Major league pitchers will no longer have to waste four pitches to deliver an intentional walk, thanks to an MLB rule change approved by the players union this week. Some people aren’t happy about it.
It’s part of an overall MLB strategy to shorten games, but alone, the new rule does little to help in that effort. It takes about a minute to throw those four pitches, and there were only 932 intentional walks in baseball’s nearly 2,500 regular-season games last year. So, on average, the new rule would save roughly 20 seconds per game.
Still, Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark indicated that the intentional walk rule change didn't evoke a strong enough opinion either way by the union membership to justify strong resistance.
"We had guys who feel very strongly one way, guys who feel very strongly the other way, and a large group that was in the middle," said Clark, who visited the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Thursday to brief the Orioles players on union business. "And that's inevitably how we got to being OK with it, that we understood both sides of the equation, but the masses were in the middle on this one, so we were able to move forward accordingly. But no, there was no doubt that the opinions ranged from 'Yes' to 'Let's stay away from it' throughout.'"
That diversity of opinion was reflected in the Orioles clubhouse.
“I don’t particularly care,” reliever and union representative Darren O’Day said. “I don’t think it’ll save that much time. But I have seen some games lost on intentional walks in the minor leagues, and actually I saw one in the big leagues, too. So, there are going to be some pitchers who are strongly in favor of it. I don’t mind doing it. I’ve had plenty of intentional walk practice, so it doesn’t bother me too much. We’re trying to better the game all the time and make fans happy, so maybe it’s a good thing.”
Though the intentional walk is one of the more perfunctory things that can take place in a baseball game, there have been plenty of instances in which a poorly executed intentional ball has led to dramatic change of fortune for the team offering the free pass.
Or, they can relive the night at Oriole Park in 2006 when O's reliever Todd Williams tried to intentionally walk slugger Miguel Cabrera and inadvertently lobbed the ball close enough to the plate that Cabrera was able to reach out and slap it into center field to drive home the go-ahead run in extra innings. The not-so-magic moment is still easy to find on YouTube.
That kind of thing will never happen again, as long as the new rule is in effect, and O’s reliever Brad Brach doesn’t like that a bit.
“I’m not a big fan of it,” Brach said. “I think that’s like high school, in my opinion. You see Little League teams doing that. You’ve seen middle school teams doing that. You see high school teams doing that. You’re in the major leagues. If you can’t throw four pitches outside the thing in a timely manner, I don’t think you should be there.
"It's one of those things that kind of pauses the game for a second, gives you a second to re-evaluate what's going to happen in the game and honestly I don't think it's going to make much difference in the time of game."
Starting pitcher Chris Tillman figures that —as with a lot of issues impacting baseball — the opinions of the players are going to be based on their roles.
"I think, as a pitcher, I don't think you'd mind," he said, "but as a position player or a runner on base, I feel they would care because there are a lot of times when a pitcher would miss and you'd advance and get a free swing. But as a pitcher, I don't mind it."
Outfielder Adam Jones didn't seem too worked up about any of it.
"I'm going to go with [Blue Jays catcher] Russell Martin's idea," he said. "You hit a home run, you just go back to the dugout and save yourself, what, 35 seconds?"
Clark and other union officials briefed the Orioles on the new collective bargaining agreement and a variety of other subjects. Meanwhile, manager Buck Showalter was getting briefed by MLB officials and umpires on this year’s rules changes.
He said he's OK with the change in the intentional walk rule, but wonders, like everybody else, if it will have any effect on the average length of games.
“I don’t have a problem with it, you know,” Showalter said. “How much is it going to affect it? I guess it’s a start. I guess it was the only one they could get approved by the union. Is that right?”
Not exactly. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred seems intent on making a much more comprehensive attempt to get the average time of game under three hours, including changing the dimensions of the strike zone, tightening the replay process and perhaps eventually going to a pitch clock. The union has been resistant to some of the more intrusive changes, but Manfred indicated recently that he may be able to impose them unilaterally in the near future.
Though Manfred complained earlier this week that the players were being uncooperative, Clark said Thursday that it's not a case of the union being stubborn. It's a more a case of being deliberate in examining possible changes and their possible impact on union membership.
"If cooperation means agreement, then yes, then I suppose we haven't quite been cooperating," Clark said. "But the idea that we haven't spent time going through the issues and continue to spend time going through the issues with the players is not accurate."