Monday, July 12, 2004

Long live the intentional walk!

Only Baseball Matters has been carrying the torch for the "stop intentionally walking Barry Bonds" movement this season -- and so far to no avail. Sunday, the struggle continued as John Perricone bemoaned the fact that Bonds has already broken his single-season IBB record -- before the All-Star break. Saturday in their game against the Diamondbacks, Bonds was intentionally walked three times, bringing his new all-time record to 71 IBB and counting. As a consequence of teams pitching around Bonds, there have been calls for making an IBB worth two bases (or some variation on that theme), penalizing all four-pitch walks, allowing the batter to turn down a walk and outlawing the IBB all together.

I understand that Only Baseball Matters is a Giants weblog first and foremost, and their allegiance is to the hometown team. However, I have a few problems with John's rationale for opposing teams' walking Bonds on a very regular basis.

John notes:
Barry Bonds has come to the plate with runners on base 153 times so far this season. He has been walked 83 times and pitched to 70 times. He has 97 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, and has been allowed to hit only 35 times. With a runner on second, he has 6 at-bats, with a runner on third, he has 2. With runners on second and third, Bonds has not been allowed to hit one time this season. Alex Rodriguez, widely considered the only real competition with Barry as the best in the game, has a completely different set of opportunities. With runners on base, A-Rod has 186 plate appearances. He has 162 at-bats, and just 23 walks. With runners in scoring position, he has 82 at-bats. In just about every situation, he has many many more chances to ply his trade than Barry. He has 22 home runs, Barry has 23. Barry has almost twice as many intentional walks as A-Rod has walks (47).
The difference between Bonds and A-Rod and their respective situations you can just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon. The reason A-Rod has been afforded the opportunity to hit is because he has other players around him in the lineup -- plain and simple. I'm not original in making this point (in fact, this point is seemingly made daily when discussing the IBB and Bonds), but it's worth reiterating.

If A-Rod was playing in San Francisco and Bonds was in New York, Bonds would probably be getting walked at the same rate as A-Rod currently is and the reason ain't brain surgery. Simply put, if you walk A-Rod you're going to have to face Giambi or Sheffield or Posada or Matsui (or Enrique Wilson if Pedro is pitching).

John goes on to lament the fact that NL managers are taking the easy way out by walking Bonds -- and essentially cheating the fans of seeing one of the greatest players ever.
The way Bonds is being handled by the managers in the NL is wrong. This is a clear case of teams taking an action that they believe is best for themselves (walking Bonds in almost any situation where he can hurt them), that is at odds with the best interests of the game (seeing an immortal carrying his team to victory).
A couple of things. First of all, this isn't pro wrestling. And by that I mean a manager's first job (and maybe his only job as far as owners are concerned) is to win. Whether fans are maximizing their enjoyment is a very distant second. Secondly, John is exactly right when he says that teams are taking actions they believe are in their best interests -- that's why they're playing the games in the first place. Otherwise, every April we'd just declare the team with the highest payroll the World Series champs and save ourselves the agony of watching our team come up short one more time (I'm speaking quite obviously from the perspective of a frustrated Red Sox fan).

All this talk reminds me of similar discussions in another sport that started several years ago. Remember "Hack-a-Shaq" -- the strategy employed by NBA coaches to make Shaquille O'Neal earn his points at the free throw line instead of through monster dunks (Shaq is a notoriously bad free throw shooter)?

Basically what NBA coaches were saying when they resorted to these tactics was, "We're not going to let Shaq beat us. I don't mind losing, but someone else on that team is going to have to do it." And you know what, in addition to the other all-star, Kobe Bryant, the Lakers had role players who stepped up in big games (see Robert Horry and Derek Fisher) when O'Neal was struggling at the foul line.

And that's exactly what the Giants need -- someone to hit behind Bonds. That's it. There's no need to change the rules. There's no need to abolish the IBB. All the Giants need to do is find someone -- anyone -- to hit behind Bonds. It works for A-Rod in New York. It works for Manny Ramirez in Boston (speaking of which, I'd be more than happy to see Kevin Millar try his hand at protecting Bonds in San Francisco) and I'm guessing it would work quite well for Bonds in San Francisco.