MLB unveils intentional walk rule amid criticism over effectiveness


Baseball, once known as the United States’ favorite pastime, has slowly but surely become secondary to football in the eyes of fans across the country. One of the reasons for this trend is the pace of play in each sport. While NFL games tend to last longer than MLB games on average, there is action on every play during a football game. In baseball, however, fans sometimes have whole games where teams only get a couple hits and score one run.

For the avid baseball fan, pitchers’ duels are considered thrilling and part of the beauty of the sport. The average U.S. sports fan, on the other hand, tends to find low-scoring games with little offense to be dull.

This is why the MLB has decided to work toward shortening games in recent years, such as limiting time in between innings. The league’s newest rule change is in the same vein as the others, though this particular regulation has many fans and players scratching their heads.

The new directive states that during intentional walks, managers will only have to give a signal from the dugout instead of having the pitcher throw four balls outside the strike zone on purpose. In theory, the rule seems logical, yet it is spurring a much-heated debate from both players and fans alike.

Those opposed to this new directive argue that intentional walks are as short as they are infrequent. All in all, they usually take about one extra minute per game. Across the entire league, an intentional walk is only seen once every two and half games on average. Essentially, the league is shaving one minute off every two and a half games this season; this is a drop in the ocean when considering the big picture.

Many argue that four-pitch intentional walks seem like an unnecessary part of a slow-moving game, while others adamantly believe the time they remove from the overall season is nothing compared to the amount of intrigue they provide for many players and fans.

Over the years, plenty of baserunners have advanced on errant intentional walk pitches. New York Yankees fans need only to think back to last season when rookie phenom Gary Sanchez swung at a misfired intentional walk pitch and nearly crushed it out of the park. There are times when these seemingly unnecessary pitches can end up providing an element of unexpected excitement when things go awry.

During the 2016 MLB season, there were 932 intentional walks, less than both the strike-shortened season of 1994 and the 1990 season that featured four less teams than the league has now. The last season with less intentional walks than 2016 was 35 years ago, also a strike-shortened year. To find the last full season in which there were less than 932 intentional walks, one would have to go all the way back to 1962. That season only featured 20 teams, which is 10 less than the league has now. With intentional walks on the decline, some are confused about the timing of this rule change.

Eliminating the intentional walk process has many speculating over other changes to expect. Another unnecessary part of the game involves batters circling the bases after hitting a home run. This happens way more often—an average of two home runs were hit per game during the 2016 season—than intentional walks, but getting rid of this instrumental part of the game would be considered almost sinful to many loyal baseball fans and big-time sluggers.

While taking away the home run trot may seem like an impossibility to diehard baseball fans, it is no longer off the table with these recent drawbacks.

Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin, a former Yankee, brought this point up after the rule change: “My thing is, if they really want to speed up the game, then when a guy hits a home run, to speed up the game should a guy, just like in softball, when he hits it, should he just walk to the dugout? It’d be quicker. I’m just wondering, at what point do we just keep the game, the game?”

MLB has to ask itself, if by trying to conserve time and gain more fans, is it actually running the risk of alienating and possibly losing the longtime fans who have been committed to the sport for years?

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred wants to cut down on the average duration of games and understandably so. Baseball is one of the only major U.S. sports that does not have a time clock. There is no rushed feeling for a pitcher to throw the ball and because of this, many of them take their time. Fanatics of the sport can appreciate the deliberation and careful preparation behind each pitch, but most others tend to find the inactivity extremely boring. The new intentional walk rule and its effectiveness are debatable, but all can agree that this new directive is just the first step the MLB is taking to try to shorten baseball’s pace of play. With rumblings of pitch clocks possibly being on the horizon, it will certainly be interesting to see where the league decides to go from here in its relentless pursuit to try to win back the attention of the U.S. sports landscape.

Nonetheless it is difficult to believe that these rule changes will have major implications of overall game popularity.