Was Tony La Russa’s intentional walk the worst in MLB history? A ranking

  • Covers MLB for ESPN.com
  • Former deputy editor of Page 2
  • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

And you thought the intentional walk had gone the way of Blockbuster, the iPod and those titanium-infused Phiten necklaces that stabilized the body’s energy flow.

You were wrong! Turns out, the intentional walk is still part of the game — and, courtesy of Joe Maddon and now Tony La Russa, it gifted us with two of the most comical and controversial moments of this season. (Well, outside of the epic Tommy Pham-Joc Pederson fantasy football dispute, which of course reigns as the kookiest non-baseball baseball thing since Yankees pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson switched wives in the 1970s.)

On Thursday, White Sox manager La Russa intentionally walked Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner with a runner on second base — and a count of one ball and two strikes — in order to have relief pitcher Bennett Sousa instead face Max Muncy, who promptly hit a three-run home run to give the Dodgers a 10-5 lead in a game they would eventually win 11-9. The best part of the whole episode was not that the two-strike intentional walk blew up in La Russa’s face; it was the microphone that caught one fan yelling “He’s got two strikes, Tony!” and “Tony, what are you doing?” before Muncy homered.

Or maybe the best part was the confused look on Freddie Freeman’s face as he stood on second base and said to White Sox second baseman Danny Mendick, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” to which Mendick kind of turned away from Freeman and smiled, most likely in equal disbelief. Or maybe the best part was Muncy staring into the White Sox dugout as he rounded third base. Or maybe the best part was Muncy uttering language that can’t be repeated here as he crossed home plate. Or maybe the best part was Muncy, in his postgame interview on the field, where one must refrain from using certain four-letter words, simply saying, “I wanted to make them pay, let’s just leave it at that.” Or maybe the best moment was La Russa, after the game, asking, incredulously, “Is there some question whether that was a good move or not?”

Yes, Tony, there was a fair amount of disbelief, and not just from the fan who seemed to foretell what was going to happen. A sampling from a certain social media site:

  • Vinnie Parise, writer for the Southside Showdown site: “This team has NO CHANCE to win anything of significance with him in the dugout.”

  • David Haugh, radio host on Chicago Sports Radio 670 The Score: “It’ll never happen but #WhiteSox fans deserve to hear Jerry Reinsdorf explain or defend why he believes Tony La Russa is the manager capable of leading this team to the World Series.”

  • James Fegan, White Sox beat writer for The Athletic: “The decisions were controversial, but Tony La Russa’s purview extends beyond that. His team gave away extra outs, didn’t execute to get runners home and played beneath its talent level. That’s been the case so far this year, and reflects on his work too.”

  • Ben Clemens, writer for FanGraphs: “The math unsurprisingly does not support Tony La Russa’s decision to intentionally walk Trea Turner.” (Indeed, read Ben’s article here, which goes into all the gory details.)

Now, to be fair here, the pounding on La Russa is also a little unfair. If Muncy strikes out, it looks like a good move. Plus, Freeman was on second base only after a wild pitch on a 0-2 count — it’s not like La Russa randomly decided to walk Turner in the middle of the at-bat. Even Ben calculates that the White Sox had a 21.9% chance of winning if they intentionally walked Turner and 22.9% if they pitched to him, so we’re essentially talking about the flip of the coin.

I think what really set everyone off — especially the baseball cognoscenti on Twitter — is that the intentional walk has largely disappeared from the game, so when one goes painfully awry, it stands out. Studies have shown the intentional walk is — mathematically — usually a bad strategic decision, in large because part of what happened with Muncy: An attempt to prevent one run, such as with Turner singling home Freeman, often instead turns into a big, multi-run inning. Essentially, giving the team a free baserunner, even to face a weaker batter, is rarely a good idea.

Indeed, we can see the influence of sabermetric thinking in the decline of intentional walks through the years — all the way down to just 0.09 per game in 2022:

1967: 0.40 per game (peak intentional walk)
1989: 0.34 per game (hadn’t dropped much)
1998: 0.22 per game (starting to drop)
2002: 0.30 per game (the Barry Bonds spike)
2012: 0.22 per game (dropping again)
2019: 0.16 per game (A.J. Hinch issued zero all season)
2020: 0.11 per game (no pitchers hitting in the NL)
2021: 0.14 per game (lowest other than 2020)
2022: 0.09 per game (back to the universal DH)

In truth, there have been far, far, far more egregious intentional walks than this one. Honestly, La Russa’s intentional walk isn’t even the strangest of this season — that belongs to Maddon, for his ridiculously stunning intentional walk of Corey Seager with the bases loaded back on April 15. In fact, with that walk in mind, let’s run down the types of intentional walks from most bad to least bad:

1. The bases-loaded intentional walk
Obviously, just giving the team another run is silly — and particularly so when the batter is Seager — while a very good batter, not to be confused with Babe Ruth or Ted Williams or Bonds (we’ll get to him in a second). That’s why the only known bases-loaded intentional walks are to Seager, Josh Hamilton (also by Maddon!), Bonds, Bill Nicholson and Mel Ott. That’s five. And the Ott one doesn’t really count. It was the next-to-last game of the season and Chuck Klein of the Phillies and Ott of the Giants were battling for the home run lead (Klein led by one). With the Giants way ahead late in the game, the Phillies intentionally walked Ott.

Anyway, the Rangers were up 3-2 when Seager batted with one out and the bases loaded. Maddon walked him to make the score 4-2. Not shockingly, it backfired. A sacrifice fly and balk followed to allow two more runs to score, so the Angels left the inning trailing 6-2 (although they rallied to win the game). No matter Maddon’s goofy explanation after the game — “Just trying to stay out of a big blow, and also just to stir the group up, quite frankly” — the move was completely indefensible.

More defensible was Buck Showalter’s bases-loaded intentional walk to Bonds in 1998. This wasn’t quite peak Bonds, when managers freaked out and start walking him all the time — an incredible 120 intentional walks in 2004, which will forever remain the most astounding baseball stat of all time. But Bonds led the league in intentional walks every season from 1992 through ’98 (and then several more times after that) — he was still plenty feared by then.

In this game, the Diamondbacks led the Giants 8-6 with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. With weak-hitting catcher Brent Mayne on deck, Showalter walked Bonds to make it 8-7. Mayne battled reliever Gregg Olson for eight pitches before lining out to right field. So it worked … barely. Good move? Debatable.

2. The intentional walk with two strikes
It’s hard to hit in the majors. It’s even harder to hit with two strikes! Trea Turner is a career .303 hitter. He’s a .222 hitter with two strikes and a .197 hitter with a 1-2 count. The overall major league average in 2022 with two strikes is .167 and .161 on a 1-2 count.

That’s why you also rarely see a two-strike intentional walk. The odds remain in the pitcher’s favor, no matter the matchup. In his article, Ben mentions just two other two-strike intentional walks since 2014:

–The Rockies walked Seager on a 1-2 count on April 3, 2021, after Gavin Lux stole second. That didn’t work either; Chris Taylor followed with an RBI double to give the Dodgers a 6-4 lead.

–On April 16, 2021, the Twins walked Mike Trout on a 1-2 count following a wild pitch. That one also blew up. Justin Upton hit a grand slam to extend a 5-3 lead for the Angels to 9-3.

Yeah, maybe best to avoid those two-strike intentional walks.

3. The intentional walk to load the bases with the game on the line
I hate, hate, hate when managers do this. Example: Tie game, bottom of the ninth, runners on second and third. The manager walks a batter to load the bases — either to set up a double play or maybe to simply face a weaker hitter. Trouble is, now the pitcher has to throw strikes, since another walk loses the game. The numbers slightly support my personal beliefs, albeit not strongly: In 2022, batters have hit .256 with runners on second and third and .262 with the bases loaded (although with 62 more points of slugging percentage). In 2021, they hit .267 with runners on second and third and .278 with the bases loaded. Walking somebody to face a much weaker hitter can perhaps make sense here.

OK, quick check. There have been 13 intentional walks this season in the ninth inning or later, with two outs and runners on second and third or first and third. None of those actually came in tie games. But three came with the team issuing the intentional walk leading:

–April 16: Liam Hendriks of the White Sox walks Tampa Bay’s Ji-Man Choi with a 3-2 lead to face Taylor Walls. Walls strikes out.

–April 24: Pittsburgh’s David Bednar walks the Cubs’ Ian Happ with a 4-3 lead to instead face Frank Schwindel. It works as Schwindel strikes out to end the game.

–May 15: Diego Castillo of the Mariners walks Francisco Lindor to face Pete Alonso. Alonso strikes out swinging on a 3-2 slider (that was off the plate).

So, fine: Managers are 3-for-3 with these ones so far in 2022. Let’s see if that holds.

4. The intentional walk to a hot hitter
We mentioned A.J. Hinch. When he was managing the Astros in 2019, they became the first team not to issue an intentional walk all season. Then, in the World Series, Hinch broke his own rule and did issue an intentional walk — and it didn’t work. In a big way.

That postseason, Nationals star Juan Soto had gone 2-for-4 in the final game of the NLCS, 3-for-4 with a home run and double in Game 1 of the World Series and was so far 1-for-3 with a double when he stepped up again in the seventh inning of Game 2, with two outs and runners at second and third. The Nationals led 3-2 with All-Star Ryan Pressly pitching for the Astros. Hinch had seen enough of Soto and decided it was time to issue his first intentional walk of 2019 — even though Pressly held left-handed batters to a .165 average that year.

Howie Kendrick followed with a single, Asdrubal Cabrera singled in two runs, and then Ryan Zimmerman singled in two more. A 3-2 game became an 8-2 blowout. Maybe the Nationals win anyway, but consider the ripple effects of that loss. The Nationals had just two reliable relievers in Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, but because the game turned into a blowout, Dave Martinez didn’t have to use either of them — making them a little more rested for the rest of the series. What happens if Pressly pitches to Soto?

5. The intentional walk to the No. 8 hitter to face the pitcher
This one doesn’t apply any longer, but was always the reason the National League saw more intentional walks than the American League. While popular in the 1960s and into the 2000s, it slowly fell into some disfavor. The reason: The math showed that the advantage gained by facing the pitcher (and hopefully getting him out) was erased by the advantage the other team would receive by having its leadoff hitter lead off the next inning instead of the pitcher (if you got the No. 8 hitter out).

Late in his career, the Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston of the Dodgers must have suddenly realized this. He had always been a big employer of the intentional walk, including issuing 101 of them in 1967, most in the majors. In 1974, he suddenly stopped issuing them — just nine, fewest in the majors and 43 fewer than any other NL team. More recently, Bruce Bochy peaked at 64 intentional walks in 2013 and averaged 46 per season over his career, but dropped to 26 in his final season in 2019. Maddon began his career with the Rays averaging over 30 intentional walks per season, but had just 18 in 2021. Although maybe he didn’t learn his lesson. Nine of those turned into “bombs,” described as either the next batter not grounding into a double play or multiple runs scoring in the inning.

Of the 154 intentional walks in 2022, just nine of them have been issued to the No. 8 hitter (5.8%). Last year, when pitchers were still batting. 23.0% of all intentional walks were issued to the No. 8 hitter.

We could keep going, but most of the remaining intentional walk categories — getting the platoon advantage, giving an intentional walk when already trailing (82 of them have come while behind) or extra innings of a tie game and the ghost runner already on second (very common) — aren’t as offensive. (For the record: The math usually still doesn’t add up.)

One final note. The White Sox and Phillies are tied for second in the majors with nine intentional walks issued — but Joe Girardi has been fired and La Russa is perhaps on the hot seat. There is good news for lovers of the intentional walk: New A’s manager Mark Kotsay leads the majors with 13 of them. Maybe he can keep the intentional walk alive.

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