Silly Rules

by Russ Roberts on July 25, 2005

in Sports

Patrick Hruby at ESPN.com discusses silly rules in sports that should be changed.  One of them is the intentional walk in baseball:

Let’s see: Spend $60 on a ticket to watch someone not pitch to
David Ortiz? No thanks. Better to grant each team a single intentional
walk per game, the way the NFL doles out limited coaches’ challenges.
And when the pitcher decides to chicken out? Give the batter two free bases.

Really, why should a meatball artist get a near-mulligan because he can’t get the likes of Barry Bonds out?

It’s an interesting idea.  There’s nothing more boring or depressing than an intentional walk.  But like a lot of good ideas, it sounds great until you think about implementation and enforcement.  How would you actually implement a ban on the intentional walk?  If you ban what is now the intentional walk—a play where the catcher stands up, stretches out his arm and signals for a ball outside the strike zone, teams would counter the rule with what is called a semi-intentional walk.  You simply make every pitch very unattractive. 

In this world, an intentional walk would become a judgement call on the part of the umpire—a decision that would allow the umpire to award the batter, say, second base in the event of a perceived intentional walk.  If you dislike an intentional walk now, how much would you dislike an umpire making that call?  My guess is that it would never happen.  It would become a rule that would never be invoked similar to the option the umpire has to keep a batter at the plate after being hit by a pitch if the umpire feels the batter did not attempt to evade the pitch.  (Though I did see such a call in my kid’s little league game this year.)

If you really want to get rid of the intentional walk, it would be better to use cultural norms rather than explicit rules.  Mock the pitcher and the manager for their lack of courage.  In fact, this used to be the norm of baseball.  When Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were at the top of their game, it may have made sense to walk them every time and not just when there was a man on second, or late in the game at a potential turning point.  But it just wasn’t done.  It would have been considered gauche.  And a good thing.  That norm evolved in a Hayekian way to help baseball become more interesting.

So why did that norm die?  Maybe it didn’t.  Maybe I’m wrong about the phenomenon.  But if I’m right, my guess is that it got harder to sustain that norm when more was at stake as it is today in the modern game where salaries of pitchers and managers are higher and being perceived as courageous is too costly.

UPDATE:  In 1957, when Ted Williams was slugging .731 and his batting average was .388, he was walked intentionally 33 times, or about one in every 14 plate appearances.  Last year, Barry Bonds slugged .812 and hit .362.  He was walked intentionally 120 times, or roughly once every four plate appearances.  as far as I can tell, baseball did not keep track of intentional walks before 1955.  All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, an extraordinary site for stats.

UPDATE: Reader Neema Salimi points out that one way to enforce the rule without being arbitrary is to penalize a four-pitch walk.  The batter could be awarded two bases.  Or a runner on second or third could be allowed to advance on a four-pitch walk.  It’s an interesting idea.  It does punish the pitcher who is trying to throw strikes but is simply having control problems.  It would lead to a lot of good pitches on a 3-0 count.  And on 2-0 as well.  So while it would get rid of the intentional walk, it would have some additional effects on offense.

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