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What’s up with intentional walks?

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The Cardinals issue a lot of intentional walks. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Something you may have noticed is that the Cardinals issue a lot of intentional walks—as in, a lot a lot. Here are St. Louis’ year-by-year numbers since Mike Shildt took the helm in 2018:

2018, July 15th onward: 25 (1st in MLB)

2019: 41 (T-2nd)

2020: 8 (T-6th)

2021: 5 (T-5th)

Total: 79 (4th)

For context, the Astros have been buzzing along in that same span with a league-low 11 free passes. And if the Astros stopped doing something, it’s probably because their Smart Numbers PeopleTM looked at it and decided it was a trash strategy.

The sabermetric community’s opposition to intentional walks isn’t new: a chapter in The Book, published all the way back in 2006, criticized managers’ propensity to call for four wide pitches/whatever the signal for an IBB is these days. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but their general thesis is that, from a run expectancy standpoint, putting an extra man on usually isn’t worth facing Batter X vs. relatively worse Batter Y.

Now, there might be some situations late in a game when run expectancy (how many runs a team is expected to score during the remainder of the inning) isn’t the best metric to use. For example, the risk of a walk sparking a big inning is worth giving more weight to in the top of the 3rd than a tie game in the bottom of the 9th. Since Shildt became manager, here is how many intentional walks the Cardinals have issued by inning, with their MLB rank in parentheses.

1: 4 (T-2nd)

2: 8 (T-1st)

3: 10 (T-1st)

4: 10 (3rd)

5: 8 (3rd)

6: 9 (4th)

7: 9 (T-7th)

8: 10 (T-4th)

9: 4 (T-21st)

Extras: 7 (T-10th)

There are more than twice as many intentional walks in the third and fourth innings as there are in the ninth. If we divide each game into “thirds,” here is what those numbers look like.

1-3: 22 (1st)

4-6: 27 (3rd)

7+: 30 (T-9th)

Converting those numbers into percentages of all intentional walks, the trend becomes even clearer:

1-3: Cardinals 27.8%; MLB 13.8%

4-6: Cardinals 34.2%; MLB 30.0%

7+: Cardinals 38.0%; MLB 56.2%

Not only do the Cardinals intentionally walk more batters than the average team, but they tend to do so significantly earlier in games as well.

Finally, I want to look at another specific situation in which teams often opt for a free pass, which is with a pitcher on deck. But if we look at the Cardinals’ combined stats from 2019 and 2021 (2020 would mess with the data since the universal DH was in effect), the Baseball-Reference Play Index tells us St. Louis has only walked 10 8-hole batters. That’s 7th among the 15 NL clubs and well behind the Nationals’ 25.

So the Cardinals intentionally walk a lot of batters. Compared to other teams, they don’t do it a ton late in games and they also don’t do it a ton the get to the pitcher. A sizeable bulk of their IBBs take place earlier in games and still result in having to face a position player. So why, exactly, are they so keen on intentional walks? Because it’s baseball and baseball is meant to crush your soul.