When Penalties Aren’t (A Modest Baseball Proposal)

Posted: Oct 03, 2006 12:00 AM
When Penalties Aren’t (A Modest Baseball Proposal)

Ask yourself this question: have you ever gone to a baseball game hoping to see an intentional walk?

The purpose of issuing walks is to encourage a pitcher to give batters something worth hitting and to reward them if he doesn't. But what happens when the reward is not a reward…when the penalty is so desirable that a team says, in effect, “Please, sir, penalize us?” At these times, the rule designed to make the game interesting actually reduces its entertainment value.

What if you could guarantee that every time Jim Thome or Albert Pujols came up to bat the confrontation would either end by a strikeout or a ball put in play? Would the game be less exciting or more? I say more, and here is my suggestion:

Whenever a walk is issued, the batting team gets to decide whether the batter himself goes to first and the next player bats or whether a pinch runner (whose use doesn’t disqualify him for later use as a sub) goes to first and the batter starts over with an 0-0 count. In other words, no more intentional walks. No more bypassing the at-bats of the players most likely to make the game worth watching.

Baseball thrives on confrontations. There is nothing more thrilling than watching Randy Johnson try to blow three fastballs past David Ortiz or seeing if Chris Carpenter can sneak three pitches on the corner past Lance Berkman. People might have their own personal opinion of Barry Bonds, but nobody goes for hot dogs while he is at bat. And if baseball is thrilling because of the tension that comes from these great confrontations, then surely there is nothing more deflating to the joy of watching the game than letting a team avoid one by issuing a walk.

My proposal preserves such titanic clashes, particularly in close games. In fact, it guarantees them. And ultimately, isn’t that why people pay money to watch? I recently went to all four games St. Louis (my team) played here in Arizona. It went badly for us, but I couldn’t have cared less. The only thing I remember from that long weekend was seeing a towering blast from the 2005 MVP, Albert Pujols. And even when he didn’t hit one, which was true every other time he went to bat last weekend, didn’t we fans deserve to see him have the chance? If baseball is a game designed to teach character, why should it allow teams to avoid danger by ducking good hitters to get at weaker ones behind them?

Now, lest we forget that baseball is a game of balance, I want to point out that this still gives the defense part of what they want. Putting a man on first can enable a double play and sometimes a force at home, both of which are strategic decisions teams should be able to pick.

Walking a batter makes sense on occasion, but everyone feels a bit sheepish and guilty about the decision. As a fan, of course I hate to see my team lose, but no true fan of the game cheers the decision to walk Frank Thomas or Derek Lee. Why? Because, simply put, there’s no honor in it.

Besides, how depressing is it to know that some base runners deliberately don’t try to steal because it would encourage the defense to walk the big hitter lurking at the plate? I have personally watched the number two hitter hold up at first base instead of trying for a double just because "Phat" Albert was coming up next.

Before we finish this little discussion, let’s consider some of the fine points. First, perhaps we would make an exception for the player batting in front of the pitcher in the National League. I can go either way on this one because making the pitcher bat is truly an important part of National League ball, since it often forces a manager to go to the bullpen earlier than he would like. So call this the “8-hole exception” if you like, but I will say this in contrast to the other scenarios…people rarely go to the ball park to watch the catcher bat.

Second, this change would certainly mean that batting and home run records will become easier to break because sluggers will now get pitches when they would have previously gotten passes. New records might have to say “in the no-walks era,” but that’s a tolerable footnote for the sake of a game which would be made so much more exciting by the change. Incidentally, under this system, players in pursuit of individual records will no longer be disadvantaged just for playing on a contending team with meaningful games at the end of the season.

But maybe letting players decline all walks seems like too much of a shift to you. So perhaps the umpire should have to rule whether the walk was intentional. My problem with this is that it puts too much judgment on the ump, and it would only help in obvious situations. It’s not just the intentional walks which deflate the game, but also declining to give a good hitter any decent pitches. Of course, hit batters would also have to be given the same options. If you don’t include hit batsmen in this rule, then pitchers are just going to go hunting when they would have previously issued an intentional walk.

But seriously, what better way to punish a pitcher for hitting a batter than by letting the same player take more swings at the ball? In a game where the pitcher already has such a clear advantage (.300 is a good average…), why not give batters more good pitches to look at? After all, a guy shouldn’t get punished for being the only star in a weak line-up.

Of course, while I’m changing games, I would humbly suggest that basketball be adjusted so that the team who has been fouled over the limit always has the choice either to shoot free throws or get a new shot clock and keep the ball. I know CBS would never allow it because so much of their money is made by stretching out the last 1:38 of every NCAA tournament game for 20 minutes. There’s too much advertising money at stake.

So I’ll settle to just see this modest change in my beloved game of baseball. Remember, a penalty is not a penalty if a team would rather take it voluntarily because they think it gives them an advantage. And if the ultimate point of having walks is to benefit the hitting team, it seems rather strange that we would force them to take a base when they don’t think it does.

So again, ask yourself a simple question. Doesn’t every 8-year-old in the bleachers deserve a chance to catch a blast off the bat of Ryan Howard? And as you’re watching teams in the playoffs issue walks to superstars we’d rather see take their swings, keep in mind that next year things could be different.