The Worst Intentional Walk I’ve Ever Seen

I watched the Twins game against the Rangers last night. One of those weird games that for a while, nobody seemed to want to win…least of all Rangers manager Ron Washington.

Now, I don’t see a lot of the Rangers, but I’ve always liked Ron Washington. Maybe because he’s a former Twin, maybe because he just carries himself like the kind of guy who should be a very good manager (the way I think most non-Twins fans probably see Gardy). But this was…interesting.

Top of the 6th inning. Four runs already in for the Twins, now tied at 5. Nick Punto on first, Delmon Young on third, two outs. Right-handed reliever Jason Jennings is the new pitcher. Before even throwing a pitch, he picks Punto off, but the defense bungles it — Omar Vizquel throwing to third behind Delmon for no particular reason, and unsuccessfully — so now there are runners on second and third with two outs. Leadoff hitter and LHB Denard Span at the plate. After Span comes RHB Orlando Cabrera. Washington has Span intentionally walked to get to Cabrera with the bases loaded and two down.

Some numbers for you to consider:
Denard Span vs. RHP, season: .281/.367/.381
Orlando Cabrera vs. RHP, season: .294/.318/.394

Now, granted, Jennings himself has huge platoon splits, and would much rather face a righty than a lefty. But Span is an atypical lefty. He’s never had big platoon splits in the majors or minors, he has almost literally no power, and this year, he actually has severe reverse splits (with an .842 OPS against lefties compared to the .748 above). As a right-handed pitcher, the only thing you’re worried about against Span that you’re not especially concerned about with Cabrera is the possibility of the walk–the very thing you’re handing him for free!

And remember, there are two outs, so no double play. The only advantages here are the chance for the 3B or SS to get a closer force out (how often do you think that really makes the difference?) and whatever small advantages you think you get from facing Cabrera rather than Span and from Jennings facing a RHB rather than a LHB. And for that you’re loading the bases — in a tie game in just the 6th inning, remember — and risking a huge inning, a run scoring on a HBP or unintentional walk, etc.

Ohhhhhhhhh, and I have just one more set of slash stats for you. Consider the guy who comes up after Cabrera:

Joe Mauer, vs. all pitchers, 2009: Seventy million/eleventy billion/Zorbon-X6Qsquared.

That’s right. Rather than face slap-hitting, reverse-splitted Denard Span with two outs (a situation in which the most likely negative outcome was a walk anyway), Ron Washington thought it would be a good idea to intentionally load the bases to face what in that situation was a very similar hitter, just one hitter in front of the very best hitter on the planet. Say O-Cab scratches out an infield single? You’re looking at a one-run deficit with the bases still juiced and Babe Freaking Ruth coming up. And for what purpose again? Oh yeah…none in particular. I’d much rather have two chances to get the out pre-Mauer than one.

Pretty definitely the worst IBB decision I’ve ever seen. One of the worst managerial moves I’ve ever seen, period.

Ah yes, and it “worked.” Cabrera hit the ball hard, but Byrd tracked it down in center, and Mauer was left on the on-deck circle (and naturally homered to crazy-deep center to lead off the 7th, his second of the game). No justice, I tell you.

But then, okay, here’s a little bit of justice for you: if Jennings pitches to and retires Span to end the inning, and then O-Cab leads off the 7th with the out to center, there are three outs in that inning, rather than two, at the point when Delmon Young comes up and hits the 2-run homer that real-life Delmon hit to give the Twins the lead (and eventually the win). Not nearly as immediately gratifying as my O-Cab-single-plus-Mauer-grand-slam scenario would have been, but a little bit of karmic retribution nonetheless.

Intentional walks are dumb. Intentional walks that load the bases one seeing-eye single in front of the best hitter in the game are unforgivably dumb.

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5 Responses to “The Worst Intentional Walk I’ve Ever Seen”

  1. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    I think in that position that I would have "pitched around" Span a bit instead of strictly intentionally walking him. I'd tell my pitcher to throw it a little out of the zone to see if he'd chase it. But I don't really think it was that terrible of an intentional walk and probably not the worst I've seen.

    1) Jennings isn't a good pitcher, and I want him facing the hitter he's more comfortable with.

    2) If we're talking about infield singles, Span is much more likely to beat one out than Cabrera. He's faster and left-handed. That could lead to a run.

    3) I think having the benefit of an out at any base is a non-negligible advantage. If he hits one hard up the middle, the shortstop can dive, catch it, and flip it to second for the force. Does it happen often? No, but –bottom line– if I'm the manager in a tight game while in a tight playoff race, I want every advantage I can get. Yes, it allows for the HBP and BB causing a run to score, but those don't really happen all that often either.

    4) With his lack of plate discipline, Cabrera is much more likely to get himself out than Span, and the chances for above possible walk are pretty slim.

    5) I want Mauer leading off the next inning if I'm Washington. He can't do too much damage, and he's slow, which clogs the bases. Yes, Cabrera could get a hit and Mauer might end up hitting with the people on, but the percentages say Cabrera gets out and Mauer stays in the on-deck circle. I don't like the possibility of Cabrera getting on in front of Mauer to start an inning.

    Sorry, I just don't think it was that bad of a decision.

    And what's wrong with an intentional walk? It's a legit strategic tactic. If you're upset that it stops the "natural order" of the game by taking away someone's at-bat, then I would like you to also complain about defensive indifference. Guy steals second without a throw. If everyone wants everyone to play all out every instance, then the catcher should have to make a throw down to second. It's just strategy.

  2. Bill Says:

    Thanks for the response, Mark. You make some good points, but I just don't think they come close to balancing out all the dumb things about it.

    (1) Jennings has been pretty good this year, and while he's continued to struggle against lefties, Washington has let him face them anyway (114 PA vs. 149 against righties, and only 3 IBBs including last night). I don't believe that comfort was an issue, and at any rate, the reality is that discounting the walk, Jennings had about as much of a chance of getting Span out as he did of getting Cabrera out.

    (2) Forget about infield singles. If we're just talking about singles (or doubles or triples or homers), Cabrera is almost exactly as likely as Span to come through there. Certainly close enough that you don't want to put an extra guy on to get to O-Cab.

    (3) Yeah, it's an advantage…probably a negligible one, I think, but whether you think it is or not, is it really big enough that you want to get one hitter away from Joe Mauer with the bases loaded? Really?

    (4) Their batting averages are identical, and while the chances of a walk are a lot lower, a walk once you've already loaded the bases has a much different impact. Maybe I don't understand what you're getting at here.

    (5) Sure, ideally, you'd have Mauer leading off the next inning. But what you really don't want is to face Mauer with the bases loaded. If you throw strikes, you've got about a 70% chance of retiring Span and about a 70% chance of retiring Cabrera. So if you pitch to both of them and don't walk them, there's only about a 10% chance that Mauer comes up that inning (30% Span gets a hit, then if he does, 30% chance out of that that Cabrera does). By intentionally walking Span, you've tripled the chance of seeing Mauer that inning. What you're looking at is (a) pitching to Span and facing a 10% chance that you see Mauer with the bases loaded and a very high probability that he'll come up either first or second in the 7th (and if 2nd, Cabrera will probably make an out anyway, and it's even better to have Mauer up with 1 out and 0 on than it is to have him leading off) or (b) walking Span and facing a 30% chance of facing Mauer with the bases loaded and a 70% probability that he'll lead off the next inning. That's really not a worthwhile gamble.

    So, I maintain, it was an incredibly terrible decision.

    No, it's not the "natural order" thing that bugs me. It's the fact that the intentional walk is almost never a good idea. If you're in the ninth, tie game, runner on third, one out, Albert Pujols up and Chris Duncan on deck? Sure. Two outs, #8 hitter up and the pitcher on deck? That's probably a good idea too. But generally speaking, you never want to just hand the other team a baserunner, and you especially don't want to load the bases, when another walk means a run. Especially not in with 3+ innings left in the game, when anything can happen, and especially not to come one batter closer to someone like Joe Mauer.

    There have been good studies done by Bill James and many others that I'd suggest you seek out (wish I knew off the top of my head where to find them).

  3. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    Fair points. What I'm trying to get at is that I think Washington tried to get as many advantages on his side to get that one out. And Cabrera just makes a lot more outs than Span does. Yes, there averages are very similar, but I want to face the inferior hitter in this situation. That's Cabrera. Yes, that potentially puts more runners on for Mauer, but the percentages still say that Mauer will likely get out anyway. It could have steamrolled on them, but it's also pretty likely that no real damage was done. You make it seem like a certainty that Mauer will do something, but it's actually more likely that he doesn't.

    Simply, I think Washington just wanted to face the inferior hitter, and I don't see the problem with it. Do I think the IBB was the right decision here? No, but I don't think it was a horrible decision. But I'll try to find those studies by James.

    Anyway, as for the intentional walk in general, I wholeheartedly agree that it's used too often. It ticks me off to see a manager intentionally walk the 8 hitter to get the pitcher in the third inning. However, I think it's still a useful tactic when used properly. Managers should use them less and in better positions. IBB's don't kill people. People kill people.

  4. Bill Says:

    But as I was trying to say, Span is a better hitter than Cabrera (in 2009, against RHP) only because he walks. That's the only real difference in their numbers, and any other difference favors Cabrera. So by intentionally walking him, you're giving him the one thing he might do to hurt you that Cabrera wouldn't. Take the walk out of the equation, and his options were basically to face O-Cab with runners on 2nd and 3rd or face O-Cab with the bases loaded and Mauer on deck.

    "You make it seem like a certainty that Mauer will do something, but it's actually more likely that he doesn't."

    Analytically, I know that's true, but it's harder to remember when he's hitting .524/.565/.962 in his last 15 games. 🙂 The thing is, though, that every hitter is more likely than not to make an out. It's all about which risks you take. Span's out probability is about 67%, Cabrera's 69%, and Mauer's something close to 50% right now (maybe 52%? 55%? and of course his non-outs tend to be a lot more damaging than Span's in terms of total bases). Turning that 67% into a 0% in order to get one step closer to that 52% is just a really, really bad idea.

  5. Jorge Says No! Says:

    I think there's a place in baseball for the intentional walk, but it's been overused.

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