What is an Intentional Walk (Baseball)?


An intentional walk (or, intentional base on balls) occurs when a pitcher delivers four balls that are purposefully far enough outside (i.e., outside the opposite handedness batter box) that the batter can not offer at the pitch.. Scorers denote this as IBB.

For those of you unfamiliar with baseball strategy, you may be wondering just why a manager would call for an intentional walk. I mean, that’s a free base!

Well, there are a few reasons:

  • The hitter is dangerous enough that you would prefer to face the next hitter. In modern parlance, this may be considered the Barry Bonds treatment. Check our our infographic further down to learn more.

  • You want to establish force out or double play opportunities. This may occur when a player is on second base with less than 2 outs. Or, if runners are on second and third base with any number of outs (but especially with less than 2 outs).

  • In the National League or interleague games at a National League park, managers may elect to walk the hitter preceding the pitcher in the lineup in order to face the weaker batter. Note: all bets are off when you have someone like Madison Bumgarner or Michael Lorenzen who can hit one out at the ballpark as well as many hitters that precede them.

MLB Rule Change to Intentional Walks (2017)

Somehow, the intentional walk seems to always be implicated when discussing a decline in interest for baseball. Even Babe Ruth complained about it.

There was even efforts made to ban the intentional walk, but those failed. They did lead to rules governing where catchers had to stand to receive the walk.

In 2017, though, MLB finally made a significant change to how intentional walks work. Now, much like Little League, managers need only indicate a desire to walk to a hitter. No more potential wild pitches or walk-off home runs (see pitcher mistakes below).

The specified reason for removing the need to throw for balls was pace of play. That’s not exactly what happened. If you want to read more, check out this article over at Beyond the Boxscore.

How to Signal an Intentional Walk

The signal for an intentional walk starts from the dugout where the manager will hold up four fingers to indicate the batter should be deliberately walked. Some people call this a “four finger salute”.

Once the manager sends in the signal, it is up to the catcher to relay the signal to the pitcher. The catcher does this by holding his hand in the direction the ball should be pitched; this will always be away from the hitter.

Pitcher’s Responsibility during an Intentional Walk

It seems pretty simple, right? Just throw four balls.
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Well, that is true; except that intentional walks are not routine, so pitchers do not always have the repetitions and muscle memory to rely on do them successfully. There are two mistakes a pitcher can make when attempting an intentional walk: throwing the pitch into the strike zone and throwing a wild pitch.

Throwing a pitch into the strike zone can be disastrous since the pitch will routinely be thrown at a reduced speed and without much movement. This makes the ball much easier for a hitter to make better than average contact. For example, check out this walk-off home run off a misplaced intentional ball:



The other mistake a pitcher can make is to throw a wild pitch. This isn’t so bad if there are no batters on, but it can be terrible if they are. Particularly since part of the strategy for the intentional walk may have been to create a force out at home by loading the bases; with a wild pitch, the runner will most likely score from third and the other runner will advance to third base.

So, how can pitchers avoid this? Every pitcher should dedicate some amount of practice time to throwing intentional balls. Not much, but just enough to build confidence.

How Does a Pitcher Throw an Intentional Ball?

As stated before, throwing an intentional ball disrupts a pitcher’s normal rhythm. While it may not require an entirely different pitching motion, it does require the pitcher to remove some of the normal velocity. And even that can be enough to make it difficult (hence, the need for practice during bullpen sessions).

To successfully throw it, the pitcher should aim to deliver the ball roughly 2 feet off the plate and at the catcher’s eye level. The velocity needs to be balanced against two criteria: the need for the ball to reach the plate in a reasonable time (particularly if a runner may attempt a steal), but still provide enough time for the catcher to get into position to receive the pitch.

Media (Infographics and Videos) related to Intentional Walks

Barry Bonds Intentional Walks Infographic

Wesley Lyles

Wesley is a jack of all trades hobbyist. Though much of his spare time is spent playing board games (especially solo card games like Legendary), Hearthstone, Rocket League, and MLB The Show.e He also enjoys most sports, but pays way too much attention to baseball and football.

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