Baseball is an ever-changing game. Craig Kimbrel, current Red Sox closer, has intentionally walked five batters in his career, which is now at just over 400 innings. And as you know, Kimbrel has been pretty great in his career, striking out 14.5 batters per nine innings and posting a 1.86 ERA.
John Hiller was a pretty great pitcher as well. In 1973 he had one of the best seasons of all-time in relief. In 125.1 innings he saves 38 games and posted a 1.44 ERA. The next year he threw 150 innings, winning 17 games and putting up an ERA of 2.64. But there was a very strange game in that season. On August 9, he came into the ninth inning of a tie game against the Rangers, and he threw 5.2 innings in a loss. That alone is pretty surprising. What’s shocking, at least to me, is that he walked 11 batters, five intentionally in that game. That’s the same number Kimbrel has walked intentionally in his entire career.
The Intentional Walk
Our friends at BBREF have IBB numbers dating back to 1955, and the differences between then and now, while meaningful, are less stark than I’d have imagined given the Kimbrel/Hiller tidbit above. In the 1967 NL, there was half of an intentional walk per nine innings. Otherwise, it was never over 0.44 per nine, which is exactly double to low point of 0.22 in 2014. Just to finish the thought, the last five years represent five of the six lowest totals in NL history.
Not surprisingly, with the pitcher not hitting, the AL has given fewer intentional passes over the years. Their low of 0.14 per nine was this year. Their next lowest was last year. And five of the nine seasons with fewer than 0.20 per were the most recent five years. The five years from 1968-1972 were the most popular times for AL IBBs, ranging from 0.33 to 0.35 during that span.
Hiller’s manager in 1974 wasn’t always a prolific intentional walker. With the Yankees from 1961-1963, he was always below league average, and his Yankees were last in the AL in 1963. Back in the Bronx in 1966, he inched above league average. And the next year his Yankees led the AL in free passes. Closer Dooley Womack allowed 14 IBB in 97 IP. For the next three years he was just above league average. Then in 1971 he competed for the top spot again. Jack Acker allowed nine in 55.2 IP, and Al Closter allowed seven in only 28.1 innings. The next two years weren’t quite so bad, and in 1974 Houk went to Detroit where he found our guy Hiller.
There were very, very differing managing styles by this time. Houk’s Tigers led the AL with 69 free passes and were only one of three teams above 46. On the other hand, Frank Quilici’s Twins walked only 18 intentionally, one less than Hiller all by himself. The next year Houk fell back to the pack, and he was actually below average in 1976 and 1977. By 1978, he intentionally walked only 23 on the season.
In his final managerial tour in Boston, Houk’s Red Sox were below league average in intentional passes.
In his career, Hiller walked 71 batters intentionally. Almost 27% of those batters were in 1974. And more than 7% of his career free passes were in our one game in question. For Barry Bonds to equal that mark in homers, he’d have had to hit 50+ in a game. Pete Rose would have a 297 hit affair. And Nolan Ryan would have to strike out 400 in a single game, which is a lot even for him. So what was it about that one game in August of 1974 when the Tigers were 7.5 games out of first? I have no idea, but the game log sure is exciting. If you like intentional walks.
Some would say Hiller’s first inning went by the book that day. It began with a walk, a sacrifice bunt, a strikeout, and an intentional walk to pinch hitter Alex Johnson before a ground out ended the frame.
The tenth was relatively boring for Hiller. Fly out, walk, walk, fly out, and strikeout. We go to the eleventh.
That inning looked a lot like the ninth. A walk began the frame, followed by a sacrifice bunt. Alex Johnson then stepped to the plate to receive his second intentional pass in two trips against Hiller. By the way, Johnson hit just 113 home runs in his career. And he drew only four intentional walks in 1974 – two of which were in three innings against Hiller.
Hiller was back for the twelfth. The inning began with a fly out, walk, stolen base, and fly out. Then, you guessed it, Jeff Burroughs drew and intentional walk before a fly out ended the inning. Unlike Johnson, the 23-year-old Burroughs was a real threat. At least he seemed to be. He was a 3.6 WAR player who won the AL MVP that year. Rod Carew and Bobby Grich had 7.4 and 7.3 WAR respectively and finished seventh and ninth place. For a hitter with a lower WAR total than Burroughs in 1974, we move all the way down to Bobby Murcer in 21st place, right behind Hiller.
Inning thirteen opened just as most before it, with a walk. The feared Alex Johnson then stepped to the plate and sacrificed himself. And you guessed, an intentional walk to Toby Harrah followed. This time the damage was stopped due to a GIDP.
In the fourteenth, a single got things started. Then there was a sacrifice bunt and a pop to first. Jeff Burroughs was up next and was intentionally walked for the second time in extra innings. Mike Hargrove then singled to center, and the circus was over.
In his next three appearances covering 6.2 innings, Hiller walked three more batters, all of the intentionally.
There’s not much to say about Kimbrel, really. I’m only using him since his career total is the same as Hiller’s game total. But I should say something about him, right?
On October 2, 2010 in an inconsequential game against the Phillies, Kimbrel replaced Johnny Venters in the seventh after Venters gave up the first three runs of the game. He posted a strikeout, a walk, a wild pitch, an intentional walk to Greg Dobbs (a guy who hit .196 with five homers that year), and a strikeout to end things.
By 2011, Kimbrel was the Brave closer. The game was April 30 against the Cardinals where Kimbrel took his first career loss and allowed his second free pass. He started the ninth tied at two. So maybe he wasn’t really the closer just yet. A single, strikeout, passed ball, and triple untied things. Kimbrel was left in to intentionally walk Daniel Descalso, he of zero career homers to that point, before being lifted from the game.
It was 2013 before Kimbrel would intentionally walk another batter. On April 24 in Colorado he blew his first save of the young season. And like the last time he issued a free pass, the damage had already been done. A double and single were sandwiched between a fly out and whiff. Dexter Fowler drove in the pair with a double, so Kimbrel intentionally walked Carlos Gonzalez before retiring Wilson Rosario on strikes.
On June 25 of that same year in Kansas City, Kimbrel had his first successful experience with an intentional walk, meaning his team didn’t lose that game. Up a run in the bottom of the ninth, Kimbrel allowed a walk, single, strikeout, steal, and strikeout before Alex Gordon stepped to the plate with men on second and third. Gordon took the free pass, and Kimbrel got Alcides Escobar to fly to right to end it.
The last intentional walk he gave up was May 25, 2015 at the Angels. This was an odd one. Except it wasn’t. With no runs in, one out, and runners on first and third, Kimbrel replaced Kevin Quackenbush. He struck out his first hitter before walking a man when first base was already occupied. That man was Mike Trout, so I forgive him. So did Albert Pujols, who singled to end the game.
Are you kidding? I have no conclusions. This is just another case of, well, baseball.