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How the Vanishing of the Intentional Walk is Affecting MLB Betting

Intentional Walk During Chicago Cubs Vs Washington Nationals Game

Basketball has the time-out for cleaning up a spill on the court. Soccer has the Neymar Roll. Football has the holding penalty, or maybe the T/O to ice the kicker.

In every sport there’s a buzzkill just waiting to happen.

Some might argue that in baseball, the most time-honored buzzkill is the “check runner” when a pitcher turns to throw to 1st base 5 or 6 or 10 times in a row. But at least in that circumstance, the pitcher almost always goes to war with the batter in the end.

But how many times has a Major League ballgame reached a crucial, suspenseful at-bat only to wind up not featuring the at-bat at all? Intentional walks were commonplace as the current decade began.

The clean-up hitter steps to the plate, the home crowd’s murmur crescendos to a roar – and then – 4 easy pitch-outs from the hurler to a standing catcher.

Not that intentional walks are never interesting.

If hardball purists (and pitchers) are unhappy with the rates of scoring and strike-outs in today’s ballgames, they’ve got to at least be happy with the consistently of full at-bats from premier MLB hitters. The 2019 season has seen a record low number of intentional walks, as a recent rule change has helped bring-to-light managers’ ulterior motives for ordering the tactic in seasons past.

Gamblers might be ready to wager the Over more often just thinking about it. But it’s a mistake to assume that the disappearance of intentional walks has anything to do with the high-scoring trend rocking the Major Leagues far beyond thin-air ballparks like Coors Field.

Let’s examine the trend’s particulars and then handicap its effects on moneyline, Run Line and Over/Under gambling strategies.

How the Intentional Walk Began to Disappear

In February of 2017, MLB officials announced that the (formerly) slow ritual of the intentional walk would be changing by rule. Instead of the pitcher intently removing the batter’s opportunity to swing at a pitched ball, a signal will be issued (by the manager or pitcher) to the umpire that the pitcher would like to give up a base and allow the batter to walk to first.

It’s a clever rule change, because the charm of baseball is that the ball is always technically in play during an inning, but the pitcher, fielders and baserunners are trusted to do their jobs to the point where there’s usually no reason for either side to make a move. You can’t move a batter to 1st base “automatically” unless an ump steps in, but it’s now illegal for the pitcher to stand up and call for intentional balls thrown yards away from the plate…even though technically a hurler is holding the baseball while in-play and should be allowed to throw it wherever he pleases.

Major League Baseball claims that the rule change has been implemented to save time and shorten the average length of a ballgame. But just like MLB’s platitudes and generalities spoken about a possibly (probably) “juiced” version of the baseball itself in 2019, those statements can be dismissed.

Time for a…Really Quick Sip of Beer

In an article at Beyondtheboxscore.com, analyst Devan Fink used PITCHF/x data from FanGraphs to “find the average amount of time between each pitch across the league,” to see if the new Intentional Walk rule is really saving fans any significant amount of time.

Turns out that in 2018, 36.8 seconds were saved each game, and in 2017, 38.9 seconds were saved per game. That’s an average of 37 seconds that TV watchers and ticket-buyers are getting back. Woo.

Instead, taking away the traditional intentional walk has caused other changes.

For a start, crazy plays can occur when pitchers get cute or lazy in the process of throwing 4 pitch-outs. Miguel Cabrera is among many legendary hitters who have found ways to crack RBIs during an intentional walk attempt. Just as it happened with the advent of the Infield Fly Rule, American baseball has removed yet another source of occasional, unexpected mayhem.

Miguel Carbrera Home Run During Intentional Walk

What’s more striking is the lack of “automatic” walks MLB clubs are giving-out in accordance with their new options from the dugout. Walks are down, strikeouts are up, and so are home runs. Mano-a-mano battles between aces and sluggers are more commonplace than ever, and managers of winning teams are letting opposing batters whale away as an ingredient to the club’s success.

Skippers may now be forced to admit that they had ulterior motives for calling old-fashioned intentional walks. It had to do with settling down their ballclubs every bit as much as pure science. Sure, putting a man on 1st base comes with certain perks for a defense. Major League clubs are mostly skilled at turning double plays, giving traditional managers an extra incentive to walk a dangerous hitter with only 1 out in the inning. A simple ground ball to the shortstop could then end the opposing rally in only a few seconds.

But a rash of fly balls in 2017, 2018 and 2019 have made that tactic kind of obsolete too. MLB batting coaches have been instructing hitters to keep the ball up in the air this season, as teams realize that there can usually only be a single put-out on a pop fly.

If all batters swing for the fences and at least succeed in popping out or striking out without further damage, the lurking threat of the double play is eliminated whenever runners are on base with 0 or 1 out.

Comparing MLB Management to NFL Head Coaching Decisions

Consider why the intentional walk tactic would almost disappear after a rule change that technically should help the pitcher and the defensive team executing the walk – saving the hurler 4 precious uses of his right or left arm while allowing fielders to completely relax.

Note:

Skippers are aware of the atmosphere and vibe of a ballgame as much as anyone.

They know that an intentional walk has its pros and cons tactically, and could result in a +1% or -1% movement in their club’s probability to win in 9+ innings. But what isn’t open for debate is that there were always potential positives for the hurler and the defense when executing an old-school intentional base-on-balls.

  • Fielders got a chance to take a breather and settle down.
  • If the game is away, it settles the crowd down too – even as the boo birds come out.
  • Pitchers and catchers got a chance to play within a perfect rhythm, letting the guy on the mound – most-likely facing a rally at the time – make 4 easy throws and get his wits about him.

Those advantages – an effective “practice time-out” if you will – are gone now that the walks are automatic.

You can compare it to NFL head coaches calling time-outs to “ice” the kicker, or even to basketball coaches using a time-out to quiet an away crowd. NFL skippers understand that there’s no general mathematical theory proving that icing a kicker works in the final minutes of a game – but there’s enough math out there to show that it doesn’t hurt them to do it.

I’d compare the new anti-intentional walk trend to the lack of 2-point conversion tries in the NFL. The Shield’s coaches know that if a team practiced and drilled 2-point conversion plays more often and gambled on conversions-after-TD more often, the club could probably raise its season points-for total by a few ticks. But an element of psychology stands in the way. Scoring to tie and going-up 8-7 or 15-14 is tenuous, but scoring “to tie” and then training 7-6 or 14-13 is a great way to boost an opponent’s psyche and look ridiculous in the process.

“Manual” intentional walks offered MLB teams a 3-fold strategy – put a man on 1st, settle the pitcher and catcher down, and prepare the defense to turn a double play. But the 2017 rule and the diminished infield-grounder have made 2 of the 3 angles into moot points. Instead of choosing to employ psychology, managers are turning down an old tactic due to the new version’s lack of psychology.

Houston, We Have No Problems

Houston Astros Players

The Houston Astros have single-handily helped kill the new-version intentional walk. Houston set a record for fewest intentional walks during the 2018 season, totaling only 4 in 162 ballgames.

This season, the ‘Stros are probably going to break their own record, having issued 0 – count them – 0 intentional walks on the year.

Other teams are averaging at least 5, still lower than normal, and even losing baseball clubs are getting in on the trend. Losing teams are more likely to be facing “jams” and opposing runners in scoring position more often. That means they’re more likely to look for situations in which to use intentional walks, since almost all pitchers will get the right-of-way to throw to a slugger with no one on base.

But look at the Miami Marlins’ stat of 32 intentional walks given this season. 32 intentional walks might sound like a lot, but it’s tiny for the pitiful Fish, who called for more than 5 times the amount of intentional bases-on-balls as the Astros in 2016 and 2017.

In an interview with MLB.com, Astros manager A.J. Hinch explained why an intentional walk isn’t an option anymore, or rather, talked around the issue of pop-outs vs grounders and automatic bases vs an artificial live-ball time-out on the diamond: “There hasn’t really been a situation where I’ve really wanted to intentionally walk someone. I thought about doing it with [Christian] Yelich, when we played the Brewers, because he’s the best player in baseball right now. I think any time you’re adding a baserunner to the mix, you’re creating another situation that might not be to your advantage.”

There has been an average of only 1 intentional walk per 6 games in 2019 ballgames.

Betting on MLB in the 2020s: Pros and Cons of New Age Moneyball

Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s won 20 games in a row by putting men on base at a maximum rate, getting put-outs at a maximum rate, and giving as many batters as possible a chance to knock-in runs while giving their opponents the fewest possible RBI opportunities.

Important:

Going forward, MLB gamblers must be cognizant of how managers and coaches have taken the strategic lesson of a decade ago to heart.

You can’t really call it “moneyball” anymore because players who get on base, bat-in RBIs and make responsible fielding choices are making more $ now no matter what style of baseball they play. But the power-hitting festival of 2019 has shown that the “new moneyball” is about getting on base and then swinging for the fences.

Teams are getting more base hits thanks to the lively ball causing errors and missed chances in the field. Strikeouts are going up at an impressive rate, but that helps contact batters thrive in an era where everybody is going to hit more homers anyway. The ball has no juice unless you hit it.

As I touched on in a recent MLB post about slugging vs contact hitting, lineups now must click in 3 areas to produce enough runs to win – getting on base, getting RBIs, and avoiding ground balls and easy line-outs leading to double plays. The result is that outcomes are skewing wildly from game to game, with magnificent upsets followed by eye-popping wins by moneyline favorites.

Run Line betting is less scientific than ever because any 1-run outcome is probably due to a fluke. Managers have never been more focused on scoring multiple runs-per-inning in any situation in which a 2+ run rally could be likely, whether it’s to come from a fielding error caused by live bats, a home run (quite the common feat given a magic bean and hurlers hunting for Ks) or an RBI triple that sets up another scoring scenario on the at-bat to follow.

With that kind of approach to offense, if a manager wins a contest by 1 run, it’s not because he wasn’t trying to blow-out the other ballclub but simply failed in his effort to do so.

MLB Moneyline Betting Tip: Don’t Let Bizarre Outcomes Get You Rattled

Put simply, the lack of intentional walks signals that managers are trying-in-vain to stem the tide of offense sweeping the major leagues.

At least when their clubs are on defense, anyway. When on offense, they’re going all-in and trying to win ballgames 10-5 instead of 3-1.

The result is feast or famine for the MLB bettor – and a whole lot of crazy results.

The Astros recently hosted the pitiful Detroit Tigers for a 4-game series, and Houston moneylines were so short as to be almost un-wagerable at (-450) and (-500). As a byproduct of that action, Detroit’s lines-to-win grew to as long as (+375) and (+400) at baseball betting sites.

I warned people not to fall for the Astros moneyline – and almost bought-in on the 4-to-1 line myself. I didn’t even look at the starting pitchers. 4-to-1 on any MLB club in any circumstance is risky for the bookmakers. Could it be that the ‘Stros were going to sweep the Tigers without any fuss? Would anyone realize that the risky fly-ball offense of dominant teams in ’19 can be a double-edged sword?

‘Sho nuff.

Moneyball was based in science, but it came with its subtle psychological elements. And so does the art of predictions and picks at the sportsbook.

When weird results occur on the diamond and wallop your (-500) moneyline pick (and make you wish you had the underdog) don’t let it upset your daily handicapping routine. Rather than let the wild-and-wooly modern landscape of pro baseball cause betting disasters, adjust to the new lay of the land, just as some successful MLB managers have been able to do.

Any club can score 40+ runs in a 3-game series if the 1-2-3 combination is clicking. Better to stop gnashing teeth about it…and start figuring out when it will happen next.