers did—or didn't—do was practice the subtle art of the intentional unintentional walk. The guys up in the radio booth like to describe the IUW as "pitching around the hitter," but Tom Seaver prefers to think of it as the pitcher's way of telling the batter "to go to hell."

Minnesota First Baseman Rod Carew and Atlanta Leftfielder Jeff Burroughs have been piling up a lot of IUWs this year. Of course, that is bound to happen when you are contending for the league lead in hitting and have a forest of green or dead wood around you in the lineup. Last week, despite tendinitis in his right elbow and a blister the size of a 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ piece on his right palm that made him miss several games, Carew was working on his seventh American League batting title with a .358 average; only California's Ron Jackson, a career .233 hitter, was anywhere near him. After leading the National League for most of the spring, Burroughs fell to fifth with a .318 average. Meanwhile, each of them was collecting enough bases on balls of every type—IUWs, IWs and plain old Ws—to be on his way to a career high in walks.

For a pitcher, the intentional unintentional walk is a risky tactic because in defusing one batter he can ignite a big inning. For hitters like Carew and Burroughs, who are paid handsomely for their hits and run production, it has the frustrating effect of taking the bats out of their hands and replacing them with walking sticks. "The whole purpose is to try to get the batter to swing at a bad pitch," says Texas Pitching Coach Sid Hudson. A bad pitch can be a slider in, a curve out or a fastball below the knees—anything anywhere, except a melon in the strike zone. The pitcher hopes that if the batter swings he will either miss or make poor contact. "And if he doesn't swing and you walk him," says Ranger Pitcher Jon Matlack, "you don't really worry about it because you prefer to pitch to the next guy anyway."

Ideally, the man waiting in the on-deck circle is an easier out, if not for every pitcher then at least for the one on the mound. Seaver says there is one hitter on every team whom he refuses to pitch to in the last three innings of a close game. Al Oliver, for example, was Seaver's man in Pittsburgh before he moved to Texas this season. Sandy Koufax used to pitch around Bob Uecker, a catcher with a .200 lifetime batting average who somehow managed to give the Dodger lefthander fits. The hitters who ordinarily receive such cautious treatment are sluggers like Babe Ruth, who walked 170 times in 1923; Ted Williams, who twice had 162 bases on balls in a season; and Reggie Jackson, whom Jim Palmer walked three times while pitching a no-hitter nine years ago.

One of the oddest examples of the IUW occurred in the second inning of the third game of the 1963 World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees. With two out and Joe Pepitone on second and Mickey Mantle on third, Drysdale figured the safest way to protect his 1-0 lead was to pitch around the eighth hitter in the batting order to get to the pitcher. "With Jim Bouton throwing so well, I didn't think the Yankees would pinch-hit for him that early in the game," Drysdale says. Sure enough, after loading the bases with an IUW to Clete Boyer, Drysdale got out of the jam by striking out Bouton. He ended up winning the game 1-0.

There are some pitchers who will not pitch around a batter, no matter what the circumstances. Bob Gibson and Robin Roberts were that way, and so is Kansas City's Paul Splittorff, who says, "To me, the semi-intentional walk is a slap at the next hitter. It serves to wake him up. I don't want to do it unless I know I can overpower the next guy."

Splittorff's damn-the-torpedos approach recently cost him a game against Minnesota. A situation arose that seemed ideal for some kind of walk: sixth inning, K.C. ahead 2-1, nobody out, runners at second and third, Carew at bat. Splittorff decided to pitch to—not around—Carew, a costly decision, because Carew doubled to left to drive in both runners. The Twins made those runs stand up for a 3-2 victory. "Our plan for Carew that day was to shift the defense over toward left and make him hit to the opposite field," recalls Splittorff. "His first two times up I thought we were on to something because he grounded to third and hit a ball to left that should have been caught but wasn't. So I pitched to him again, and this time he hit a ball nobody could catch, right on the foul line."

That, of course, is what makes Carew the extraordinary hitter he is and why most pitchers would not have had anything to do with him in such a situation. But as Splittorff's teammate Dennis Leonard recently learned, an IUW to Carew can also work against you. With two out in the third inning and a runner at third in a 1-1 game, Leonard worked so carefully to Carew that he walked him—and the Twins went on to score five runs. "It looked to me that in trying to protect one run they gave up five," says Minnesota Manager Gene Mauch. "That's showing Rodney too much respect."

Pitchers are finessing Carew more this season because the defections of Lyman Bostock, a .336 hitter in 1977, to California and Larry Hisle (.302) to Milwaukee have left Carew without threatening batters around him in the lineup. Third Baseman Mike Cubbage and Centerfielder Dan Ford are Minnesota's only other .300 hitters, and given Cubbage's .251 lifetime percentage and Ford's average of 68 RBIs a season, they are hardly the kind of batters likely to make a pitcher more willing to pitch to Carew.

"It's obvious that pitchers have decided they aren't going to let me get the big hit," says Carew. "They are pitching around me whenever there is a runner in scoring position and less than two out." Ordinarily, pitching around Carew is not all that easy because he is a free swinger who cuts at—and often stings—pitches outside the strike zone. He has never walked more than 74 times in a season, while the picky Burroughs has averaged 78 bases on balls since becoming a regular five years ago. But recently Carew has become more selective, and he is collecting bases on balls at a rate that will give him 82 for the year. "Early in the season I was swinging, but not any more," Carew says. "They want me to fish for the ball, but I'm not going to do it. I don't want to create any bad habits. If they keep pitching around me, the guy behind me could drive in 150 runs this year." Unfortunately for Minnesota, pitchers know that the two batters who usually hit behind Carew, Ford and Cubbage, will have to continue doing well to get 150 RBIs between them.

Burroughs, who bats fourth, has even less support than Carew. Until Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox shook up his order a couple of weeks ago to give Burroughs some backing, the batting averages behind him looked like this: .211, .239, .236 and .132. A Death Row if there ever was one. Number .211, First Baseman Dale Murphy, says, "It was a compliment to hit behind Jeff, but I know I wasn't filling the need. I just wasn't a threat." Cox hopes to have more success now that oft-injured Rightfielder Gary Matthews has been dropped from third to fifth.

"I know when I'm swinging well, I'm not going to get anything on a silver platter," says Burroughs. "With nobody on base, maybe 90% of the pitches will be ones I want to see. With runners on first and third, it's probably more like 50%."

Actually, National League pitchers have been more careful than Burroughs realizes. He has already received 42 walks; at that rate, if he plays 154 games as he did in '77, he will end up with 126 for the season. "How are you pitching Burroughs?" Cincinnati Catcher Johnny Bench was asked. "We're not," Bench answered. "We don't want him playing in our game." Bench was not exaggerating. In Atlanta recently, Cincy walked Burroughs four times and won 7-5.

Just how cautious pitchers have been with Carew and Burroughs in pressure situations is shown by the two hitters' modest totals of game-winning hits. Although they lead their teams in RBIs—Carew with 32, Burroughs with 26—Carew has only one "gamer" and Burroughs four. Carew's came in that sixth inning against Kansas City, when Splittorff refused to walk him. Burroughs has done even less damage in the late innings. All of his winning hits came in the fifth inning or earlier.

The most obvious way of pitching around a hitter is giving the intentional walk, four pitches so far outside that nobody can hit them. Not that Carew hasn't tried. He has four intentional walks, and on every one of them he nudged as close to the plate as he could, just in case the ball came within swinging range. Burroughs has four IWs.

If he could, Carew would like to do away with intentional walks altogether. He is even considering giving a pitcher a no-ball two-strike advantage by swinging at the first two deliveries. That, Carew hopes, would tempt the opposition to forego the IW in an attempt to get a third strike. "If that's what I have to do to get a chance to hit, I will," Carew says. "I have a job to do, and if they aren't pitching to me, I'm not able to do it." Carew contends that this plan is not as foolish as it sounds—at least for him. "I'm a better hitter with two strikes," he says. "If the pitcher accepts my challenge, I won't get a hit every time, but I think I can get one often enough and drive in enough runs to make up for the times I fail. It would be a good way to see how much guts pitchers have."

Carew tried a similar ploy two years ago in a game against Oakland, except that he did not take his two swings until the count reached 3-0. "Jim Todd was the pitcher," Carew says. "He looked over at the manager, Chuck Tanner, to ask if he should try to throw the 3-2 pitch over the plate and get me out. Tanner shook his head, and Todd threw it outside again for ball four."

Burroughs is not about to try anything like that. With a .258 lifetime average—compared to Carew's .335—he knows he does not have the bat control to play Russian roulette with the pitcher. As his statistics show, he is much more willing to accept bases on balls, especially because he knows that even the best hitters make outs seven of 10 times. And Burroughs does not consider himself to be among the best. "I don't want to sound negative, but I'll probably finish around .285 or .290," he says.

Leading the league in hitting was such a rare treat for Burroughs that he asked his wife to clip the Top Ten from the newspaper the first time his name headed the list. "I figured I might never see it again," he says. He is accustomed to seeing his name among the home-run and RBI leaders—he had 41 and 114 last year—but after leveling off his batting stroke in spring training, he has not gotten the height on the ball he has in the past. As a result, he has hit only four homers, even though Atlanta Stadium is one of the best home run parks in baseball. "I'm not worried about that," he says. "If I get the ball up in the air just a little in Atlanta, they are going to come."

While Burroughs waits for his home runs to soar and his batting average to plummet, Carew is entertaining the notion that by trying so hard to avoid him, pitchers may be inadvertently helping him toward a .400 season. He came close last year, falling only 12 points and eight hits shy. "If there is any time that I'll hit .400, it would have to be this year," he says. "A pitcher usually bears down when there is a runner on base, which makes it tougher to hit. If they are pitching around me, I won't be swinging as often under those tough circumstances. That also means my arms won't be as tired late in the season. Of course, for all of this to happen, I'd probably need more walks than I've usually gotten—at least 100. But by being more selective, I could get that many."

Only Carew would even think about batting .400 in a year when he is not getting anything good to hit.

PHOTOCarew is torn by having fewer chances to rip. PHOTOWith a flip of the bat, Burroughs takes one of his 42 walks.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)