The current batch of Olympians will include the last to swing a baseball bat, at least for eight years, but they will also include the first seniors to play under a new ruling, designed to reduce the chance of long extra-inning games.
The new rule
Let’s start with what that rule is (taken from this story):
If the game remains tied after the completion of ten (10) innings, the following procedures will be implemented during extra innings:
• Each team will begin the 11th inning (and any subsequent necessary extra innings) with a player on first and second, no outs.
• To begin the 11th inning, representatives from each team will meet at home plate and will indicate (at the same time) to the home plate umpire where the team wishes to begin the batting order. That is, the teams have the option of beginning the 11th inning anywhere in the existing batting order that was in effect when the 10th inning ended. Note that this is not a new lineup (just potentially a different order), and it may very well be the same lineup that ended the 10th inning. The rationale for doing so is to ensure that both teams have an equal chance at having what they consider to be their best hitters and base runners in a position to score in the 11th inning.
• For example, if the team decides to have the #1 hitter in the lineup hit first, then the #8 hitter will be placed at 2B and the #9 hitter will be placed at 1B. Furthermore, if the team decides to have the #3 hitter in the lineup hit first, then the #1 hitter would be at 2B and the #2 hitter would be at 1B.
• Once those players/runners are determined for the 11th inning, the order of any subsequent innings will be determined by how the previous inning ended. That is, if the 11th inning ends with the #6 hitter having the last plate appearance (PA), then the 12th inning begins the #7 hitter at bat, and the #5 hitter at 2B and the #6 hitter at first base.
• With the exception of beginning the inning with runners on 1B and 2B with no one out, all other “Official Rules of Baseball” and “IBAF Competition Norms” will remain in effect during extra innings required to determine a winner.
• No player re-entry is permitted during extra innings.
• The traditional system of the visiting team hitting in the top of the inning and the home team hitting in the bottom of the inning will remain in effect until a winner is determined.
When I first read this, I literally had to rub my eyes. Okay, a small flying insect had just decided that my cornea constituted prime real estate, but the physical action accurately represented my feelings at that moment.
With the winged intruder safely evicted, a couple of questions began to take shape in my grey matter: “What are the reasons for this move?” and “How can they be strong enough to justify making such a substantial alteration to a sport that resists change arguably more than any other?”
Dr Harvey W Schiller, IBAF President, has described the change as a step that is both positive and necessary, and one that “has not been made lightly.” Dr Schiller has also been quick to note that “many former and current professional players and administrators from baseball federations around the world have provided their guidance.” In explaining the rationale for the new rule, Dr Schiller stated:
“Extra-inning contests can bring about the most exciting results for players and fans, but such circumstances also make it difficult in the context of the Olympic program. Delays cause scheduling and logistical nightmares. Planned security, transportation, drug testing, broadcasts, and entertainment are just a few of the activities that may be seriously affected.”
I appreciate that the IBAF President must be seen to be making moves to increase baseball’s chance of being reinstated in the Olympics, but surely there are few people who seriously attribute the voting decisions back in 2005 to have been swayed by the potential for drawn-out extra-inning games. If you look at the countries that voted against baseball (those without an asterisk in this document), you’ll see that it was mostly those with limited baseball experience. (I am sorry to say that this list includes Great Britain, although it should be pointed out that the vote was not cast by people involved in British baseball). In addition, there were no extra-inning games at the 2004 Olympics to have worried the voters. Finally, softball was voted off the Olympic programme as well, but the sport already has a rule of this nature.
Looking at the reasons given a little more closely, the thought that the rules of baseball are being adjusted to fit in with TV makes me feel nauseous, and I would certainly like to see a fuller explanation of why security, transportation, and drug testing would be seriously affected.
However, I can think of a reason for wanting to reduce the likelihood of marathon encounters that at least sits better in my stomach: it would be unfair on both teams involved in, say, a 15-inning contest, as the extra burden on their pitching and catching resources would put them at a disadvantage in the competition. And this is the rationale that I will keep in mind during the Olympics.
Having had more time to think about the new rule, I started to feel that maybe it’s not so bad after all. It must be said that there are ways in which games could be shortened that are a lot less appealing (such as a home-run “shoot-out”, a coin toss, or a count-back on the number of times that the players have smiled at the umpires). I also had to accept that me being unhappy was not going to lead to a reversal of the decision.
Once fully adjusted to the idea, a number of other questions began to form in my brain. Being a scorer in Britain, the first two were: “What does it mean for British baseball?” and “What does it mean for stats?” Not long after, another couple of questions popped up: “How will it affect tactics?” and “How effectively will it shorten games?”
What does it mean for British baseball?
Some sort of answer to my first question was already waiting for me, in a piece on the British Baseball Federation website. In the article it is noted that: “The rule is meant to be applied subsequently to all baseball played under IBAF auspices, and may affect British baseball from the 2009 season.” And John Walmsley, BBF Secretary, has already raised a very good question: “How should the new rule be applied to regulation games shorter than nine innings, as we have in the UK with seven-inning doubleheader games?” The BBF will advise us on this point in due course.
The lack of floodlit baseball facilities is one of the reason why the rule might be welcomed in this country, although, realistically, few team have the pitching depth to make a long extra-inning game a realistic possibility anyway.
What does it mean for stats?
For batters, there will be a slight artificial inflation in runs scored and runs batted in, but neither is a particularly useful stat anyway so that’s not a real problem. Pitchers stand to be affected more, but common sense would suggest that the runners automatically put on base should not count as earned runs, which should limit the impact on their stats. In fact, since double- and triple-plays can potentially be made on these “inherited runners”, pitchers’ earned-run averages may well decrease if they go in any direction. At its most extreme, a pitcher could register three outs in a one-pitch inning. That might be far-fetched, but a two-pitch inning is perhaps something we will see one day.
How will it affect tactics?
The new piece of baseball strategy that the rule introduces is where to start your team’s half of the 11th inning. Crucially, it is stated in the text of the new rule that teams must decide at the same time (although the mechanism for this is not made explicit). If this was not the case, and the team batting second was able to make their decision in the middle of the inning, then they would have a clearer idea of what was needed and therefore what strategy to employ. As it stands, there is equal guess-work for the two teams.
Assuming a team has a line-up constructed in the traditional way, then the way I see it there are three potential strategies. The first is to start your team’s half of the 11th inning with your best combination of running on the bases and power hitting at the plate (i.e. probably the number 3 spot as lead-off). The second is to put the number 2 spot as lead-off to keep the defence guessing with the possibility of a sacrifice bunt. The third is to simply lead-off with the number 1 spot so you are not wasting a good bat on the bases. My hunch is that the third of these options will generally be optimal, but I can see the first and second choices being employed from time to time. The availability of pinch runners and pinch hitters, and line-up changes that have already been made, will of course have a bearing on the decision.
Aside from the choice of which players to put on base in the 11th inning, there is another factor to consider. While teams might have played for one run in the top half of a traditional extra inning, this may not be as beneficial an approach under the new rule, since the chance that the team batting second will score more than a run is increased. For this reason, I think that sensible teams should not necessarily employ the sacrifice bunt in the top half of the 11th inning (or the top half of a later inning). For the team batting second, there will not be this same potential strategic shift. For them, they should act simply as if they have got their first two runners on.
How effectively will it shorten games?
To answer this question I’m going to need data on how likely it is for a certain number of runs to be scored in an inning for different base-out states. My source will be The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball (reviewed here), as this has a table with all the information I need (on page 32). It is based on a run environment in which teams score an average of 5 runs per game, which is not too far off what we might expect in the Olympics. By modelling these data, I can see just how efficiently we can expect the new rule to truncate games.
My estimates below are far from perfect as they do not, for one thing, take into account the fact that teams might be playing to score a single run at the end of the game instead of going for an all-or-nothing approach (making 0-0 innings and therefore tied innings less likely), or that teams batting second might play to tie rather than win it (making tied innings more likely).
For a game tied after 10 innings, this is what I find.
Under the traditional system, the game will finish in the 11th inning with a 48% probability, in the 12th inning with a 25% probability, in the 13th inning with a 13% probability, in the 14th inning with a 7% probability, and in the 15th inning with a 4% probability.
Under the new ruling, the game will finish in the 11th inning with a 78% probability, in the 12th inning with a 17% probability, in the 13th inning with a 4% probability, in the 14th inning with a 1% probability, and in the 15th inning with a 0.2% probability.
The more I’ve thought about the new rule, the more I’ve come round to its appeal. It means that games will be still be won and lost through traditional baseball actions. And at least the system is an efficient one to truncate games (it would be a real shame if the innovation had not really helped with its goal). There is even that added bit of baseball strategy in deciding how to configure your approach in the 11th inning (I’m actually quite looking forward to seeing what happens). My one real doubt still concerns the rationale – is it really that strong?
The new rule is currently being piloted at the IBAF AAA World Junior Championships in Edmonton, Canada, before being implemented officially in the baseball competition at the Olympic Games next month. There has not been an extra inning game yet at the Junior Championships at the time of writing (coverage can be found here).
Finally, will we ever see it introduced in the Majors (outside of exhibition play)? Maybe on the same day that Lucifer’s thermal underwear salesman hits his quarterly target.