Major League Baseball spring training is now underway after exhibition games began on Feb. 22. Fans are excited—as always—for baseball to be back after another long winter without it, but not without some controversy.
One of the biggest stories around the league at the start of spring training does not involve a certain player or team; it involves the intentional walk. Yes, those four intentional balls that a pitcher throws to strategically put a man on first base.
MLB has approved a rule change that eliminates the need for those four pitches to be thrown to intentionally walk a batter. Instead, the manager simply needs to make a signal from the dugout that they would like to do so and the batter will be awarded first base automatically.
The rule change is one of many efforts that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is considering to make the game of baseball faster. Since taking over as commissioner of baseball in the 2015 season, Manfred has shown he is no opposition to the idea that baseball needs to change with the times.
As a younger generation with a shorter attention span grows up with more entertainment options than ever in the palms of their hands, baseball needs to adjust in order to stay relevant. Some managers around the league don’t seem to be phased by the rule change, including New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi.
“I don’t think that’s a big deal,” he said. “For the most part, it’s not changing the strategy, it’s just kind of speeding things up. I’m good with it.”
It will do away with a play that has virtually no action without any consequence or change in the result of the play. So why is it controversial?
Traditional baseball fans may grasp for an argument against it by saying it eliminates the chance for error on those four pitches. Some pitchers do struggle to accurately lob balls out of the strike zone and with this rule, the off chance of a wild pitch is eliminated. Games have been lost because of situations like this, but the reality is that this rarely happens and it is not the real issue.
The rule change eliminates a physical aspect of the game. While in this instance the elimination is inconsequential and few will miss it, it shows a willingness of the league to do away with parts of the game before trying to make the game we already have faster and more exciting.
MLB should give more consideration to rule changes that reduce the amount of down time in a game before they start eliminating actual plays. Does a pitcher need to take over 30 seconds between pitches? Does a batter need to step out of the box to adjust his gloves after every pitch?
This is what the league should be looking at to combat the unfortunate number of natural breaks that exist in baseball. Limiting the time it takes to make a pitch, conducting a replay review and making a mound visit are steps in the right direction and the league has shown progress on all three of these examples.
The pitch-less intentional walk will prove, however, to be nothing more than a ceremonial move. Intentional walks happened just once every 2.6 games in 2016, meaning the rule change would shave about one minute off of every three games. It likely won’t make the game faster.
Changes of this nature on a bigger scale could make baseball a completely different game than the one it is now. For example, it was announced in the offseason that a rule—where a runner will be placed on second base to start extra innings—would be tested in the minor leagues.
Rules like this are gimmicky and will accomplish very little at the expense of those who already love the game of baseball.