Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/29/14
Monday night and Tuesday morning, the A’s and Angels played a game for the ages, a 19-inning affair that saw the hosts rally in the ninth and the 15th before walking off in the game’s seventh hour. The game featured 18 runs and nearly 600 pitches, and in the end, the A’s improved to 15-12, while the Angels fell to something much worse than that. Generally, such games are immediately thought of as turning points, and generally, such games don’t go on to work that way. But this was a game that few will forget, regardless, simply because the duration grew to be so extreme. FanGraphs isn’t in the business of issuing game recaps, particularly several hours after the fact. But still, some attention to the game should be paid, and I’m electing to focus on a particular intentional ball. With two out in the top of the 11th inning, Grant Balfour intentionally walked Albert Pujols. We consider the 3-and-0 pitch. Already, these were unusual circumstances. In extras, the Angels had a runner in scoring position, and the A’s had a righty pitcher walk a righty superstar in order to face a lefty superstar. Based on his body language, Balfour wanted to come right after Pujols, but the decision was stripped from his hands, and so four balls he threw. The first was high and away, wild. The second and third were more on the target. Of the intentional balls, here is the fourth: The pitch clipped the outer edge of the strike zone. If you even want to call it a “pitch”. Of course, it was too high to be an actual strike, and Pujols took his base, but intentional balls are supposed to be intentional balls, not balls that come dangerously close to being strikes. This pitch was a little under five feet off the ground, in the vicinity of being over the plate, and you can see that it’s below Pujols’ shoulders when he’s standing. It was 31.6 inches from the center of the strike zone. In the past, I’ve joked about how pitchers are pretty bad at locating their pitches. In truth, they’re incredibly good, once you account for the difficulty of the task, but if you expect pitchers to hit their targets right on, far more often than not you’re going to be left underwhelmed. Pitchers miss. Pitchers miss, even when they really don’t want to miss. To demonstrate the point, below please find screenshots of pitches from the game that were further from the center of the strike zone, despite not being in counts in which a pitcher would want to get a hitter to chase. These pitches were thrown in counts in which the pitcher would’ve wanted a strike, or at least an almost-strike. They missed by more than an intentional ball. 1 -Jerome Williams -12th inning Brandon Moss led off and this happened with the count 1-and-1. Williams came inside with a cutter that somehow didn’t hit Moss in the foot. It did hit Kerwin Danley in the foot. The pitch was 32.8 inches from the center of the zone. 2 -Jerome Williams -12th inning The 3-and-1 pitch, in the same plate appearance. In extras, you don’t want to walk the leadoff guy, so Williams would’ve been badly trying to throw a strike. The pitch was 34.4 inches from the center of the zone. 3 -Dan Straily -3rd inning The first pitch to Peter Bourjos nearly drilled him in the head. This was a breaking ball, not a fastball, so it probably just slipped out of Straily’s hand, but that’s not an excuse. This is a breaking ball that still missed the center of the zone by more than an intentional ball. It was thrown in a count in which Straily would’ve wanted to get ahead. The pitch was 34.6 inches from the center of the zone. 4 -Michael Roth -7th inning Now, this is an 0-and-1 count, so the zone can expand a little. But Roth buried a changeup in the dirt, which wasn’t at all the intent behind the pitch. Afterward, Roth looked at his cleats and at the mound, as if he stumbled. Maybe the mound was to blame? But Roth didn’t stumble on the other pitches. Roth’s mechanics, therefore, were to blame. Which is always the case when a pitcher badly misses his spot. The pitch was 41.1 inches from the center of the zone. 5 -Dan Straily -2nd inning Again, all right, I get it, 0-and-1 count. Aggressive hitter at the plate. It makes sense to try a low, away breaking ball. But this pitch bounced in the middle of the opposite batter’s box. This pitch was a tiny little catastrophe, and Straily shelved his slider for the remainder of the at bat. The at bat concluded with the hardest-hit home run of the young season. The pitch was 47.5 inches from the center of the zone. Pitchers miss, and they miss a lot. These have been examples of pitches that missed the center of the strike zone by more than an intentional ball, which by design should be really far away from the center of the strike zone. Before we wrap up, let us consider one more thing. This will be something of a thought experiment, and no conclusion will be reached. Let’s look at that 3-and-0 intentional ball to Pujols again: The pitch is within Pujols’ hittable range, so to speak. Pujols could have made contact, had he swung, and the pitch was a slow fastball at 74 miles per hour. The Oakland broadcast joked that the pitch was almost a strike, and that Pujols could’ve done damage had he been ready. As the screenshot shows, it didn’t even cross Pujols’ mind to attempt a swing, because he’s already on his way to first base before John Jaso gloves ball four. Pujols was content to just take his walk, because at least walking provides temporary relief from running. And how often does one get thrown hittable intentional balls, anyway? How much value is there in being ready, just in case? One is instantly reminded of Miguel Cabrera hitting an intentional ball against the Orioles. Granted, that pitcher was lobbing the ball in, but the pitch arrived in a somewhat similar location as the pitch from Balfour to Pujols. Cabrera stood up and smacked a crucial line drive. This all made me wonder: what would be the expected BABIP of swings at intentional balls? We can’t measure anything in practice, because we have so few examples. Seldom do intentional balls end up near the zone, and seldom are hitters looking to swing. There’s a reason we still remember Cabrera after all these years. It seems to me there would be three factors. For one, the pitcher isn’t trying. There’s no deception, and intentional balls tend to be more or less similar in terms of velocity and movement. The hitter, conceivably, could time the pitches and anticipate the pitches. The hitter could try to put on a good swing. Then there’s the matter of the defense not being prepared for a ball in play. Look at the first baseman as the pitch is on its way to Cabrera: He’s watching, but he’s not ready to play defense. Presumably, none of the defenders were prepared for a ball in play, and they were all stunned by Cabrera’s swing. By watching, defenders would be ready to react, but they’d be delayed in their reactions, opening up more of the field. More ground balls could sneak through. More fly balls could drop or find gaps. The defenders’ zones would “play smaller” because they wouldn’t get good first steps. When there’s an intentional walk taking place, just about everyone tunes out, and it’s perfectly understandable. That’s the element of surprise that Cabrera was going for. On the other side of the coin, intentional balls almost never end up within the actual strike zone itself. They can just get close, such that a hitter could make contact if he swung and maybe moved his feet. As we know, BABIP goes down when hitters swing at pitches out of the zone, and it’s not like hitters would be taking their best swings. You’ll probably never see an intentional ball get hit for a home run, or even a ball off the wall. A hitter would be going for a line drive, or maybe a sharply-hit grounder. With reduced swing quality, it stands to reason there would be reduced BABIP, although we can only guess at the effect. I don’t have any idea what the expected BABIP would be in these situations. I wouldn’t know where to begin. It seems to me like it’d be worth it for hitters to be prepared to swing, just in case, because a hit’s more valuable than a walk. But is a possible hit more valuable than a guaranteed walk? If most of the hits would be singles, how many would need to drop in in order for the trade-off to be worth it? I think we’d all like to see more surprise swings at lazy intentional balls, just because we’re all fans of baseball chaos, but it’s entirely possible that would reflect a suboptimal process. You’d need to be pretty damn sure of your odds of getting a hit, and I just don’t know how sure one could be.
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