Sissiness or Stratagem?

Article

Let me just start by saying I respect your opinions. I can only hope to one day boast some of the many impressive sports writing credentials you have achieved. You are well known for being knowledgeable about each of the sports you have covered over your many years with The Washington Post, and most currently ESPN.

With the onset of March fast approaching, and spring training having already begun, I’ve decided to start this blog off the way it always needed to — with a posting on America’s greatest pastime, baseball. And so, without further adieu, I would like to challenge an opinion of one of the greatest modern day sports writers, host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption program and writer for The Washington Post, Michael Wilbon.

Dear Mr. Wilbon,

Let me just start by saying I respect your opinions. I can only hope to one day boast some of the many impressive sports writing credentials you have achieved. You are well known for being knowledgeable about each of the sports you have covered over your many years with The Washington Post, and most currently ESPN. I often agree with your comments and you bring a level of integrity to sports coverage that not many else can. That being said...

Recent comments on your television show Pardon the Interruption concerning the topic of intentional walks has made me question your baseball knowledge - not the type of knowledge of memorizing statistics and rattling off career numbers, but rather, your knowledge of stratagem. Your friend Tony Kornheiser knows what I am talking about. At least I think he does, and hope he is not just playing devil's advocate. You have gone on the record numerous times stating that intentional walking is not only unnecessary, but cowardly.

The last time I checked, both teams involved in a ballgame are in it to win. And the hardcore players are in it to win at any cost, because all 162 games matter (trust me, as a die-hard Phillies fan, I have seen the importance of each game — the Phillies missed the playoffs by one game in 2005 and made the playoffs by one game this past season). In order to do that, a team has to play hard, smart, fundamental baseball. Good teams win because their players execute. They also win because their managers are smart. They display their smarts by sometimes using the players in the game as pawns in a game of chess. I am going to address specific situations where an intentional walk is either unacceptable or necessary.

These are certain situations that come to mind where an intentional walk is never acceptable:

  1. When the bases are loaded. No matter how dangerous a batter is, there is no reason to literally give the other team a run. If it is a blowout, you have nothing to lose. If it is a close game, then the thought should not even cross the pitcher or manager's mind. Not to mention the fact that you have the double play set up.
  2. Early in the ballgame and there isn't an open base. It doesn't matter how hot someone's bat is, how many homeruns they have hit, or what their career average against the pitcher is, there is never a situation where the batter should be given a free pass.

If they have a good career average against the pitcher, there is only one way to bring it down. If they hit a homerun, so what - at least you challenged him and will be better for it the next time around. A solo shot shouldn’t send a team into frantics, and most pitchers are hoping their team can muster at least a couple runs. There are other situations where an intentional walk is the smarter, and, therefore, the best thing to do in order to win. If I were a manager in each of these situations, I would intentionally walk the batter every time. These instances assume the fact that the game is close, or at least within reach.

  1. It is late in the game, and a well established power hitter steps up with a runner in scoring position. Another variable to take into consideration is if the hitter is in a slump - if he were, I would consider pitching to him. But just to paint a picture - if it were a pitcher with a one run lead trying to close out a game, and Albert Pujols steps up with a runner on 2nd - I am walking him no matter what. I'll pitch to Rolen, Edmonds, whoever happens to be batting after him that day, but I am not pitching to Albert, especially when I can set up the double play.
  2. It is late in the game, a runner is in scoring position and the pitcher has a terrible track record against the batter. Why would anyone risk the game just to, as you say, try to be "manly"? Like I said, you are there to win - swallow your pride and respect that whoever is up must demand a lot of respect from your manager. If a guy has shown to be incredibly clutch, why not make the guy after him do something? Shift the pressure.

Imagine you are in scenario #1, and it is game seven of a divisional series. If you, Mr. Wilbon, are the manager of the team, and you decide to pitch to Albert Pujols, you understand the risk. It wouldn't be surprising if Albert delivered with a home run, costing you the game and the series (see: Brad Lidge). And then you are immediately looking for a new job, and rightfully so. You have to treat each game as if it were a playoff game, because, in many ways, it very much is. Of course, there are other variables involved, like who is hitting next - you don't necessarily want to walk David Ortiz to get to Manny Ramirez.

Although there are many more situations I could add, making a laundry list of when an intentional walk is acceptable/unacceptable is not my intention. My point is to tell you that intentional walking isn’t just a good strategy, but it is a part of the game. It will continue to be a part of the game because there are smart managers out there like Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Cox.

I can understand why you are upset by this. From a fan's perspective, who wouldn't want to your favorite clutch power hitter hit 80 homeruns this year? Walking him takes away a lot of his at-bats. However, you have to also consider the advantage of having a top caliber guy who strikes fear into the opponent. Having those walks inevitably will lead to runs. Intentionally walking players is far from 100% effective.

Please listen to your counterpart, Tony, when it comes to this topic. He has made some excellent points that you seem to dismiss. I understand that he’s old and cranky some of the time, but every once in a while he lets nugget of truth slip out. And one last piece of advice — if you were to somehow sneak to the front of the line for a managerial position in Philly, do yourself a favor and politely decline – educated Phillies fans like myself understand the value of the intentional walk, and a manager who is steadfastly opposed to it would get eaten alive in such a passionate city.

Sincerely,

SJ

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