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Strategy in Games that Don't Matter
Some words about spring-training strategy
Ben Bailey · March 3, 2019 · 6m ·

The first full week of spring-training games just came to a close. Baseball is officially being played! A lot happens during spring training: pitchers hurt their arms, players are in the best shape of their lives, and top free agents sign. Most importantly, though, there is baseball. For some reason, this baseball will feature a number of intentional walks.

Jeff Sullivan wrote about this phenomena three years ago. In the years since, the slight downward trend he identified in spring-training intentional walks has continued. There were eight spring-training intentional walks in 2015, six in 2016, seven in 2017, and only four in 2018. This is not an egregious number of intentional walks, but it’s still more than one would expect. Why are there any intentional walks in games where wins and losses don’t matter? They only serve to take away opportunities for pitchers and batters to face one another.

Here are all the intentional walks that occurred over the last three spring trainings:

DateInningBatterPitcherBatter’s TeamPitcher’s Team
3/4/169Danny OrtizMason MelotakisPiratesTwins
3/12/169Daniel RobertsonGrant DaytonMarinersDodgers
3/25/169Carlos PegueroJeurys FamiliaCardinalsMets
3/27/162Greg GarciaJose FernandezCardinalsMarlins
3/27/166Giancarlo StantonSam TuivailalaMarlinsCardinals
4/1/168Jose AbreuJimmy BrasobanWhite SoxPadres
3/1/179Yoan MoncadaKaleb FleckWhite SoxDiamondbacks
3/23/179Matt TuiasosopoDaniel StumpfBravesTigers
3/28/176Dustin GarneauMike HauschildRockiesRangers
3/31/178Brandon CrawfordRyan DullGiantsAthletics
4/1/179Rymer LirianoCorey KnebelWhite SoxBrewers
4/1/179Kirk NieuwenhuisMichael YnoaBrewersWhite Sox
4/1/179Nate OrfMichael YnoaBrewersWhite Sox
3/12/189Will SmithJacob BarnesDodgersBrewers
3/15/189Darwin BarneyErnesto FieriRangersBrewers
3/16/186Pedro SeverinoJosh LucasNationalsCardinals
3/27/189Ehire AdrianzaTrevor GottTwinsNationals

It’s possible that, before 2017, when the rule change allowing managers to simply signal for intentional walks occurred, there was an idea that some pitchers needed practice throwing four intentional balls. Maybe in 2017 managers felt that this very small group of pitchers needed practice watching batters go to first base without any pitches being thrown at all. Perhaps that rule change was the beginning of the end for meaningless intentional walks, but I expect we’ll still see two or three this year, probably in the ninth inning and probably toward the end of spring.

We have to give managers the benefit of the doubt in most cases. They know what they’re doing. They know the games don’t matter, though. So why do they issue intentional walks in spring training?

Looking at the table above, you might notice that three of 2017’s intentional walks came in one game. That’s not a typo—on April 1st, 2017, three intentional walks were issued in the ninth inning of a spring-training game. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

This particular game was special: it was played in Miller Park, not a spring-training stadium, and it was each team’s last preseason game. The game has a normal amount of action, but the ninth inning is of particular interest.

The top of the ninth sees the White Sox pull within one run on a sacrifice fly. Unfortunately, catcher Rene Garcia is injured in a home plate collision on the play. After a fifteen minute injury delay, Brewers manager Craig Counsell decides to bring in a fresh arm in Corey Knebel, the not-yet-notable reliever. Knebel would end spring with a 17 strikeouts and three walks (one intentional), providing a glimpse at the breakout season to come, but he was not yet widely known. White Sox broadcasters Benetti and Stone go through several pronunciations of his last name (“Knee-bull” and “Knay-bull”) before settling on the correct “Kuh-naybull.”

Knebel’s first two pitches to Rymer Liriano are balls. Counsell then calls for the intentional walk.

The best part about the games from this particular year is that we get to see players get used to the new intentional walk rule. For each of these players, there’s a cycle of confusion, disbelief, and reluctant acceptance. Here is former White Sox outfielder Rymer Liriano learning he was being intentionally walked in the ninth inning of the last spring-training game of the season:

Knebel strikes out the next two batters without incident, sending the game to the bottom of the ninth. This is the sequence of the events in that half inning:1

  1. Jett Bandy is hit by a pitch
  2. Bandy steals second
  3. Bandy advances to third on a wild pitch
  4. Eric Sogard strikes out
  5. Kirk Nieuwenhuis is intentionally walked
6. Mound visit 7. Nieuwenhuis steals second 8. Nate Orf is intentionally walked

9. Mound visit and pitching change (before which Michael Ynoa receives nine pats from his teammates and manager)

10. Craig Counsell gets impatient
11. Kyle Wren wins the game with a single

The walk of Rymer Liriano was clearly strategic, since Counsell only called for it after Knebel threw two balls to start the plate appearance. The walk of Nate Orf was also strategic, as it only came after Nieuwenhuis stole second during the plate appearance.

As previously established, though, strategic validity is not in question here, but rather the reason for strategy at all. In this case, maybe the managers were trying to get their pitchers used to the no-pitch intentional walk rule that was instituted for the 2017 season. Or perhaps they wanted to help their young pitchers by putting them in better situations. Maybe they wanted to end spring on a high note. Most likely, though, they were just trying to win.

When the Brewers do win, their mascot still celebrates, even though it’s a mere spring-training victory. The fans still boo (like when Knebel struggles to find the strike zone) and cheer throughout the game, the first-base coaches still give fist bumps, the broadcasters still talk about the winning run being on deck, and the players still have an on-field celebration, although it is decidedly more subdued than that of a regular season game.

Spring training is baseball where the central conceit—that one team wins and the other loses and that those results have real ramifications—is suspended. Winning the World Series matters in real, concrete ways. It affects salaries and attendance. Winning regular season games matters for similar reasons, in addition to getting teams closer to the World Series. But even in spring training, when the results have absolutely no impact on whether a team makes it to the games that matter most, managers strategize and players try. Less established players are fighting for roster spots and playing time, but even more established players who have no concerns about job security want to play their best. Managers are not being judged by the moves they make in spring training, but sometimes they can’t help but call for an intentional walk that will tip the needle ever so slightly in their team’s favor. The games don’t matter, but sometimes teams can’t stop trying to win.

  1. Not one of these players remains on the Brewers’ roster besides Nate Orf, who is a non-roster invitee this year. ↩︎

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