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Intentional walk rates

Posted by Andy on December 27, 2010

We chatted about intentional walk rates on a recent thread, so I thought I'd look into the numbers a bit more.

What I've found is that the National League has always had more intentional walks than the American League, even before the advent of the designated hitter.

Click through for more.

Here is a plot of the average number of intentional walks per game (that's per team, not total for both teams in a given game) each year, broken down by league.

As you can see, there has always been a large gap between leagues, although that gap got bigger in 1973 when the DH came around.

We can break this down into three eras:

  • From 1955 to 1972, the NL averaged about 0.09 IBBs per game more than the AL. That's about one every 11 games--certainly not a huge difference, but a fairly consistent one.
  • In 1973, the difference soared to 0.19 IBBs per game, nearly 1 every 5 games on average, and from 1973 to 1990 the average difference was 0.16 IBBS per NL game (one every 6 games or so.)
  • From 1991 to 2010, the difference reverted back to about 0.08 IBBs per game, or about 1 IBB per 13 games.

Although these differences are pretty small--would any casual observer notice an extra intentional walk every 13 games?--they are quite consistent over the years.

My big question is--why? It's clear why there would be more intentional walks in a game where pitchers hit. In particular, the 8th-place hitter would get more intentional walks in order to bring up the weak-hitting pitcher. But the differences go beyond just the designated hitter effect.

Here's a little bit of data about IBBs in 2010.

For the 1,216 intentional walks, they broke down by batting order position as follows:

8th 232
4th 228
3rd 222
5th 144
6th 140
7th 127
1st 67
2nd 35
9th 21

Predictably, 8th-place hitters got the most, while 9th-place hitters got the fewest. (The 9th place hitter almost never intentionally walks in the NL.) The 1st place hitter doesn't get many either, in particular because he's never walked leading off the first inning, the the 2nd-place hitter who usually bats right before his team's best hitter (the #3) is rarely intentionally walked either.

Of the 232 IBBs to 8th-place hitters, I counted only 34 that were issued by AL teams, and of those 12 came in interleague games in NL parks (when the DH rule was not in use.)

Still, this difference doesn't account for the entire difference between leagues....what other factors haven't I mentioned?

29 Responses to “Intentional walk rates”

  1. Andy Says:

    I should have also pointed out how the closest the rates ever got was in 1993, when offenses exploded. Rates didn't change much in the NL but it looks like AL teams freaked out and issued a bunch more IBBs that year to try to stop the scoring. It settled right back down in 1994 though.

  2. Dante Says:

    The spike in NL rate for 2001-02 is largely the Bonds effect. Perhaps look at OPS+ for each spot in the order and compare NL vs. AL. Did the AL just have deeper lineups?

  3. Frank Clingenpeel Says:

    Andy, my quwstion would be about how much the entry of the Rockies, who played at Mile High Stadium back then in that thin Rocky Mountain air, was responsible for that sudden variance in '93. I also wonder how much the crackdown on HGH and steroid use affected the post-2006 decline -- and whether that declining tendency will continue.

    But then, my mama always said I was a curious sort {read that, "Pain in the touchis"}.

  4. Thomas Says:

    What happened in (what looks to be) 1967 in the NL?!

  5. Andy Says:

    In 1967, Adolpho Philips of the Cubs received 29 IBBs all by himself, nearly 10% of the total in all of MLB that year. #2 was Jerry May with 19. He was batting ahead of the pitcher virtually all of the time. I have no idea if this is the cause of the spike, since it seems to be part of the normal situation for IBBs.

  6. Kahuna Tuna Says:

    The 9th place hitter almost never intentionally walks in the NL.

    While true, this is misleading. Ninth-place hitters on NL teams received 15 intentional walks in 2010, while ninth-place hitters on AL teams received only six IBBs. (Search result.) To look at it another way, in 2010 NL teams issued 16 intentional walks to ninth-place hitters, AL teams only five.

  7. Wine Curmudgeon Says:

    How much of the difference is due to managerial styles that can't necessarily be explained by the numbers? Was Earl Weaver as averse to the intentional walk as he was to the sacrifice bunt? Did Whitey Herzog use the intentional walk differently in Kansas City than he did in St. Louis? Did Casey Stengel not bother with the intentional walk because there were so many bad teams in the AL (Philadelphia/Kansas City, Washington) that he didn't have to walk their players?

  8. Bastaducci Says:

    to # 6...I would say the 15 intentional walks in the N.L. were pinchitters coming in for the pitcher. on many N.L. teams the teams best pinchhitter is a better hitter than their leadoff man.

  9. Bastaducci Says:

    Interesting makes for fun conversation. of course we can make anything out of this we want if we look long enough so after a quick glance I see the DH widening the N.L.'s lead on intentional walks and the beginning of the steroid era closing it in. as most know the separation between the 2 is the important thing to look at and not the totals. that being said though the mid 60's has the the same look as the steroid era which tells me that something went on during those years( maybe a strike zone change or change of the ball ). not sure but I bet there was something along those lines. either of those things would make it look like parity which is what steroids/the stike zone change did to the mid 90's and early 00's.

    Of course this is just my opinion.

  10. Brett Says:

    I'm inclined to believe that #7 is on the right track. A casual look at Bill James handbook mgr section shows quite a bit of difference on the theory of the intentional walk. It's not convenient for us to figure out the answer if this is the only difference and all things else are equal, so naturally, most people move on to things we can measure. So, I'll go there: There were an extra 200 NL IBB in 2010 just based on the "#8 hitter effect", lets go modestly and say that the average is 160 over the last 50 years. This is a 0.15 IBB per game difference. This is very close to the 0.16 quoted above from '73-'90. What happened in 1990? Well, papa Fielder hit 50 and perhaps it re-ignited the trend of focusing on avoiding the hitters who can really hurt you. I wonder if the umpires switching leagues so that the strikezones weren't as "defined" as before. When the umpiring changes, it's such a large part of the game that it only makes sense that managing changes to keep pace. When I was a youth, I remember my dad telling me how the NL teams always had one big bopper, while the AL was a bit more balanced in terms of power. This totally justifies the early difference between the NL & AL from '55 to '73. But of course, it's almost entirely not true, but it might go back to managing. If my dad wasn't the only one to think this way, perhaps there is something more to it.

    Side note: I think it's interesting that the 61 AL is so low when everyone knows that Maris wasn't issued a free base all season. Mantle was only walked 9 times intentionally (tied for 4th in the AL behind Cash(19), Held(11) & Lollar(10)), but people made such a big deal that Maris' total was zero.

  11. DavidRF Says:

    There is a significant difference in managerial styles. Gene Mauch liked to issue IBB's while Earl Weaver loathed it.

    In Bill James' Guide to Baseball Managers that came out in the mid-1990s, he proposed some sort of "managers stat line" which contained information on IBB's, SH's, platoon %'s, reliever counts, lineup counts, etc. He only had data for a couple of years for that book but it seems like we should have access to a lot more data for a lot more seasons these days.

  12. DavidRF Says:

    Whoops... Brett in #10 beat me to it. I should have read more carefully. My mind is still on vacation.

  13. Phil-in-Indiana Says:

    I believe there were more #3-4-5 batters being intentionally walked in the NL back in the 50s and 60s because they had names like Aaron, Mays, McCovey, Banks, Matthews, BWilliams, and RON SANTO while the AL had its share of sluggers, but not as many who were so consistent through the years, especially the Era of the Pitcher in the late 60s where you see the NL numbers spike upwards. All other things being equal, it's the sluggers and the #8 batters who get walked in order to get to weaker hitters.

  14. Barry Jive Says:

    #6 & #8

    To add to 8's point I'd guess matchups are a factor also. If you have a base open with a lefty PH in the 9-hole, you might walk him to face a right-handed leadoff hitter.

  15. Ron Says:

    Because the National League is still more of a small ball league, with more running, more bunting, and more emphaisis on defense.

    So the lineups features fewer big hitters (2-3) per lineup whereas the American Leauge will feature 5-6.

    More chances to walk the few big hitters to face the small ball types in the National League.

  16. Michael Says:

    I think the decrease in the N.L. intentional walks is due to expanding bullpens

  17. dukeofflatbush Says:

    Garry Templeton and Bill Russel are the only two players to have > 100 IBB with twice as many IBBs than HRs.
    The only reason I mention this is because I think the 8th hitter is IBBed too often.
    With hitters as bad as those, I'd rather give them a chance, then either have the pitcher lead off the next inning and/or force the opposing manager into a double switch scenario.

  18. Andy Says:

    #17 I strongly agree. Managers may forget that walking the #8 hitter twice in a game may lead to 2-3-4 batting against your closer in the 9th instead of 9-1-2.

  19. Johnny Twisto Says:

    the National League is still more of a small ball league, with more running, more bunting, and more emphaisis on defense.

    The AL has stolen more bases than the NL in 7 of the past 10 seasons.

    How do you even define "emphasis on defense"?

    walking the #8 hitter twice in a game may lead to 2-3-4 batting against your closer in the 9th instead of 9-1-2.

    Couldn't it also lead to facing 5-6-7 instead of 3-4-5?

  20. Tmckelv Says:

    it is amazing that the AL never led the NL in any year (55-72). You would think it would have happened by "mistake" at least once.

  21. Tmckelv Says:


    I have to look at Gary templeton's splits, but was he an 8th hitter? I know he had 200 hits at least once (1979 had 100 from each side of the plate).

    I do agree with the assertion that a team would be better off (over the long run) pitching to the 8th hitter and having the 9th leading off the next inning.

  22. dukeofflatbush Says:

    @ Tmc

    You are right, when Templeton came up, he showed tons of promise, hitting .305 over 700+ games with St Louis. He was projected to be a future 5 tool # 3 hitter. He had two 200 H seasons in his first 3 full years, great speed, led the league in triples 3 times, but was considered by most to be an uncoachable problem with an attitude bigger than his paycheck. Even with his speed and hitting ability, he walked only 93 times in 713 during his St Louis tenure and despite his speed he was 63% successful in SB.
    He then was traded to San Diego for Ozzie Smith in '81. In San Diego he became the #8 man. During 84-86 he walked 115 times, 68 of which were intentional (leading the league twice).
    In the '80s, only 20 IBB were issued in a season 23 times, 3 of which went to Templeton, the only player with 3.
    Only Dale Murphy and Mike Schmidt had more IBBs in the '80s than Templeton. And I think we all know, he is not in their company.

  23. Charles Saeger Says:

    The Dodgers. These guys taught their managers down in the minors to be loose with the free pass, and that influence is obviously greater in the NL, and probably above and beyond just having the team there to drive up the numbers. The gap narrowed between when Alston turned against the free pass in 1968 and the DL in 1973.

  24. John Autin Says:

    @5, Andy -- The unusual thing about Adolpho Phillips in 1967 was a #8 hitter who hit 17 HRs, 7 triples and slugged .458. The average NL #8 hitter slugged .299 that year, and the other 9 teams combined got just 35 HRs from their #8 hitters.

    Why the heck was Phillips batting 8th? If there is a rational answer, it probably died with Leo Durocher. The year before, Phillips had hit 16 HRs and slugged .452, mostly as a leadoff man. But in '67, with Don Kessinger taking over the primary leadoff duties, the spot became a black hole; they got no HRs, a .278 OBP and just 70 runs from Kessinger, Paul Popovich & co., while Phillips and other #8 hitters combined for 80 runs. That disparity must be some kind of a record. The #8 spot also had more runs and RBI than either the #6 or #7 spot.

    Furthermore, Phillips in '67 was hot early and did the bulk of his damage in the first half -- yet Durocher never did move him out of the #8 hole.

    The Cubs' lineup might have seemed to be working fine, since they led the NL in R/G. But that was just a Wrigley Field illusion; their team OPS+ was virtually league average, as the fine years by Phillips and (as usual) Billy Williams & Ron Santo were submarined by Kessinger & an unproductive bench.

  25. John Autin Says:

    (Followup to #24)

    When, exactly, did Leo Durocher start mailing it in as Cubs manager? Day 1?

    As noted above, the 1967 Cubs got virtually nothing from their leadoff men, mostly Don Kessinger. And yet, in '68, Leo the Lip wrote in Kessinger for 154 games in the leadoff spot, even though the overmatched SS did just as poorly as the year before -- a .276 OBP, 1 HR, 61 runs, 9 CS against 9 SB.

    In a roundabout way, I think that Cubs managers (especially Durocher) are a big reason that Ron Santo is not in the Hall of Fame. Santo had "just" four seasons with that magical round number of 100+ RBI. But he had four other very potent seasons in which he finished just shy of 100 RBI while batting cleanup: 1963 (25 HR & 99 RBI), and 1966-68 (30 & 94; 31 & 98; and 26 & 98). Now here are the combined OBPs of the Cubs' #1 & #2 hitters in those years:
    -- 1963: .314
    -- 1966: .312
    -- 1967: .291
    -- 1968: .298

    I don't care how traditional it was at the time to put (non-)hitters like Kessinger at the top of the order; it's still a brutal failure on the part of the manager. And to a lot of convention HOF voters -- the ones who have kept Santo out for so long -- his credentials would probably look a lot stronger with eight 100-RBI seasons.

    Durocher was the Cubs' manager from 1966 until midway through the '72 season. His W-L record with the club looks pretty good, on the surface, given their previous history. But this is a club that had Billy Williams and Ron Santo in their prime, a still-potent Ernie Banks for most of that time, another HOFer in Fergie Jenkins, a young Ken Holtzman, and some complementary talent -- and accomplished nothing. Just once did they win more than 87 games.

    It sure looks like Durocher was living off his reputation.

  26. John Autin Says:

    (Back on topic:)

    In #24, I should have added that the '67 Cubs led the NL with 33 IBBs to their #8 hitters, almost twice what the other 9 teams averaged. They had drawn just 10 the year before. An increase of 23 IBBs in a 10-team, 162-game league would increase the league IBB/G by 0.014, which is roughly 10% of the spike on the graph. That's a lot of impact for one player, but there's still big chunk of that spike to be accounted for.

  27. Wine Curmudgeon Says:

    @John Autin --

    Isn't it amazing how almost any discussion about baseball can be turned into an analysis of perhaps the most star-crossed team ever, the 1967-73 Cubs? You make an excellent point about Santo, by the way, as well as Durocher. Though, to be fair, I don't think the Lip thought he was mailing it in. He was managing the way he always did (though you are correct to blame him for what happened). Davey Williams, with a .284 OBP, and Whitey Lockman, with a .318 OBP, were the primary leadoff men for Durocher's 1954 World Series champion Giants. Not coincidentally, only Willie Mays had more than 86 RBI for that team.

  28. kds Says:

    Re: Durocher Cubs. Giving Banks credit for a "potent bat" is very dubious for 1967-71. He is at best an average hitter overall, hardly good for a 1B.

  29. John Autin Says:

    @28, Kds re: Banks & "potent bat" -- You make a good point. "Potent" is a bit of a wiggle word, like "dangerous"; what does it really mean? Bottom line, Banks from 1966-69 (his 4 full-time years under Durocher) had a 106 OPS+, which (as you say) was below average for a NL 1B in that period. Now, it was a pretty strong period for NL 1Bs -- McCovey, Dick Allen (sometime 1B), Rusty Staub (ditto), Cepeda, Joe Torre, Lee May, etc. And in 3 of those 4 years, Banks hit at least 23 HRs, with a high of 32. But you're right that Banks wasn't a "championship-caliber" 1B.