Thursday afternoon, the New York Yankees were playing a baseball game against the Washington Nationals. There were a lot of people paying attention - the Yankees were starting Michael Pineda, and the Nationals were starting Bryce Harper. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Clay Rapada stood on the mound for New York after Pineda came out. With two outs and runners on second and third, the lefty Rapada intentionally walked the righty Ryan Zimmerman to face the lefty Chad Tracy with the bases loaded. Tracy grounded out, and the inning was over.
Perfectly sensible, right? Rapada's a lefty specialist, and that's what you do with lefty specialists. Also, Zimmerman is good while Tracy is less good. Easy call for Joe Girardi. Except there's the thing where this was a spring-training game. The Yankees and Nationals weren't playing for keeps. They were playing for the sake of playing, really, and people on both sides would tell you they didn't care about the final score. Which makes an obvious intentional walk a less obvious intentional walk.
Rapada's was not the first intentional walk of the spring. On March 10, Miguel de los Santos intentionally walked Hector Gimenez. On March 12, Josh Edgin intentionally walked Avisail Garcia. On March 13, Hector Ambriz intentionally walked Engel Beltre, and Mike Adams intentionally walked Chad Huffman. Both of those happened in the same game, four innings apart. Adams was initially pitching to Huffman, but after a ball and a stolen base, the catcher stood up.
That's five intentional walks around baseball so far this month. They've all come within the last week. Three teams have issued one apiece, while the Texas Rangers have issued a pair.
MLB.com provides spring-training data going back to 2006. Here's the overall spring training intentional walk total for each year:
2012: 5 (so far)
If you squint, maybe there's a trend down. But these intentional walks in March clearly haven't yet been eliminated. This won't surprise you, but the team with the most spring intentional walks in 2011 was Tony La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals. The team with the most spring intentional walks in 2010 was Tony La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals. The 2007 Philadelphia Phillies issued five spring intentional walks under Charlie Manuel, which is the highest total within the sample window. That's a lot of pointless intentional walks.
Emphasis on "pointless". These are pointless baseball games. I mean, they're good for player development, I think, but the outcomes are pointless. So why are there intentional walks? I understand certain strategic maneuvers. A player can work on his bunting, or on his hit-and-running. Intentionally walk a guy and you're skipping an at bat. You're basically just shifting.
In truth, I think I kind of understand. Managers want spring-training games to mirror real games, with real situations. You can intentionally walk a guy to set up a double play situation, and then you can practice the double play situation. Or you can have a lefty intentionally walk a righty to face a lefty because you're most interested in how that pitcher does against lefties. But on the other hand, why not see how that pitcher can do against righties? Why not let guys try to work out of trouble when the stakes are the lowest? Maybe you'd argue there's not much to learn from seeing Clay Rapada pitch to Ryan Zimmerman. I'd argue there's not much to learn from watching Clay Rapada pitch to Chad Tracy. We have a pretty good idea that Clay Rapada can retire Chad Tracy most of the time.
None of this matters so I don't exactly know why I've written so many words, but I guess this is a break from talking about Alcides Escobar's contract or Michael Pineda's possibly meaningfully reduced velocity. There are spring training intentional walks, and that feels weird to me. An intentional walk implies to me that a manager's really trying to win. It's March. Who cares? Let the games proceed without them and see what happens. Maybe you'll learn something. And hold on a second, why did Mike Adams intentionally walk anyone? He's Mike Adams! He's not even a specialist!
Maybe spring training is spring training for managers, just as it's spring training for players. Maybe they need to practice their signals and strategies. But I know that, when I'm looking at a spring training box score and I see an intentional walk, I think to myself, "why?" Ultimately it's entirely inconsequential either way, but there's a reason why the majority of teams don't issue an intentional walk all spring. It's not that they're not getting into intentional walk situations. It's that, this time of year, intentional walk situations probably shouldn't exist.