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So Just How Much Less Baseball Will the New Extra Innings Rule Give Us?

Amid the bevy of rule changes and health and safety precautions accompanying the return of major league baseball in 2020, there’s one in particular that feels like it comes straight out of Little League: the addition of a runner on second base at the start of extra innings. Initially one of Rob Manfred’s many trial balloons floated with the idea of shortening games, the rule has worked its way slowly up the organized-ball ladder, debuting in the World Baseball Classic in 2017, getting added to the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues that summer, and eventually becoming the law of the land throughout all levels of the minors in 2018. Not that it was bound for the bigs any time soon: Back in 2017, Manfred said he “[didn’t] really expect that we’re ever going to apply [the rule] at the major league level.”

Well, times have changed — or more accurately, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shortening of the season have led Manfred and company to bring the rule into play, likely for this year only. And on the surface, that makes sense: With only 60 games on the calendar and a potentially limited window in which to play them, it’s in everyone’s best interests to wrap things up quickly. As with the season on the whole, the less baseball, the better.

But how much less baseball is that rule going to create? We have two years’ worth of data from the minors to work with, and per MiLB, the results are notable. Over the last two seasons, just 43 total games went more than three extra innings, compared to 345 in 2016 and ‘17 combined. And as Baseball America’s JJ Cooper notes, nearly three-quarters of all extra-innings minor league games last year and the year before ended in the 10th, as opposed to just under half in the two seasons prior. And nearly all of them — 93% — finished in the 10th or 11th, representing a 20% increase.

That stands to reason. The rule — which puts a runner on second base to lead off the inning — creates a situation in which runs are the norm. A quick check of run expectancy tables shows that a runner on second with no outs led to an average of 1.1 runs scored and created a 61% chance of at least one run scoring from 2010 through ‘15. Both teams get the runner in their half of the inning, so it’s not an unfair advantage for either side, but it does allow the visiting team a chance to take a quick lead or give the home team an immediate opportunity to walk things off. Minor league fans have also noted how the rule immediately ups the drama of extras while also putting a new focus on fundamentals and putting the ball in play. Read the rest of this entry »

Half a World Away and Right at Home: Sciambi and Perez on Broadcasting the KBO

It’s 1 AM on a Saturday night in mid-May, and in his otherwise quiet New York City apartment, Jon Sciambi is getting ready for work. As his neighbors snooze, Sciambi, a veteran TV and radio announcer for ESPN, goes over box scores and lineups in his home broadcast studio ahead of the upcoming LG Twins-Kiwoom Heroes game in the KBO, Korea’s professional baseball league. With MLB – Sciambi’s regular assignment – on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, his job now is to do play by play for games featuring teams and players that, a few weeks prior, he barely knew (if he knew them at all), doing so from thousands of miles away while stuck at home like so many other Americans. For both him and viewers around the country, the KBO is the only game in town, and one that Sciambi and the rest of his ESPN counterparts are learning more or less on the fly.

“This is our baseball window, is the way I’m looking at it, and we’re trying to sort it out,” Sciambi says. “We’re trying to get as much information as we possibly can and put it out there and get good stories and talk baseball and have some fun, man. Smile and have some fun.”

Ordinarily during this time of year, Sciambi and ESPN would be working their way through the early part of the MLB season, traveling from coast to coast and bringing viewers big games from the biggest teams. But COVID-19 has upended both lives and leagues, leaving sports networks scrambling to fill slots that ordinarily would’ve gone not just to MLB, but also to the other major North American professional leagues, which also find themselves on hiatus. ESPN, which normally airs a handful of MLB games a week and spends countless hours parsing transactions and takes, was no exception, suddenly finding itself without any baseball at all as every league on the planet came to an indefinite halt.

The solution came in the form of the KBO. Thanks to a rigorous program of testing and contact tracing, South Korea was able to contain COVID-19 more quickly and effectively than other countries, allowing its citizenry to resume a semblance of normal life. That included its professional league, which had been forced to stop spring training in mid-March and delay its Opening Day. A month later, though, the KBO announced that it would return at the beginning of May, albeit in stadiums without fans and with social distancing measures, such as no handshakes, high fives, or spitting. Aside from Taiwan’s CPBL, it would be the only professional league in action — and as the highest-caliber baseball available, it became an immediate draw for ESPN. Read the rest of this entry »

Revisiting Stephen Strasburg’s MLB Debut

The cruelty of high expectations is having to meet them. When Stephen Strasburg made his debut on June 8, 2010, it was with the weight of a franchise and the eyes of the baseball world on him, and the belief that he’d be an ace from the first pitch. How could he not be? College superstar, Olympian, No. 1 pick, top prospect; The next inevitable step was transforming into the second coming of Roger Clemens, except without all the bad stuff.

The clamor for Strasburg was loud and endless: His Double-A debut in 2010 was nationally broadcast and featured as many media members as your average World Series game. It was only a matter of time before he came up, even despite the fact that he was just 21 at season’s start, and in early June, the Nationals finally gave in. His first assignment: a wretched Pirates team. But the opponent mattered far less than the fact that he was coming at all.

A decade, a Tommy John surgery, and a World Series ring later, Strasburg — like every other major leaguer — sits at home right now, waiting for the season to start. But in an attempt to tide over the baseball fans crawling through withdrawal right now, MLB Network aired his debut (along with those of some other current stars) on Thursday night. I vividly remember watching it live when it happened, kicking back with a six-pack of Miller High Life and giggling constantly as he carved apart a Pittsburgh lineup unfortunate enough to be there. So given the chance to experience it again, how could I resist? Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Construct the MLB Season We Actually Want to See

The only thing we know for sure about the 2020 MLB schedule (brought to you by COVID-19) is that it won’t be 162 games. Whatever truncated mutant of a year baseball ends up with will likely be the shortest on record since at least 1994, when most teams got about 70% of the way through the calendar before the strike happened and canceled the rest. Given the current state of things in the United States — with coronavirus still rampant and several states and cities already issuing stay-at-home orders that will run through most of May — it’s unlikely we’ll get even that much of the season played. But no one knows for sure: MLB, like the rest of us, is at the mercy of a virus and its containment measures. Rumors of a 100-game season chock full of doubleheaders played in empty stadiums and a southern California World Series are nothing more than thin gristle to chew on while we wait for more substantive news.

Without a doubt, there are meetings happening in MLB’s now-virtual offices to try to plan for the future. Aside from Rob Manfred timing these Zoom get-togethers and demanding precious minutes be shaved off them, we can’t know for sure what’s being discussed, but how to cram as much of a baseball season as possible into an ever-shrinking window is likely top of the action list. Every day lost further complicates that endeavor, though, as does the fact that MLB’s normal schedule is already a wobbly Jenga tower of unequal matchups and cross-country travel. Like Tetris, every block has to fit into just the right place, or else it all piles up into disaster. Being an outdoor sport in a Northern Hemisphere continent already imposes hard limitations on how far into the year baseball can extend; losing warm-weather months makes it all the tougher.

But amid the carnage and chaos of how to fit too much baseball into too little time, there’s an opportunity for MLB to do something different, if not revolutionary. The sport has long been locked into the construct that is 162 games; now it’s being forced out of that comfort zone. Let’s use this space, then, to get weird, or maybe even find a better way to be. And how would that be, you may be saying to yourself. I’m glad you asked. Read the rest of this entry »