To fist-bump or not to fist-bump: Do players deserve a reward for an intentional walk?

MLB's new rule means that drawing an intentional walk takes less athleticism than perhaps anything else in sports. That fact has forever changed how hitters are greeted when they reach first base. Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, Major League Baseball replaced the old intentional walk with the new one: The base is awarded automatically by the defensive team's command, with no pitches being thrown. Previously the batter had to, at the very least, not swing at four pitches. He had to accept the walk. Now he has no agency whatsoever. There is, as far as I can tell, nothing in baseball that takes less athleticism or intent than receiving an intentional walk.

Which raises the big question: If you find yourself being intentionally walked in a major league game, and you jog down to first, can you expect your first-base coach to reward you with a fist bump? Have you earned something?

This big question must be answered, so we went looking. We watched footage of 100 or so intentional walks from the 2017 season, and 32 showed the runner reaching first base. These walks were spaced out across the season, from early April to late September. Would you believe that a narrative arc emerged?

April 4: Kyle Schwarber gets a fist bump.

This was the first new-rules intentional walk we reviewed and the 10th intentional walk of the 2017 season. Schwarber, arriving in the batter's box, gets the order to go to first, removes and tosses away his ankle guards and jogs heartily to first. As he reaches the dirt cutout in front of the bag, his first-base coach, Brandon Hyde, appears in the frame with a fist poised at about rib level. It's a sturdy fist bump, which the Cubs outfielder redeems as he makes his final step to the bag.

The next day, Nick Markakis gets a fist bump from his first-base coach, and the day after that, Miguel Sano gets one from his. The initial ruling by first-base coaches is: You get a fist bump!

April 7: Miguel Cabrera gets an index finger.

Cabrera takes his intentional pass and his sweet, sweet time getting to first. Almost 12 seconds elapse as he jogs from home to first, with his final eight steps at a walking pace. Tigers first-base coach Omar Vizquel is waiting with an index finger raised, and Cabrera touches his own index finger to Vizquel's.

The next day, Rays outfielder Corey Dickerson gets a bump, but it seems almost like an afterthought. For the next few weeks, every intentional walk we watch ends with a bump, but the bumps are clearly less enthusiastic than those a batter gets for actually doing something. On May 28, for example, the Twins' Jason Castro doubles. His first-base coach, Jeff Smith, comes out to retrieve his ankle guard and gives Castro a strong, punctuating fist bump, as forceful as a delivery man knocking on a heavy oak door. When Brian Dozier gets an intentional pass a few moments later, his fist bump from Smith is more of a tap:

Through mid-June, we observed 15 intentional walks to their conclusions. All 15 appeared to be acknowledged and celebrated by the first-base coach. But the later fist bumps are less enthusiastic, extremely brief or with no eye contact. If post-hit fist bumps are the Rolling Stones playing "Satisfaction" in 1965, the post-IBB bumps are the Stones playing "Satisfaction" in 2015: obligatory and without the same lustful enthusiasm.

June 26: Kris Bryant declines a fist bump!

As Bryant reaches first, Hyde appears to put a left fist out, much lower and much less prominent than the one we saw Hyde offer Schwarber months earlier. Bryant, taking off an elbow guard, ignores it, and Hyde covers up his gaffe by turning the fist into a pat on Bryant's rump. Unless you count the rump pat -- which you shouldn't, as only one party participated in it -- this is our first observed unconsummated intentional walk.

June 29: Carlos Correa is not offered a fist bump!

This is a clear break from what we've seen: Correa gets to first, and his coach, Rich Dauer, isn't even standing at the bag to greet him. Correa, realistically aware of his limited role in what just transpired, reaches the bag and orients his body toward second base. The Astros shortstop knows that if he scores, then he'll get the fist bumps.

The next walk we watch -- Justin Bour on July 9 -- concludes with a fist bump. On July 18, the Dodgers' Kike Hernandez gets a bump from first-base coach George Lombard. But the same day, Cody Bellinger does not get a bump from Lombard! Also the same day, Arizona's Jake Lamb gets no bump, and Jose Peraza gets a handshake offer, but he accepts it only with clear and obvious disgust. If you watch no other videos embedded in this article, watch Peraza shake hands with the merest edge of his thumb, demonstrating what he thinks of post-IBB congratulations:

We watched 10 more intentional walks after this one, all coming after July 18. The results are dramatically different from those of the first three months of the year:

Allowing some uncertainty here, we can estimate that around half of the observed intentional walkers after the All-Star break were not fist-bumped. And about half were. The sport's attitude toward the no-ball walk is still being decided.

Baseball players have a strong bias to giving physical encouragement. In 2012, when Angels outfielder Mike Trout was a rookie, C.J. Wilson explained to me that one of the reasons everybody on the team loved him was because he did so much to earn high-fives, and high-fives build emotional connections. "Just think about the physical, Freudian effect," Wilson said. "We're giving him a high-five every day, which is a cool thing. It's kind of like a unity thing." Indeed, Michael Kraus, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, found a correlation between how many high-fives an NBA team gives and future success. Infielders routinely give even their opponents pats on the back or shoulders.

What's the least you can do to get a fist bump as a baseball player? In September 2005, Tony Graffanino homered for the Boston Red Sox. Gabe Kapler was on first base, but as he rounded second, he ruptured his Achilles tendon. The game was delayed for 15 minutes, and after Kapler was removed from the field, Alejandro Machado was inserted as Kapler's pinch runner. The "play" resumed, and Machado jogged home. When he crossed home plate, he jogged past Bill Mueller, the next Red Sox hitter.

Mueller gave Machado a fist bump.

The answer, then, is "not much." After all, if a fist bump has a positive effect, why set a high bar for delivering one?

I asked Tommy Lyons, an independent leaguer who spent a year as a first-base coach while rehabbing from elbow surgery, to rule on whether some situations are fist-bump moments.

Hit by pitch? "If he gets grazed, I would joke, something like, 'Do you want some ice, or do you need to see a trainer?' And go fist-bump."

Reach on a fielder's choice? "Probably go fist-bump if there was someone on second [who advanced] or if the batter had to hustle it out. Depends on the score, too. Earlier on, there'll be more fist bumps. As the game gets tighter, fist bumps are harder to earn."

Sacrifice bunt attempt, runner reaches but lead runner is cut down? "No fist bump."

Catcher's interference? "Maybe an ironic one, depending on the hitter's mood."

Strikeout, reach on wild pitch, hustle involved? "No, nobody likes to strike out. Unless, like, a leading runner scores."

Most importantly, intentional walk? "Ironic fist bump if it's because the IBB was a baseball move (e.g. walking the No. 8 hitter to get to the pitcher). Probably accompanied by a 'Oh, wow, they're scared of you' kind of joke. Real fist bump if it's because he's, like, Barry Bonds. They earned it. Not necessarily a fist bump for that plate appearance, but for what he's done in the season and career to get it to that point."

However, Lyons added, "In that situation, the hitter is frustrated because they feel they didn't get their chance to do damage. More of a reassuring fist bump, reminding him that they did it because of his talent. Even if that's not entirely true, it'll be good for his morale."

My own theory is these acknowledgements are not entirely about morale but reflect a worldview that baseball players adopt over the course of their careers. So much of what happens in baseball is out of their control: line drives are outs, swinging bunts are hits, good pitches get flared down the line for doubles, and mistakes get fouled back. If a player tries to measure how much he deserves each individual result, he will go crazy. So when something good happens, he simply accepts it. Unearned success is baseball's form of grace. Hitters don't talk themselves out of it. They're grateful. They celebrate.

The bottom line, Lyons said, is this: "If it gets a job done in a crucial situation, fist bump." Not a bad way to live.