Load 'Em Up!
First off, let's consider the IBB that loads the bases. It often seems like a better idea than it is. Here's a basic rule of thumb to follow: If the batter at the plate does not have a higher batting average than the on deck hitter's on base percentage, it's already a losing idea. This is because with runners at 2B and 3B and two outs, the batter needs a hit in order to bring home a run, whereas with the bases loaded and two outs, the batter only needs a hit or a walk (or a HBP) to bring home a run.
And it's pretty rare that a batter's batting average is superior to another batter's on base percentage. This is because even good hitters usually hit below .300 and even bad hitter usually keep their OBP north of .300. Let's look at a recent example of an IBB that actually made sense. In the bottom of the 9th, with the A's and White Sox tied, Hector Santiago of the White Sox IBBed Coco Crisp to load the bases with two outs and pitch to Eric Sogard.
Was it a good move by the percentages? Well...What's Crisp's true batting average? You might argue that it's somewhere between .280-.300. What's Eric Sogard's true on base percentage? It's probably around .280-.300. Even that move, which made a lot of sense, was in fact probably a wash. It may be counter-intuitive to think that Sogard's chances of reaching base are equal to Crisp's chances of getting a hit, but in fact that's about right.
OK, so here's an easy one: 2B and 3B, 2 outs, Brett Gardner up and Chris Stewart on deck. Not so fast...Gardner's career batting average is .266. Stewart's career on base percentage is .291. If you're looking for the best chance to get out of the inning without a run scoring, the correct percentage play is to pitch to Gardner.
Fine: 2B and 3B, 2 outs, Mike Trout up and Chris Ianetta on deck. Now that one actually is easy. Trout is a career .303 hitter and Ianetta's career OBP is .355. Pitch to Trout.
Now, one can argue that Ianetta has played much of his career in a hitter's park (Colorado), that Trout may prove to be better than a .303 hitter, and so on. The point is: A good player's batting average is usually still lower than a mediocre player's OBP, so don't be too quick to assume you gain an advantage by loading the bases just to pitch to a worse hitter. Usually you don't.
In The Hole
The other mistake I commonly see managers making is to consider the batter at the plate against the batter on deck. Oft times, it's the batter in the hole, two hitters away, who will bat in lieu of the hitter you are intentionally walking.
Let's say you have a runner at 2B and one out, Alex Avila up (batting 8th), Omar Infante on deck (batting 9th). Sure you can walk Avila but you're not trading Avila for Infante, because you're going to face Infante either way. You're trading Avila for someone not yet mentioned: Austin Jackson. You can pitch to Avila and Infante, or you can IBB Avila and pitch to Infante and Jackson.
When making this trade, managers are factoring in the chance of getting a DP but that outcome is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time you will wind up facing the batter who is in the hole, so if he's the most dangerous hitter of the 3, it's not a good swap.
The Constitution For Constitutionals
That's not to say that the IBB has no place. It does, just not as often as it's used and abused. Here are some good basic rules of thumb for managers to consider:
- Never issue an IBB to pitch to a decent hitter. The IBB is only a good call when you are walking a good hitter to get to a bad hitter.
- Never consider issuing an IBB to load the bases unless the on deck hitter actually has an OBP lower than the current batter's BA.
- When considering an IBB with less than 2 outs, look at the hitter who is in the hole as if you are facilitating a key at bat for him in the inning, and if that doesn't appeal to you don't issue the IBB.
Now when I say "never" I mean "almost never". Bottoms of extra innings can alter strategy because you don't care about crooked numbers. We haven't discussed slugging percentage, and batting average comes with slugging while walks don't. Pitchers with huge platoons splits, such as Pat Neshek and Brad Ziegler, probably have more instances than normal where issuing an IBB makes sense. And your gut is allowed to supersede the percentages in any given situation if you're the rare manager with an exceptional gut and knowledge of his players.
But you know what? Most intentional walks aren't good strategy, because in general putting runners on base isn't a good strategy for the team that's in the field. To readers: When can you get behind an IBB?