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Soto Gets a Free Pass

October 27, 2019

The World Series sometimes causes managers to go against their usual strategies. In Game 2 against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch decided to issue an intentional walk. While that normally would not stand out as unusual, it was the first free pass the Astros had issued in over a year. Unfortunately for Houston, it did not work out so well.

With runners at second and third and two outs in the top of the seventh inning, Hinch flexed four fingers, and Juan Soto trotted to first base. It was an understandable move, given that Soto killed the Astros in Game 1 with a double, a home run, and three runs batted in. At the time of the intentional walk in Game 2, Soto was 1-3 with a double. The decision would have worked out had third baseman Alex Bregman been able to field a fairly routine groundball off the bat of Howie Kendrick following the walk to Soto.

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Even though Hinch decided to end the Astros’ moratorium on intentional walks, I believe the Astros are on to something with their approach. It seems logical to me that anytime an additional runner reaches base, it increases his team’s chances of scoring. That being said, I think there are situations where an intentional walk not only is justified, but it is also necessary.

If the visiting team is in a tie game heading into the bottom of the ninth (or extra innings) and the home team puts a runner at third with no outs, then it makes sense to intentionally walk the next two batters to load the bases. In a similar fashion, a single intentional walk would be in order if the home team put runners at second and third with no outs. The reasoning behind this strategy is that it sets up a force at the plate, which is the visitor’s best option since a run by the home team ends the game. The manager of the visiting team also should pull the outfielders in shallow to take away a possible hit since a deep or medium-depth fly ball ends the game on a sacrifice fly.

Another situation where an intentional walk would be in order is in National League games when there are runners in scoring position with two outs with the eighth-place hitter at the plate. If there is only one out, then it makes sense to go after the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher rather than load the bases and then face the pitcher and leadoff hitter.

© T.C.G.

It is difficult to imagine that the Astros did not face any of these scenarios this season. With the intentional walk to Soto, Houston made the decision not to let a hot hitter beat them, which is also an understandable justification.

The Astros had not issued an intentional walk since August 17, 2018 when they walked Jed Lowrie of the Oakland Athletics to load the bases; Khris Davis was coming to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. This was a bold move by Hinch since, at the time of the free pass to Lowrie, Davis had 34 home runs and 93 runs batted in. Davis flied out to right field to send the game into extra innings.

I think the Astros’ approach on intentional walks is the flipside of not using the sacrifice bunt. By not issuing intentional walks, Houston is choosing not to give the opposition free baserunners, and by not using sacrifice bunts, they are choosing not to give the defense easy outs. I like this philosophy.

(Game details are from Retrosheet and MLB.com.)

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