There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs at Dodger stadium, and at most ballparks for that matter, where the hometown fans boo the opposition’s decision to issue an intentional walk. Intentional walks are almost always a bad idea, because they put additional runners on base and this opens up the possibility of scoring more runs. Why in baseball’s name do fans boo something that is advantageous for their team?
But, Geoff, if intentional walks are so bad, then why do teams do it? It seems to me that managers in baseball are often micromanagers, a process that is born by the mistaken belief that manager’s exercise more control over the outcome of the game than they actually do. Attempting to win every single matchup should not be the objective in a game, but rather the pursuit of scoring the most runs possible and preventing the opposition from doing the same.
Think of intentional walks in poker terms. In no-limit tournament hold ’em, players can push all their chips into the pot at any time, a move that is predictably high risk and high reward. Let’s say it is the first hand of a tournament in which nine players at the table each have 10,000 dollars. Four players enter the pot at the minimum amount, let’s say 100 dollars. The last player to act then raises to 10,000, thereby committing his entire stack. He has wagered 10,000 to win only 400, which is terrible, but taken from the vantage point of the other players, they now must risk their entire bankroll in order to call, something that is difficult to do since the odds are not particularly good for most hands. The raise appears to be a smart move because it is so very difficult to call and will win the pot most of the time. BUT…it will eventually lose, and this is the comparison to the intentional walk. It’s a good strategy in that it will succeed the majority of the time, but when it fails, and it cannot help but fail eventually, it fails in spectacular fashion that destroys any chance of winning.
So in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, when Detroit has a runner at third and one out, and Miguel Cabrera is at the plate and Prince Fielder is on deck, the decision is pretty easy (depending of course on who is in the bulpen) – you walk both men to load the bases. Their runs are meaningless, you’ve removed the two best hitters in the lineup from driving in the winning run, and you’ve set up the possibility of a double play, or at least a force at the plate. This is a decision, not without risk, but born from a plausible expectation based on the percentages and the situation.
In Tuesday’s game against the Diamondback, Manager Mattingly chose to intentionally walk the number #8 hitter in the lineup with a runner at second base in order to get to the pitcher. In the second inning of a 0-0 game. Yes, the pitcher will fail to reach base safely most of the time. A very large majority of the time, in fact, but when he does reach base, you’ve put the huge inning into play. Consider the two possible results:
Pitch to the #8 hitter – he fails to reach base safely, something that he will do at aorund %67 of the time or more (a .330 OBP being a little above average, especially for a #8 hitter). He will reach base safely, but the runner on second will not score, something that will happen about 10-15% of the time, though I’m settling on a figure that is probably on the lower end of the scale, and so about 20% of the time, give or take, he will successfully drive the run in.
Intentionally walk the #8 hitter – The average pitcher will fail to reach base safely around 80%of the time, and the run will fail to score. But, when the pitcher does reach base, suddenly the runner from second has either scored or the bases will be loaded for the leadoff hitter, creating the possibility for more runs to be scored that inning.
Mattingly chose the second option, which I’m not a big fan of, for while it will work most of the time, it courts disaster by bringing the big inning into play, which is something every team should avoid early in the game. Also, the percentages indicate the striking similarity between the #8 and #9 hitters. The #8 hitter will reach base far more often than the pitcher, true, but he won’t drive in the run at a rate any greater than the pitcher’s OBP. The overwhelming likelihood is that pitching to the #8 hitter will result in him making an out or reaching base safely without the run scoring, which means the pitcher comes to the plate with 2 outs and a runner in scoring position – i.e. the exact same scenario you create by simply giving away a base for free. The more free bases you give away, the more runs you potentially give up, and the more plate appearances the other teams hitters will enjoy. Walking people, intentionally or not, is simply not a winning formula.
In the seventh inning or later of a tie or one-run game, intentional walks make much more sense since single runs are at such a premium, but early in the game, the objective of the offense should not be to score one run, but rather to score as many runs as possible, even if this means lowering the chances of scoring that single run and so, in a fairly obvious leap of logic, the defensive team should be trying to thwart that objective as best as possible, and instead, Mattingly plays right into it.
This was not as bad as Yankee’s manager Joe Girardi’s decision to intentionally walk the bases loaded in the first inning of the very first game of the year, but it’s still a questionable decision.
Oh, and the Diamondbacks pitcher reached base safely but the runner did not score. Until the next batter drove him in. The Dodgers eventually lost 5-1, but I had the garlic fries from the Carl’s Jr. and they were really good, so the night wasn’t a complete loss.