As long as you’ve known baseball, it’s been four balls for a walk, but it wasn’t always that way. Today is the 133rd anniversary of the Joint Rules Committee taking away 20% of pitchers’ margin for error, reducing the number of balls for a walk from five to four.
Maybe it’s time to do it again.
In 2021, 20.3% of all plate appearances went to a three-ball count, up a full percentage point from 20 years ago. Full counts happened in 13.9% of plate appearances this year, up from 12.6% a decade ago, 12.0% in 2001, and 11.6% in 1991.
There are two reasons for the trend toward longer at-bats. One is that with a combination of ever-improving stuff and more emphasis on pitchers getting strikeouts to avoid having the ball put in play, making use of the wiggle room provided is an advantage to get where you want to go: the K. Meanwhile, for hitters, it’s worth getting deep into counts both to try to get a pitch to drive and to build up the opponent’s pitch count and force more bullpen usage.
Moving from four balls for a walk to three would simultaneously force pitchers to sacrifice a bit of power for finesse, encouraging more contact, and result in lower pitch counts as a result of shorter at-bats, thereby allowing starters to go deeper into games — a major source of consternation in this era of “bullpen games.”
With some 20% of plate appearances requiring one fewer pitch, games would also get shorter, so at the same time that you’d be getting more action, you’d also get a more compact game. Reducing the number of balls from four to three would quite possibly solve multiple big issues facing baseball in the 21st century. And it would still be one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game.
It’s still a major change, and major changes have unintended consequences. Because of that, it would be smart to test a three-ball system in the minors or in an independent circuit like the Atlantic League, as baseball has done with other experimental rules. That wasn’t an option in 1888, but it is now, and with the potential benefits, it’s worth a try.