Walk it out

Bryce Harper became the latest victim of a troublesome MLB rule

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Baseball is a magnificent game, my favorite game, but it is not perfect. There are various flaws. Why do they let new pitchers warm up for a while on the mound before actually pitching? Hey, pal, just be ready when you get in there like substitutes in every other sport. Managers wearing baseball uniforms — really, is that necessary? And isn’t there a better way to deal with tie games than potentially never-ending extra innings?

More than anything: There is the intentional walk.

I’ve written at great length about the horrors of the intentional walk. I even invented The Intentional Walk Rage System to identify the most egregious of these walks. But in the end, the point is pretty simple: The intentional walk is a weakness of the game. It is a loophole, an opportunity for managers and pitchers to take the easy way out and avoid the very best players in the game without giving up too much. People often try to compare the IBB to other sports strategies — the Hack-a-Shaq or punting away from a good returner or marking a top scorer with two defenders — but, as joy-crushing as those strategies might be, they are not quite like the intentional walk.

The Hack-a-Shaq preys on a player’s weakness: Shaq can’t shoot free throws. The intentional walk allows teams to elude players’ strengths.

Punting away from a good returner requires skill. It often doesn’t work. Even when it does work, it often yields 15 or 20 yards in field position. Intentionally walking someone is so easy, I could do it.

Marking a scorer with two defenders requires skill, it forces you to leave others open — plus, a great scorer can beat even a double team. A hitter, no matter how skilled, cannot beat the intentional walk.

The biggest trouble with the intentional walk is that the penalty doesn’t match the action. An intentional walk is just like any other walk. It’s only one base, and it only forces runners to advance one base. It’s often a dumb strategy, but it also works a lot. And, realistically, the penalty should be harsh enough to deter teams from doing it. If you made defensive pass interference a five-yard penalty with no automatic first down, defensive backs would mug receivers on every single play.

Anyway, it’s not the strategy of the intentional walk that is so repulsive. Using the intentional walk is anti-competitive, it’s deathly boring, and it’s terrible for the sport. It replaces tension and excitement with 30-plus seconds of two men playing catch. In a time when sports stars inflame the imagination — Steph! Cam! Messi! — it’s a free card in baseball for any manager to avoid the other team’s star when the game matters most. “Hey kids, come on out to the ballpark. You might get to see Bryce Harper walked.”

Harper did something on Sunday against the Chicago Cubs that had never been done before in the long history of baseball. He came to the plate seven times … but left no footprint behind. He got zero at-bats.

First plate appearance: Walk on four pitches.

Second plate appearance: Walk on five pitches.

Third plate appearance: Intentionally walked.

Fourth plate appearance: Hit by the first pitch.

Fifth plate appearance: Walk on five pitches.

Sixth plate appearance: Intentionally walked.

Seventh plate appearance: Intentionally walked.

Look at that: It’s astonishing. Sunday afternoon at Wrigley, game between two of the best teams in baseball, and Bryce Harper came to the plate seven times and faced 27 pitches, two of which were strikes. And, because of the rules of baseball and the breakdown of follow-up hitter Ryan Zimmerman, there wasn’t really a price to pay.

The intentional walk — and the less-egregious “pitching around someone” — have been a part of baseball for so long that some people get upset with questioning it. Hey, it’s part of the game … you do whatever’s necessary to win … it’s called “strategy” … and so on. And that’s true. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper THIRTEEN TIMES in their four-game series and made him just the fourth man in baseball history to walk six times in a single game on Sunday. The Cubs also won all four games. You can’t blame Joe Maddon for taking this road. His job is to help the Chicago Cubs win ballgames, and they win games at an astonishing rate.

But Joe Maddon isn’t responsible for the overall game of baseball. He doesn’t care (or, certainly, doesn’t care very much) that people across the country might have passed on hockey or basketball playoffs, might have passed up on interesting golf or tennis, so that they could tune in to see Jake Arrieta face off against Bryce Harper. What a matchup. Arrieta for the last year has been pitching about as well as anyone ever. Rocket, Maddux, Pedro, Koufax, Gibson, you name it. And Harper, wow, he has a chance to be this era’s Mickey Mantle, this era’s Babe Ruth. This matchup could have been baseball’s Brady-Manning, baseball’s James-Curry, baseball’s Crosby-Ovechkin.

Instead …

Walk.

Walk.

Intentional walk.

Come on down to the ballpark, and bring the kiddies.

Later in the game, in extra innings, Harper came up with runners on first and second. The score was tied. This was the moment, the crescendo of the game and — cue the sad “Price is Right” music — the Cubs intentionally walked Harper and loaded the bases rather than face him. Zimmerman dutifully dribbled a grounder to third to end the threat.

Are there solutions? Of course, there are numerous imaginative ideas to discourage the intentional walk and its slightly less odious variations. Bill James has suggested that to pay homage to the long history of baseball, you could give hitters the option to turn down walks. You probably know that the early baseball rule makers hated the idea of the walk. At first, it took NINE balls for a walk. Then it was reduced to eight, to six, to five and finally, in 1888, to four. They were so eager to force pitchers to throw strikes that for a year they counted walks as hits. Nobody wanted hitters walked. Nobody wanted pitchers to have the option just to avoid the best hitters.

Well, the idea of hitters being able to turn down walks would be interesting. It’s likely hitters would almost never turn down a walk … but in certain situations, they might. And if they did, the at-bat would start over and a second base-on-balls would result in a two-base walk — with everyone moving up two bases, even those not forced.

That certainly would be intriguing, but it might be too revolutionary for you. There are other ideas. Some say that after an intentional walk, everyone should move up a base whether forced or not. Some suggest that catchers should not be allowed to stand up behind the plate, making the intentional walk a little bit harder to do. One intriguing idea I’ve heard has every four-pitch walk as a two-base walk.

Of course, any of these ideas — and I don’t for a minute believe baseball will go for any of these ideas — would undoubtedly create new problems. But I also don’t think anyone would be surprised if Maddon’s treatment of Harper becomes the norm around baseball. Look: Strikeouts are way up, at their highest point in baseball history. Batting averages are at their lowest point since 1972. But hitters are banging a lot of home runs. The convergence of those three things seems to make the intentional walk more viable than ever. It’s never been more likely to work.

As one Washington fan told me after this weekend’s fiasco: “I don’t know why anyone would throw a strike to Bryce Harper for the rest of the season.” If I were commissioner Rob Manfred, I wouldn’t want that to be the game’s slogan.