Major League Baseball, heeding pressure to pick up the pace of games that sometimes last longer than an Oscars telecast, has eliminated the four-pitch intentional walk.
Relying on automatic intentional walks to shave a minute off a marathon is like announcing the first step of an ambitious diet plan will begin by passing up the radish slices on the second trip through the buffet. But at least the players and the commissioner have agreed to agree about something.
On hold is a more substantial rules change that would reframe the strike zone from the “hollow beneath the kneecap” to the top of the hitter’s knees. Such an adjustment could raise the strike zone two inches, which might not sound like a lot to those of us who don’t swing a bat for a living. Yet two inches can be the difference between a borderline low strike and a ball and, by extension, the difference between a pitcher’s count and a hitter’s count.
Pitcher’s counts lead to strikeouts, which are exciting for a pitcher but kind of a drag for everybody else. Hitter’s counts encourage contact and, thus, action engaging fielders and baserunners. Last season, action was achieved on 30 percent of MLB at-bats, lowest in 40 years.
Tweaking the strike zone could spring some zest into those innings archived by scorecards that read: “K, BB, K, BB, K.”
Marlins manager Don Mattingly recently offered an intriguing way to put the ball in play, and it had nothing to do with revising the rule book. Mattingly’s solution: Change the hitter’s thought process.
“Analytically, a few years back, nobody cared out the strikeout, so it’s OK to strike out 150, 160, 170 times, and that guy’s still valued in a big way,” Mattingly noted. “Well, as soon as we start causing that to be a bad value, guys will put the ball in play more.
“Once we say strikeouts are bad and it’s going to cost you money the more you strike out, then the strikeouts will go away. Guys will start making adjustments and putting the ball in play more.”
If it sounds as if Mattingly has appointed himself an authority on this issue, it’s because he’s an authority on this issue. During Mattingly’s 14-year career between 1982 and 1995, only 5.8 percent of his 7,722 at-bats ended on a strike three.
Per a 162-game season, he averaged 40 strikeouts, or 179 fewer than Orioles slugger Chris Davis recorded in 2016. Despite his propensity to swing and miss, Davis has been guaranteed $23-million per year through 2022.
Chris Carter whiffed almost as often with the Brewers, but Carter’s 206 strikeouts didn’t prevent him from signing a one-year free agent contract with the Yankees. Ditto Mike Napoli, who over the winter agreed to a $6-million, one-year deal with the Rangers.
Napoli, like Davis, is a power hitter whose 194 strikeouts were forgiven by the career-high 34 homers and 92 RBIs he produced for the A.L. champion Indians. If one year at $6-million seems like a relatively modest free-agent payday for the popular cleanup hitter regarded as the heart and soul of a pennant winner, it’s because Napoli, at 35, profiles as a defensively limited first baseman.
His 194 strikeouts were an afterthought.
During the last night I spent at a ballpark in 2016 — Game 3 of the World Series in Chicago, where the Cubs were home for their first Fall Classic contest since 1945 — Napoli struck out three times. He had plenty of company. Cubs pitchers combined for 10 strikeouts. Indians pitchers countered with eight in a contest that underscored why changes — either through the rule book or culturally — are necessary.
During batting practice, the flags atop Wrigley Field’s center field scoreboard were snapping horizontally, from home plate to the side-street intersection beyond the scoreboard. Given a favorable hitter’s wind of 25 MPH, with gusts up to 40, the final score figured to resemble that of a 17-14 football game.
The final score wasn’t 17-14. The final score was Indians 1, Cubs 0. A jet stream awaited, and neither team lofted a ball as far as the outfield warning track.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona gave starting pitcher Josh Tomlin the hook with two outs in the fifth. Although Tomlin had limited the Cubs to no runs and a pair of hits, Francona turned things over to a bullpen anchored by Andrew Miller, a closer thriving in a radically original role as middle-of-the-game executioner.
Francona’s counterpart, Joe Maddon, was similarly inclined to meddle. With one out in the fifth, Maddon replaced Hendricks with the first of five Cubs relievers.
It can be compelling when two managers match wits in the baseball equivalent of a chess game, but Francona and Maddon began lining up their pieces in the fifth inning. Which explains why it took three hours and 33 minutes to decide a 1-0 game.
One run, 18 strikeouts, no flies to the warning track despite a fierce wind behind the hitters’ backs. All this accomplished in 3:33.
Mattingly is onto something: Encourage hitters to put the ball in play by discouraging them from striking out, and the best way to discourage strikeouts is by re-evaluating what a strikeout costs in terms of fan entertainment.
“I don’t think the games are necessarily too long,” said Mattingly, “It’s the action. I think that’s what we talk about — pace of play. Let’s go. Let’s get it going.”
An adjusted strike zone won’t be implemented this season, and I suspect an adjusted strike zone is years away.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate how the four-pitch intentional walk now has been transformed into a simple dugout signal from dugout to umpire, the signal capable of reducing a 3:33 hour game into a 3:32 hour game.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath