Joe Posnanski wrote a typically great post about Trey Hillman's bizarre decision to intentionally walk Nick Markakis last night in favor of Aubrey Huff, which got me thinking about when the strategy should be employed. I think the intentional walk is over-utilized by some managers, but there certainly is a time and a place for it - for instance, when Casey Kotchman bats with a man on third and one out in a scoreless game in the ninth inning, as happened the other night.
As I see it, there are three primary advantages to the intentional walk:
1) To gain the platoon advantage;
2) To set up the double play;
3) To bypass a specific hitter in favor of a significantly inferior one.
Of the three, #3 is certainly the most important, but really, if you want to order an intentional walk at least two of the three conditions should be in effect, and ideally all three.
For instance, when Gil Meche intentionally walked Justin Morneau on April 11th, the game was tied, a man was on third base with one out, and Delmon Young was at the plate. Walking Morneau gained the platoon advantage and set up the double play. You could argue whether Delmon Young is "significantly" inferior to Morneau with the bat - certainly Young has tremendous potential, but he hit .288/.316/.408 last season, and he's doing worse this year.
He also hit into 23 double plays last season, which doesn't hurt. And after Morneau was walked, Young did just that to end the inning.
The amazing thing about Hillman's decision to walk Markakis last night is that the situation didn't meet any of the three criteria above.
Markakis, while an outstanding young hitter, isn't significantly better with the bat than Aubrey Huff. Last year Markakis hit .300/.362/.485, while Huff hit .280/.337/.442. This year, Markakis is at .279/.404/.473 to Huff's .271/.340/.474. Markakis is better, but not that much better.
Both Markakis and Huff bat left-handed.
There were two outs.
With two outs the only time you should consider an intentional walk is when 1) the pitcher or Tony Pena Jr. is up next, or 2) the batter is an extreme high-average hitter like Tony Gwynn or Ichiro Suzuki.
In the situation last night, with a man on second and two out, the only reason to walk Markakis and pitch to Huff is if you think that Markakis is much more likely to drive that runner home from second base, i.e. he has a much higher batting average in that situation. But Markakis is a good hitter because of his secondary skills, i.e. power and plate discipline, not because of his batting average. Over the last two years his average is, what, 15 points higher than Huff? And for that you put another man on base?
(Interestingly, John Gibbons' decision to walk Pena to face DeJesus met the first two criteria. But the decision went so far against the third one that it was still a dumber decision than Hillman's last night. By a factor of about a hundred.)
In addition to the three criteria above, a fourth factor is context. Namely, an intentional walk should only be used when the marginal impact of a single run being scored outweighs the marginal impact of additional runs. Even though the situation last night didn't meet any of the criteria above, you could make a case for the intentional walk if, say, the game was tied in the bottom of the ninth inning. In that case, the impact of a single run scoring is exactly the same as the impact of three runs scoring - you lose either way.
Again, the context here didn't make any sense for an intentional walk, because the game was in the fifth inning. And in the fifth inning, even in a tie game, there's no way to know how important the next run is. Sure, your offense might struggle to score the rest of the game, but they also might scratch out a few runs, as the Royals did last night. Walking Markakis to face Huff may have reduced the Orioles' chances to score at least one run in the inning, although even that is debatable. But there's no question that the walk increased the Orioles' chances to score at least two runs in the inning.
The only way pitching to Markakis leads to two runs is if he hits a homer, while Huff can drive in two runs with any extra-base hits (especially since the runners are going on contact with two outs.) Obviously, the latter is more likely than the former - Huff has averaged 62 XBH per 162 games in his career, while Markakis has averaged 22 HR per 162 games. There's also no way Marakis can drive in three runs, whereas (as we found out) there was a way for Huff to do so.
The irony is that that these are the only two walks Hillman has ordered all season, putting the Royals on pace to order 9 IBBs all year. The lowest total of IBBs in franchise history is 20, back in 1984. Based purely on quantity, it would appear that if anything, Hillman isn't using the IBB enough. There's the example of Casey Kotchman, when Hillman called on Jimmy Gobble to pitch rather than walk Kotchman and leave Ramon Ramirez in to pitch to Torii Hunter with the double play in effect, but I'm sure there are a few other situations when Hillman may have put the tactic to good effect.
But last night, he used the tactic in one of the worst possible situations, and the result illuminated his error in a very harsh light. I hope the negative feedback Hillman received won't make him even more reluctant to put up four fingers in the future. But man, I hope it makes him pick his spots a little better.