Have you ever been to a baseball game to see a particular player, but that player doesn’t get to swing the bat each time he comes to the plate? Instead, the player finds himself trotting down to first base without even seeing a pitch from the opposing pitcher. If that’s the case, you’ve witnessed an intentional walk.
So, what is an intentional walk in baseball?
An intentional walk is when a pitcher/team decides to walk a batter from the opposing team on purpose, putting the player on first base instead of allowing him to hit. Teams intentionally walk players to bypass them in the batting order, in hopes of the next batter being an easier out.
An intentional walk is an additional option available to baseball coaches around the world. With that being said, let’s dissect the intentional walk and the details surrounding it…
What Is a Walk in Baseball?
To completely understand the context of an intentional walk, one must first comprehend what a typical “walk” is in baseball.
In baseball, a batter has the opportunity to reach base on a base hit within three strikes. A strike refers to a hittable pitch thrown by the pitcher that is deemed in the strike zone by the umpire (the sports official/referee).
A pitch is also considered a strike if the batter swings and misses at a pitch, whether the pitch is inside the strike zone or not. However, if a pitcher cannot find the strike zone on a pitch, it is referred to as a ball.
If a pitcher throws four balls before a hitter puts the ball in play, the hitter is walked by the pitcher. Thus, four balls out of the strike zone result in a walk, which is denoted as a “base on balls” or “BB” in the scorebooks.
What Is an Intentional Walk in Baseball?
Even if you’re not an avid baseball follower and you’re just a casual fan with some familiarity with the sport, intentional walks aren’t too hard to understand. After all, the pitcher is choosing to walk the batter intentionally.
An intentional walk occurs when the fielding team’s manager chooses to pitch around a batter and walk him on purpose, thus putting him on first base instead of allowing the batter to hit.
Before 2017, a major league baseball catcher would usually stand up out of his squatting stance and extend his arm out from the opposing side of the batter. The pitcher would then deliver four pitches far out of the strike zone that were deemed balls to intentionally walk a batter.
However, starting with the 2017 season, Major League Baseball changed the intentional walk rule. With hopes of speeding up the game and saving pitchers from throwing unnecessary pitches, pitchers no longer have to throw four balls to issue an intentional walk.
Instead, the fielding team communicates with the home-plate umpire that they wish to intentionally walk the batter.
What Does it Mean to Pitch Around a Batter?
Pitch around a batter? Of course, you want to pitch around a batter. After all, the strike zone is around the batter, right?
While that may be the case, that isn’t necessarily what baseball nerds are referring to when the phrase “pitching around a batter” is mentioned. Instead, a pitcher is trying to be cautious if he is attempting to pitch around a batter.
Pitchers will pitch around a batter by not giving many hittable pitches that the batter would like. In this case, the pitcher is fine with throwing some balls off the plate.
The hope is that the batter will swing at a close pitch or two, leading to an easy out for the fielding team. The pitcher may even catch the corner of the plate with a pitch and get a strike called!
It’s also very possible that the batter doesn’t chase after the bad pitches and the manager ultimately chooses to intentionally walk the batter after a couple of pitches.
MLB Intentional Walk Rules
Even with the 2017 shift on intentional walks, there aren’t many rules that are outlined in black and white for intentional walks. As you will soon read, the “rules” regarding the intentional walk are very open-ended.
What Is the Point of an Intentional Walk?
There are several different reasons a manager might want to intentionally walk a batter. In the end, all managers are hoping to gain a competitive advantage against the opposing team by putting the batter on base.
The most obvious reason is to avoid pitching to the current batter to face the following batter, whom the manager expects to be an easier player to get out. This is the most common reason for intentional walks.
A team’s best batter (usually a power hitter) typically receives this treatment. The hope is that the following batter won’t do any damage, such as getting a base hit that results in a run(s) scored for the opposing team.
Managers can use the intentional walk as a strategy to set up a double play in the field. With a lone runner on third base and one out, a team can pitch around the batter or intentionally walk him to put him on first base.
Now, the fielding team can get out of a jam with a double play. If the pitcher can induce a groundball that results in a double play, the manager’s strategy of intentionally walking the batter can pay off.
The intentional walk can also be used strategically to force the opposing manager’s hand. If a pitcher is in a groove and rolling through a lineup, a manager might intentionally walk the batter ahead of the pitcher to hopefully have a pinch-hitter sub-in and hit for the pitcher.
This can work well in two ways, as the successful pitcher is removed from the game and the opposing manager is forced to use a player from his bench.
How to Signal an Intentional Walk
As we noted earlier, catchers used to stand and extend an arm out while pitchers threw four balls outside the batter’s box. That was a clear signal that an intentional walk was occurring.
However, when Major League Baseball opted to change the intentional walk rule without having to throw any pitches, they didn’t give the move an official sign.
Instead, managers use a combination of signals to execute the intentional base on balls, such as getting the home-plate umpire’s attention and waving four fingers in the air or simply waving the batter to first base.
Can a Batter Refuse an Intentional Walk?
According to the official baseball rule book, a walked batter “must” take his base, as with any other situation when four balls are thrown. Refusal to comply with an umpire is outlined in rule 8.01:
With that being said, several baseball pundits have pushed to tweak the intentional walk rule. One of those tweaks would be the option for a batter or manager to refuse an intentional walk or for a team to only be allowed to issue a certain number of intentional walks per game. Nevertheless, the fielding team’s decision to intentionally walk a batter must be honored as of now.
MLB Intentional Walk Career Leaders
According to Baseball-Reference.com, intentional bases on balls were first tracked in 1955. During that time, many different players have seen their fair share of intentional walks. None have seen it more than homerun slugger Barry Bonds.
Bonds, who starred for the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, was intentionally walked a whopping 688 times during his 22-year career in the MLB. To put that in perspective, Albert Pujols (315) and Stan Musial (298) – the number two and number three players on the list for the most intentional walks in a career – can’t even top Bonds’ mark combined!
How Many Intentional Walks Are Allowed Per Game?
There is currently no limit to how many times a team can utilize the intentional walk or how many times a specific player can be intentionally walked in an MLB game. However, that rule can vary from league to league, especially in youth sports.
As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, it’s possible a hitter could be intentionally walked every time they come up to bat.
That situation almost came up for Bonds against the Florida Marlins on May 1st, 2004. Coming off an MVP season the year before and well on his way to another award-winning season, Bonds was intentionally walked four times in five at-bats.
No other player has been able to touch four intentional walks in a game and that is a record that may never be broken.
Can You Intentionally Walk With the Bases Loaded?
Once again, no rule forbids a team from intentionally walking a batter with the bases loaded, but it wouldn’t make much sense for the pitching team. The pitcher would surrender a free run and the next batter would still come up with the bases loaded. Neither are situations teams want to put themselves in.
However, pitching to Bonds with a game on the line is a different story. On May 28th, 1998, Bonds stepped to the plate against the Arizona Diamondbacks with the bases loaded and the Giants trailing 8-6. Instead of allowing Bonds to beat them with a big hit, the Diamondbacks chose to intentionally walk the slugger and give them a free run!
The gamble ended up working for the Diamondbacks, as the next batter in the lineup, Brent Mayne, lined out to end the game. The Diamondbacks won the game 8-7.