What’s an Intentional Walk in Baseball

Intentional walks are a strategic move in baseball. Find out how they work and when to use them.
Written by Mark Bailey
Last updated on

When a player is intentionally walked, they are given four pitches that they don’t have to swing at. But what’s the point? Why would a team ever choose to intentionally walk someone? Turns out, there are actually quite a few reasons! Keep reading to find out what they are.

KEY
POINTS
  • An intentional walk happens when a team decides to allow a hitter to reach first base instead of giving him a chance to hit the ball.
  • Intentionally walking a batter is a strategy that managers use to avoid letting a talented or red-hot hitter drive in runs and to set up a double-play opportunity.
  • A hitter is credited with a walk when teams opt not to pitch, while the pitcher is charged with an intentional walk if they don’t throw any pitches.
  • The MLB rule change in 2017 allows managers simply signal the home plate umpire if they wish to award first base without having the pitcher throw four balls outside of the strike zone.

An intentional walk happens when a team decides to allow a hitter to reach first base instead of giving him a chance to hit the ball. Intentionally walking a batter is a strategy that managers use to avoid letting a talented or red-hot hitter drive in runs and to set up a double-play opportunity. 

A hitter is credited with a walk when teams opt not to pitch to him, while a pitcher is charged with a walk when issuing an intentional walk. Unlike in previous years before 2017, pitchers do not have to throw a single pitch to intentionally walk a batter. Managers can simply signal to the home plate umpire if they wish to award a hitter first base.

What’s an intentional walk?

An intentional walk in baseball occurs when a coach instructs a pitcher to intentionally put a hitter on first base instead of allowing him the opportunity to hit the ball. 

Why do batters get intentionally walked?

Batters get intentionally walked because teams prefer to pitch to the next batter or set up a double-play situation. A talented hitter or a player swinging the bat well will sometimes receive an intentional walk with baserunners in scoring positions.

What is the difference between a walk and an intentional walk?

The difference between a walk and an intentional walk is determined by the intent of the pitcher. An unintentional walk or base on balls happens when a pitcher throws four balls to a hitter outside the strike zone. The hitter is awarded first base and is not charged with an at-bat.

A pitcher is not required to throw any pitches to issue an intentional walk. The opposing team manager alerts the home plate umpire that they will intentionally walk the hitter who is slated to bat, and the hitter is instructed to go to first base.

MLB rule change to intentional walks (2017)

The MLB rule change to intentional walks in 2017 replaced the four-pitch intentional walk with a no-pitch intentional walk. The new rule allowed managers to signal to the home plate umpire that the hitter coming to the plate would be intentionally walked and awarded first base.

The purpose of the rule change was to speed up the gameplay while also eliminating a boring aspect of the baseball game for the fans.  

Why did the rule change?

The rule change was one of several new rules the commissioner’s office implemented in 2017 to speed up the pace of games. Due to several factors, including increased pitching changes, coach challenges, and mound visits, to name a few, the primary goal of the new rule changes was to reduce the overall time it took to play a full game.

How to signal an intentional walk

To signal an intentional walk to the umpire, managers can wave the hitter to first base or hold up four fingers. There is no official signal given to umpires when teams decide to intentionally walk a hitter.

How does a pitcher throw an intentional ball?

A pitcher does not have to throw an intentional ball when a hitter is issued an intentional walk. Before the rule change in 2017, pitchers lobbed a pitch to a catcher standing up with one arm, signaling the pitcher to throw the ball away from the hitter.

FAQ

How many pitches is an intentional walk?

An intentional walk used to require four pitches before 2017. However, a manager can now signal to the umpire that he wants to intentionally walk a batter without the pitcher throwing a single pitch.

Can you intentionally walk a batter without pitching?

Yes, you can intentionally walk a batter without pitching. The new no-pitch intentionally walk rule was implemented in 2017 and requires that a manager signal the umpire to award first base to a hitter without the pitcher having to throw four balls outside the strike zone.

Does an intentional walk count in the pitcher’s pitch count?

Yes, an intentional walk does count in the pitcher’s pitch count if he throws the ball to the catcher. But “ghost pitches” do not count in the pitcher’s count if a manager decides to intentionally walk a batter by signaling to the home plate umpire to award the hitter first base. 

Could a hitter swing at an intentional walk scenario?

Yes, a hitter can swing at an intentional walk pitch. In 1907, Ty Cobb became the first player to hit the ball in play while being intentionally walked. Cobb drove in two runs when pitcher Eddie Plank’s third pitch was close enough for the Detroit slugger to poke down the right-field line.

The last player to accomplish the feat was Miguel Cabrera in 2006. Baltimore hurler Todd Williams attempted to intentionally walk Cabrera when the first baseman lunged at the first pitch and swatted the outside pitch into center field for a run-scoring single.

Is there a max limit to the number of intentional walks in baseball?

No, there is not a max limit to the number of intentional walks in baseball. A batter can be intentionally walked every time he comes to the plate, and teams can issue as many intentional walks in a game as they deem necessary.

Can a hitter refuse an intentional walk?

No, a hitter cannot refuse an intentional walk. 

What is the record for the most intentional walks in their Major League Baseball career?

The record for the most intentional walks in their Major League Baseball career belongs to Barry Bonds. The outfielder received 688 intentional walks and is the only player to surpass 400 intentional free passes.

How do MLB scorebooks keep track of intentional walks?

Major League Baseball scorebooks keep track of intentional walks as IBB, an abbreviation for an intentional base on balls.

Has there ever been an intentional walk with the bases loaded?

There have been eight intentional walks with the bases loaded in MLB history. Manager Joe Maddon has instructed pitchers to walk a hitter with the sacks full on two occasions. Maddon walked Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton in 2008 with the sacks full and issued another intentional free pass with every base occupied in 2022 to Texas shortstop Corey Seagar.

New rule change speeds up games

Before 2017, pitchers had no choice but to lob four pitches outside the strike zone to intentionally walk a hitter. But the new rule change allows managers to signal to the home plate umpire if a team wishes to intentionally walk a hitter. In an attempt to speed up the pace of baseball games, a hitter is awarded first base without the pitcher throwing any pitches to the hitter.

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