What is Really Gained by Losing the Intentional Walk?

There are other ways to save time. (via Romina Campos)

There are other ways to save time. (via Romina Campos)

In an apparent attempt to shorten the overall time of a baseball game, Major League Baseball has instituted a new rule that will allow a team to intentionally walk a hitter without having to actually throw any pitches. For whatever reason, there has been a recent obsession with the length of professional baseball games — that somehow baseball will be unable to gain any new fans or even keep its existing ones if something isn’t done about how long baseball games go.

We have a fairly good understanding of why total game times are going up — batters are taking more pitches and pitchers are taking more time to deliver them. Identifying the issue is the easy part. Coming up with a solution will prove to be more difficult.

The truth is that MLB is addressing things like intentional walks because they are easy things to address. It’s a path of least resistance to make a mostly empty gesture in lieu of tackling fundamentally harder decisions. Baseball is a game that takes a long time to play. And while shaving off a few seconds here and there isn’t nothing, it’s barely anything. And if reclaiming so little time is that important, MLB could certainly go about it in better ways.

When Nicolas Stellini wrote about this on FanGraphs a while back, commenter elkabong did some basic calculations to determine that eliminating the four pitches from an intentional walk saves around 35 seconds per game, on average. The methodology seems sound enough, and certainly serves as a fair benchmark. So, what can baseball do to shorten their games that doesn’t take away actual, if perhaps tedious, game play?

Bullpen Cart

This is a no-brainer and something I picked up off Twitter, though I’ll be damned if I can find the original tweet (my apologies to the original idea-haver). As if baseball needed another reason to reinstate the bullpen cart, one has been presented. I scoured the world’s widest webs to find footage of a bullpen cart in action so I could get an accurate time, but I was unsuccessful (cue the commenter posting about how easy it was to find the attached clip now). So I had to turn to some dirty math to come up with a general baseline. I could have pulled out the old protractor, I suppose, but that seemed like overkill.

I used Angel Stadium as my template because it seemed generic enough in regard to overall design and dimensions. These numbers will obviously vary by location, but only by a minor percentage. I estimated from outfield dimensions that the home bullpen is around 375 feet from home plate. Since the cart would need to travel only to the pitchers mound, we’re talking roughly 315 feet. If a bullpen car takes the player to the mound at 10 miles per hour (a fairly decent clip in what is essentially a golf cart), the player will arrive approximately 22 seconds after departing.

How long does it take a pitcher to get to the mound under his own power? Well, there’s some gray area there as well. The Todd Coffey’s of the world sprint to the mound. Others will take a leisurely stroll. Finding footage of a pitcher simply leaving the bullpen for the mound isn’t easy, either, but I was able to find a clip of Mariano Rivera entering his last All-Star Game. Rivera jogs out at what seems like a very decent pace and it takes him around 36 seconds, by my watch.

That’s around 14 seconds saved by instituting a bullpen cart, a sight that fans would absolutely adore anyway. It has that perfect minor-league feel to it while also serving an actual purpose. It’s tough to calculate total time saved per game as the carts would be used only during mid-inning changes, and probably only by the home team. And while it might not completely cover the time taken by an intentional walk, it will certainly be a time saver that actually enhances the game.

Manager Challenges

This is actually something being addressed by MLB, but the rules put in place are neither rigid or helpful. The biggest help is that managers now have a 30-second window in which to challenge a call. This would theoretically aid in two ways — it would bring down the overall standing-around time when a close play happens while insuring that only the largest of grievances are challenged, since teams’ video squads won’t have forever to pore over the footage.

But the new rule also puts into place a two-minute “guideline” for umpires to review the calls. That’s all well and good, except that this guideline would barely put a dent in overall time spent. According to MLBReplayStats.com, the average review takes about two minutes and 30 seconds. Our friends at Baseball Savant tell us that there were 1,531 call reviews in 2016. That amounts to about .63 challenges per game. At the current 2:30, that adds up to about 94.5 seconds of each game spent on challenges. If that were capped at two minutes (assuming every umpire stuck to the guideline), it would save each game around 19 seconds. It would certainly help mitigate some of those egregious three- and four-minute reviews, but doesn’t help much in the aggregate.

There are more silly adjustments that could be made, certainly (did you know that eliminating the home run trot would save almost a whole minute for each game?!). But the reality is that baseball … meanders. It has time to breathe, it isn’t burdened by our preconceived notions of time. And some people don’t like that. And that’s okay! Not everyone is going to be a baseball fan. But eliminating a fundamental part of the game in some empty gesture is only going to alienate current fans.

Intentional walks are not things that happen during meaningless points in a game. They aren’t something that can be thrown away. Intentional walks happen during moments that carry some of the most tension. There are almost always runners on base. The hitter being walked usually carries some clout as a guy who can handle the bat. The pitcher has added pressure of not screwing up what appears to be a routine motion — same goes for the catcher. A passed ball or wild pitch is not only extremely embarrassing in this context, it could easily swing a game. To give the manager the ability to just signal that a batter should be relocated to first seems so robotic and cold.

If MLB wants to really make games shorter it could reduce the number of innings, greatly expand foul territory, eliminate commercial breaks, and institute robot umpires to cut down on the number of arguments and ejections stemming from opinions on the strike zone. These would all put major dents in the time it takes to play a game of baseball. But that won’t happen because (with the exception of the commercials), it would fundamentally change the way the game is played. Taking away the “old” method of the intentional walk does the same, albeit in a reduced magnitude. Still, it’s a part of playing the game. The ball is in play for such a small percentage of the game as it is. Taking away even a little part of that seems shortsighted. And I can’t imagine one person who stayed away from baseball suddenly having a change of heart because intentional walks were nerfed.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

MLB has a common problem with many technology startups — it can’t get new users without changing the product, and all the current users would be mad if they did. The difference is that MLB’s users already net it billions of dollars a year. I’m not sure if the proper metaphor involves cutting off noses or babies and bathwater, but this minor and basically meaningless change just feels like lip service.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.
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Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

We need some variables to understand the length of games a bit better. I suggest looking at the following;
1. Isolate those games in a season that were played at the bottom 25% of the median time. What is it about these games that were different from those at the top 25% of the median?
2. Control for runs scored in a game and see if there is a correlation.
3. Control for changing pitchers. I have a feeling that this stat might yield a lot of hanging fruit. The complete game, formerly quite common, is now a rarity. Trips to the mound take time.
4. Control for teams and parks. Do some parks make for longer games and ditto for teams?
5. Has the time between innings changed over the years?
Once the answers to these questions are available, then a solution may be at hand. But we have to identify the cause of the longer game before addressing a solution. Another point: what is wrong with a longer game anyway? Let’s face it, with the advent of MLB.TV and its highlight feature, I simply watch the highlights of each game the following morning while watching the local game the day before. When i go to the park, i want the game to last longer so I can sit there and block out reality for that much longer.

Chris Ludwig
5 years ago

I’ve been a baseball fan for nearly half a century and the one single factor that has lengthened baseball games over that time is television. MLB can knock off one tv commercial per half inning and eliminate the eight pitch warmup relievers get when they get called into a game. A reliever should already be sufficiently warmed up in the bullpen. That would also eliminate a full tv commercial break every time that happens. Neither of these things would fundamentally change the game and, depending on how many pitching changes are made per game, can save up 10, 15 or even 20 minutes per game alone. But, unfortunately, MLB will never give up any of their money. They will continue their lie about the game being for the fans and make us sacrifice instead.

Travis Petersen
5 years ago
Reply to  Chris Ludwig

While I definitely agree with removing the reliever warmup, SBNation did a great look at how it is actually mostly a factor of players taking longer in between pitches. Bring on the pitch clocks!


5 years ago
Reply to  Chris Ludwig

The problem with removing the reliever warm-up is that ball parks have different mounds (height, slope, etc.) in the bullpen compared to the game-used mound. Not allowing a reliever to adjust, find his landing spot is inviting an injure.

5 years ago

Any alterations to the way the game is played are fundamentally ridiculous and, ultimately, unproductive.

I still can’t understand “who” is complaining about the length of the game? Which begs the question: are there enough people complaining that really matter?

Travis Petersen
5 years ago
Reply to  Aaron

I’m complaining because I’m a huge fan of the Mariners that lives on the East Coast. 10PM starts mean a 3.5 hour game will take me to 1:30 AM whereas a 2.5 hour game takes me to 12:30AM. I like watching baseball not people dawdling around. As much as I love Iwakuma, I hardly can even watch his starts. Sometimes I just want to yell “Throw the damn pitch already!” He takes on average close to 26 seconds when the rule is supposed to be 12 seconds. I absolutely think we need pitch clocks. SBNation found that most of the time change since the 80s is due to additional time between pitches.

But maybe I don’t matter….

Iwakuma is slow: http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=y&type=15&season=2016&month=0&season1=2016&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=11,d

12 Second Rule: http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/what-happened-to-the-12-second-rule-in-baseball-why-are-mlb-games-longer-052414

Time of game: http://www.sbnation.com/a/mlb-2017-season-preview/game-length

5 years ago

I watch 200+ games a year, and it’s a huge time commitment, forcing me to make choices like miss the end of the game or stay up too late on a work night.

I would be thrilled if they could somehow speed things up without changing anything fundamental about the game. I’m opposed to the new intentional-walk rule; I would NOT be opposed to a pitch clock if done right.

Todd Skoda
5 years ago

It seems simple to me, less pitches. If the umpires called more strikes, if they actually used the strike zone in the rule book then there would be less walks and a faster game.

As much as I love the runs created by walks, walks are boring and time consuming.

Paul G.
5 years ago

It must be noted that games were not always this long. Read newspaper articles from the first quarter of the 20th century and you will find complaints about games taking the eternity that was two (2) hours.

The biggest problems that can actually be addressed are almost certainly:

1. More pitches because of longer at bats.
2. More time between pitches.
3. Pitching changes.
4. Commercials.

The players are not keen on changing any of these. The owners are not keen on #4.

Joe Pilla
5 years ago

At the risk of being branded a crier of the obvious, isn’t it obvious that the issue with a long game is really a matter of how that game is long? While I tend to prefer snappy pitchers’ duels, I’ve sat through enough two-hour-and-change games that were mere exercises to know that pace ain’t everything. While I get numb in padded parts after three hours of sitting, if a game is well-played, a game that long and more is hardly a sufferance. I agree that TV commercial breaks seem a strong factor in games seeming longer, and I don’t see that changing at all, except for the worse. A pitch clock? That seems a basic violation of baseball’s “timelessness”: you’ve got 27 outs to win a game, not two or three hours. If I want to watch “beat the clock,” there’s many another game that does that well. I don’t see a great need to make baseball more efficient. Intentional walk? Throw the pitches, please.

Paul Moehringer
5 years ago

I think people are becaiming a little too upset with the time element, but with that being said I take no issue with the rule change.

The idea of the intentional walk in my view is that the defensive team is forefitting their right to try to get the hitter out. That doesn’t change under the new rule and I don’t think too many people are going to miss that one minute of what is dead time 99.9% of the time.

Paul Moehringer
5 years ago

*meant to say obsessed instead of upset.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

Here’s the thing. 50 or 60 years ago, games were much shorter and no one was complaining that they weren’t long enough. It’s not as if baseball is more exciting with longer games. But I don’t mind the length of games so much as the lack of pace. I don’t even mind commercials. But when the pitchers and hitters act as if the fate of human civilization rests on the next pitch, it drives me nuts. Get in there and hit, batter, and throw the damn ball, pitcher. It’s really not rocket science. No doubt a lot of things mentioned have increased the length of games-less foul territory, resulting in fewer foul outs, hitters taking no pitches. Some of these things are not going to change, but you can at least make the players play.

Kevin Griener
5 years ago

8 inning games, and 8 man lineups (ie, no pitcher OR designated hitter). It’s the only way.

John S
5 years ago

how about a rule limitng the number of pitching changes during an inning, (I would be ok with 1, unless the first relief pitche gets injured)

5 years ago
Reply to  John S

Definitely limit pitching changes in an inning. Either some total number of changes allowed per inning (I’m thinking two) or give teams timeouts that they would need to use to change a pitcher within an inning. This would introduce an entirely new strategic element to the game and make the late innings move faster. Right now, they slow to a glacial pace if things are tight.

Da Bear
5 years ago

It would take a particularly mischievous manager, and a pitcher who’s willing to go along with it despite the indelible blot it’d leave on his stats, but suppose there’s an end-of-season game that’s already a blowout when some call-up gets his first career AB, and ends up with a hit. At that point, under the new rule, the manager could go out and say “I want to intentionally walk the next 4,509 batters in a row,” further passing the opponents’ lead. In addition to blowing away Barry Bonds’s single season walk records, and all team scoring records for game and season alike, this call-up now has a lifetime batting average of 1.000 (1-for-1) but also has 502 PAs, such that he qualifies for the batting title and sets a completely unbeatable mark there.

And since rookie eligibility is not exhausted by any number of PAs, but rather 130 ABs, he’ll still be in the running for that award next season, with a little piece of history already in his pocket and trophy case.

5 years ago
Reply to  Da Bear

Of course, a manager could do that NOW, it’d just take a bit longer. 🙂

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

The manager would be immediately ejected for making a mockery of the game and his team would forfeit the game. No different from a pitcher waving his arm toward the batter and not releasing the ball. There are a thousand permutations of this hypothetical. I remember years ago, SI had an article about a catcher for the Tidewater Mets throwing a potato over the head of a third basemen. When the runner on third tried to score, the catcher tagged him with the ball. Catcher ejected and run allowed.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

This wasn’t with Tidewater, but somewhere in the lower minors. The story happened as you mentioned it – the player was about to be cut, so he figured he would do something he always wanted to do(throw the potato and have the results from there). He also had his number retired by the team he played for – he made a comment something to the effect of – Lou Gehrig had to play 2130 consecutive games to get his number retired – all I had to do was throw a potato.

Michael Bacon
5 years ago

Why not do away with the intentional walk completely? As it is a manager calls for the IBB and the pitcher is charged with an earned run if the runner scores, which inflates the pitcher’s ERA because the run scored is anything but “earned.” When the manager calls for the IBB the pitcher could think, “I’ll just throw the ball at the batter, thereby saving three pitches.” This would shorten the game depending on how much time is spent by the ensuing fight brought on by the intentional HBP. Then Rodney Dangerfield could say, “I went to a fight last night and a Baseball game broke out!”

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

RE: The Potato Caper
The catcher’s name is David Bresnahan. There are many articles about this incident across the web. It happened in Williamsport, Pa. AA game. http://www.baseballreliquary.org/about/collections/dave-bresnahan-potato/
What is interesting is that he bears the same last name as Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan. I don’t think they are related but it is quite a coincidence that two catchers from opposite ends of the spectrum have the same surname.

Bah! Humbug!
5 years ago

1. Whether announcing the intentional walk saves much time is not the issue to me. The new rule is a matter of expediency, regardless. Why throw four pitches?
2. I am ancient and knew baseball before its proliferation on TV or even before TV existed. TV is the time factor culprit.
3. Also, in an unrelated topic, the so-called analysts and some of the play-by-play people need to shut up and quit trying to impress with their comments. We saw what has occurred on the field; that is why the medium is called “television.”
4. Also, enforce the batter-stays-in-the-box rule. These guys wander around, adjust their batting gloves, and then bitch about called third strikes. Swing your %#@! bat, hit the ball, and then run.

John Sutter
5 years ago

According to B-R, the number of pitches thrown by each team per game is about 150. So estimate 300 pitches per game.

Figure out the mean time between pitches. Institute a clock that reduces it by 4 seconds. That saves 20 minutes per game. It does not affect gameplay one iota. And it improves the pace of play.