Extra-innings rules: trying to solve a problem that isn’t really there

Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to challenge baseball orthodoxy since becoming MLB Commissioner in January 2015.

He has made improving the pace of play a central theme during his two years in the job, to mixed results so far, and over the past week ESPN’s Jayson Stark has reported that Manfred has suggested changes to the strike zone as well as making the intentional walk an automatic award, rather than requiring the pitcher to throw four deliberate balls.

Those two ideas are currently being considered by the Players’ Union, with the intentional walk proposal much more likely to be implemented than the strike zone change; however one further idea is going to be trialled in 2017 that may be a step too far for baseball enthusiasts.

Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan reported this week that MLB are planning to test a new extra-innings rule in the lowest levels of the Minor Leagues this season. This will involve placing runners (or a single runner – the full details are still to be announced) on bases when a game hits extra innings as a way to draw games to an early conclusion. Whilst Joe Torre, MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, is leading the trial, it seems likely that this is led by Manfred’s ‘pace of play’ mantra and a wider effort to shorten game times.

The extra inning rule is already used in international tournaments. Here there are logical reasons why greatly reducing the chances of a game running 12-13 innings plus can be seen as more necessary. Fields will often be used for multiple games in a day and, with small grounds crews and operational staff compared to Major League set-ups, the impact on the event of a game going deep into extra innings  – let alone the impact on players – is something that is best to avoid.

However, even here there’s an argument that the logistical benefits don’t outweigh the detrimental effect the rule has on the sporting contest. Great Britain lost an extra innings game against Sweden in last year’s European Baseball Championship after they had battled back from a 5-0 deficit. Seeing a tight contest decided by the lottery of runners being placed at first and second base didn’t feel right and I’d think the same if GB had got the better end of the deal on that occasion.

In the Major Leagues, there are enough resources (from players to grounds crew) to absorb the genuine impact of long games. Although us in the UK enjoy a night-game going 5-plus hours and giving us some #BonusBreakfastBaseball, those working at the stadium have every right to be less than delighted by the novelty of a 16-inning game.

Yet that is how the game has always been played. If you’ve already battled through nine innings, a game shouldn’t then be decided by such artificial means.

The real head-scratcher with the plan is why it is deemed necessary. A quick check (i.e. don’t treat the number as complete gospel) on Baseball-Reference Play Index shows there were 55 MLB games that went 12 innings or more in 2016.

The Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays combined for the longest game of the season. It was a 19-inning contest that was deadlocked at 1-1 from the bottom of the 6th inning until the long scoring drought was ended by Carlos Santana launching a home run off infielder, and very temporary pitcher, Darwin Barney in the top of the nineteenth inning as the Tribe won 2-1.

The game lasted 6 hours 13 minutes.  If that was happening regularly, with games being decided by whose position players could pitch better than the other team’s, then considering changes would be more understandable.

But do we really want to change one of the most fundamental parts of baseball – that there are no draws and you keep playing in the same way until one team wins – just to mess around with barely two percent of games that go 12 innings or longer (based on 2016)?

It seems that they are looking to tackle a problem that isn’t really there.

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