MLB pace of play worth improving—just not with automatic walks

Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker joined Prime Time Sports to talk about the starting rotation and the tweaks to the team’s bullpen.

The best part about baseball is that you can’t fake baseball. You can’t rag the puck or kill the clock or take a knee.

Until you have registered at least 27 outs, you still need to throw the ball through the strike zone and face the risk that someone hits it through a hole, or past a glove, or into the seats. Every pitch matters.

This is why the recent suggestion from the commissioner’s office that the intentional walk may be bypassed in favour of a more literal free pass is particularly galling. Merely waving the batter down to first on a whim fundamentally subverts the importance of the transaction that occurs in the 60 feet and six inches between the rubber and home plate.

The intentional walk is not baseball’s most electrifying play, and there are moments where as a matter of strategy, it takes a good bat out of the game action. But as it currently stands, there remains a level of strategic hazard that arises when the catcher rises from his crouch and calls for four balls.

From a cold-eyed February perspective on the game, it might seem that allowing a runner to take a base is a mere formality. That almost all intentional walks transpire without incident is secondary to the fact that, on occasion, something weird happens. And baseball always gets fun when weird and wacky things happen on the field.

Royals pitcher Danny Duffy, in particular, has made intentional walks an adventure throughout his career. In a 2012 game against the Blue Jays, the shaky intentional walk was his undoing in a four-run inning. In a 2011 game against the Tigers, he looped a pitch so high and wide that Miguel Cabrera was able to advance to third even though he hadn’t been watching the pitch as it was delivered.

Regardless of the intended outcome, the intentional walk must still be executed, just like any other series of pitches. Throw it too wide, and you risk seeing runners advance on a wild pitch. Don’t get it far enough outside, and players like Cabrera and Gary Sanchez just might take a swing and put the lobbed ball in play.

The play also takes pitchers out of their rhythm and typical throwing motion, which raises the tactical question in late and close games: do you have an exiting pitcher walk the batter, or do you make the new pitcher enter to such a task? This kind of strategic micro-debate makes the game great.

Beyond the small beauty in the uncertainty and chance, the fact that this suggestion has arisen within the context of “pace of play” discussions between the league and the players’ union is all the more maddening. Intentional walks do not slow the play or stop the action of game, and the four intentional balls can usually be delivered in the time that Jason Frasor or Jonathan Papelbon took between pitches.

Eliminating the pitches involved in the free pass is a sledgehammer solution, except that it’s also smashing into a wall that’s not the problem.

There is spirited debate on whether the length of games or the pace of play needs to be addressed at all, and at the risk of seeming like an apostate, the actions taken thus far to stem the tide of ponderously long and boring games were necessary.

This isn’t an appeal to short attention spans or video game mentalities. It’s an appeal to return the game to a level of respect which is not so far in the distant past. Some of us aren’t that old, but remember when batters would never think to take more than one foot out of the batter’s box between pitches. Or when pitchers would never take leisurely strolls to the back of the mound multiple times within a single at bat.

It’s also a recognition that in the years leading up to the 2015 edicts on the matter, the game had taken its lack of a clock and turned it into an indulgence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a four-hour game, but some Red Sox-Yankees matchups in the past decade took what should have been marquee matchups and turned them into unwatchable slogs. When David Ortiz and Derek Jeter make it to Cooperstown, they should be welcomed by an exhibit which stitches together the hours and days and weeks of our lives that were dedicated to watching their practice swings and expectoration into constantly-adjusted batting gloves.

When you begin to stretch two hours of action into four-hour games, it starts to feel too much like football.

If you were to look at fundamental changes to the game, you could consider limiting pick-off throws, which at times rob the game of its momentum. The rule change which disallowed the fake-throw-to-third-throw-to-first move was a blessing, and removed one of the most useless time-wasters in the game. Nobody mourns for that play.

A radical change? Make pick-off throws count as pitches, with every throw to first counting as a ball to the batter. Teams would need to be far more judicious about those endless throws to first.

But rather than search for fundamental change, MLB and its players should return to what worked in 2015, when enforcement of the existing rules shortened the average game by 12 minutes. The slippage in 2016 was more attributable to umpires failing to keep batters from their excessive wanderings and time outs.

It’s not that anyone wants less baseball in their lives. It’s just that baseball is better when the game is played at a steady tempo.