Another bad idea from MLB: Intentional walks will now be automatic

Is there no non-problem Commissioner Rob Manfred won’t try to solve?

As part of its initiative to improve pace-of-game play, Major League Baseball has approved a change to the intentional walk rule, going from the traditional four-pitch walk to a dugout signal, it was announced Wednesday…

Getting rid of the old-fashioned intentional walk would eliminate about a minute of dead time per walk. In an age in which intentional walks actually have been declining — there were just 932 all last season (or one every 2.6 games) — that time savings would be minimal. But MLB saw the practice of lobbing four meaningless pitches as antiquated.

This is less egregious than the other proposed rule change, to begin each extra inning with a runner on second, but they’re both part of a trend of MLB trying to automate facets of the game that traditionally have depended, and should depend, on skill. Intentional walks are nearly automatic as is — but not entirely, as the lowlight reel below will remind you. (Once every decade or two, a hitter even manages to put a pitch in play during an intentional walk.) Eliminating a tiny amount of risk that requires a tiny amount of skill in the name of speeding up the game seems reasonable in theory, but how much speedier would the game actually be?

By one estimate, replacing an intentional walk with a dugout signal would make the average game … 35 seconds shorter. Another estimate says it’s more like 14 seconds. If you prefer to think of it in terms of pitch count, it would save an average of 1.54 pitches per contest. In exchange for that, you’d lose the fun of watching the visiting team’s pitcher booed lustily for 30 seconds while he walks the home team’s slugger and you’d lose the minor suspense involved in seeing if he accidentally throws the ball away. Not a major sacrifice for a fan, but why is a sacrifice required at all?

This rule change is a special affront to a conservative temperament, I think, because it shows signs of poor policy thinking of the “change for change’s sake” variety. In isolation it might be tolerable; paired with the reform to extra innings, it feels like a slippery slope in which elements of the game that depend on execution — like, say, putting a man in scoring position — will be replaced by gimmicks meant to either save time or grab eyeballs. People like me joke about tie games eventually being decided by home run derbies, but to a traditionalist this is the first step on the slope. And the sheer meagerness of time saved by the intentional-walk change reeks of a symbolic gesture in lieu of more meaningful reform. You don’t target intentional walks if you’re serious about shortening games; you target intentional walks if you want to make an impression on the public that you’re serious about shortening games. All options are on the table! We’re Doing Something™! Something much more meaningful that they could do would be to figure out a way to shorten commercial breaks between innings and replace the missing spots with in-game (maybe even interactive) advertisements of some sort. Traditionalists will grumble no matter what because that’s what baseball traditionalists do, but changes that affect the game’s presentation will always be more digestible, I think, than changes that affect the skill set players are required to master.

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