Changing the Walk Rule

I’m about 10 days behind the baseball blogosphere in discussing this interview with Bill James in The American Enterprise magazine. The most interesting statement by James was his one suggested rule change to improve baseball.

I suggest a batter should be able to decline a walk. Not only an intentional walk, but any walk. The batter’s team should able to say, “No thanks, I don’t want that walk.” And if you walk him again, he goes to second base and anybody already on moves up two bases. The reason that should be the rule is because the walk was created to force the pitcher to throw hittable pitches to the batter. That is the walk’s natural function. To allow the walk to become something the defense can use to its advantage with no response from the offense is illogical and counterproductive.

This reminded me of a similar rule suggestion by Brad DeLong in October 2002.

After much meditation, I have decided that baseball needs only two changes in order to become a great sport:

— A twenty-five second pitch-hit clock–with a called ball or strike against whoever violates it.
A walk on a 4-0 count is not a one-base but a two-base walk.

It is crystal clear why these two changes would greatly improve the game. It would speed it up–which is important. And it would eliminate the boring and unfair practice of depriving the best hitters of chances to show their stuff.
Emphasis added.

Though James and DeLong suggest slightly different rules, they basically want the same thing: a two-base walk to prevent pitchers from using a walk to punish a good hitter. I predict the following implications from such a rule change.

1) Wage disparities across hitters will grow. One reason that Bonds is not paid more than he is for his ability is that pitchers can simply not pitch to him. If you raise the cost of walking Bonds, he will see more pitches and produce more offense. Hence, he will be receive a higher wage. Now, this does not bother me, nor is it likely to bother Bill James. But if you don’t like it when A-Rod earns 10-times more than the average player, you ought not like this rule.

2) The game will become less of a team game. Rather than having to sign good hitters to bat Bonds around when he is walked, you are more able to rely on Bonds generating his own scoring. Again, this will transfer income from mid-level players to superstars, but I think the real change is how it will affect the play of the game. A good team can consist of a one or two stars and others rather than needing 5 or 6 solid hitters to be dispersed through the line-up to prevent the pitch-around strategy.

3) Defense will get better, because the defensive specialists with weak bats will induce fewer pitch-arounds. They will be less of a drain on offense.

4) There will be more foul balls, because hitters will foul off strikes just to earn two-base walks.

I will admit that the effects are likely to be small but noticeable. I don’t like the rule change, but not because of any of these implications. I don’t see anything unnatural with a pitcher choosing to walk a batter. The costs and benefits of walking are what they are, and pitchers respond accordingly. Is it really less exciting to allow a pitcher to choose between pitching to Bonds with one man on and pitching to Santiago with two men on? That sounds like a sporting risk. The pitcher gets to decide the speed and location, why not who to pitch to when you have a base open?

Update: Skip has some more thoughts on the issue.

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