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.
But what I’m mostly curious about is how often we would see the new rule in action. To find out, we’ll use last year’s schedule to see just how many times we got extra innings, and how long those games went.
To start, some basic numbers. Of the 2,429 unique games played in the 2019 major league season, 208 went past the ninth. That’s already a relatively small percentage: 8.6%, or once every 12 games. Still, that means we got extra innings roughly every day. Most of those games, though, didn’t last very long. Of those 208 contests, 95 finished in the 10th, leaving 113 games that reached the 11th or beyond, or 4.6% of all games played — once every 22 games, or about every other day. And of those 113 games, 57 came to a conclusion in the 11th. We’re now down to 56 games that saw the 12th, or a minuscule 2.3% of the season. Your odds of watching a game that goes that long are one in 42; you might get one once a week.
Do the math, and the result is that 73% of games that went into extras and 97.7% of all games in 2019 ended in the 11th inning or earlier. That suggests that, for the majors, the time suck that is extra innings is a problem a minority of the time. The great majority of games never even get past the ninth, and in a fitting display of entropy, they usually run out of steam after one or two innings of free baseball.
But if there is one real benefit to the runner on second in extras, it’s that it’s most likely to prevent marathons — games that stretch on into the 12th and deep into the night. As noted above, the minors saw a gigantic decrease in games that went three or more innings past the ninth. Granted, there weren’t all that many to begin with, and that’s true of games in the majors as well. Of those 56 games that reached 12 innings, the upper limit was a September 24 match between the Cardinals and Diamondbacks that saw Arizona walk it off with two outs in the 19th. That game lasted a mind-bending six hours and 53 minutes, which I imagine everyone involved would rather never do again.
That kind of grueling affair is hyper-rare, though: In all of MLB history, there have only ever been 84 games to get to or go past the 19th. You’ll see one a year, if that. If these are the games that the league is trying to avoid, then it probably didn’t need to do anything; it’s more likely than not that in a 60-game stretch, we never would’ve seen a single one. That’s true even if you lower the threshold to 15 innings. There were only 16 of those games in 2019, or 0.6% of the season. That’s once every 160 games, or about twice a month. These are uncommon events on their own.
But what about the literal time saved — the minutes and potentially hours shaved off tired bodies and bleary minds? There’s some value there. The games that were done in 10 innings last year lasted on average three hours and 34 minutes, or 29 minutes longer than 2019’s nine-inning average. A half hour chopped is nothing to sneeze at, especially when the goal is not to be on the field a minute longer than is necessary. Not all those games are created equal, though. To cherry pick, an April 6 game between the Pirates and Reds that ended with one out in the bottom of the 10th took three hours and 11 minutes. That’s only six extra minutes of baseball compared to your average nine-inning affair, and it’s hard to imagine the runner on second would’ve sped things up much more than that.
Tossing that runner on second base, then, probably won’t have much of an impact on the season. In the likeliest scenario, you might avoid 20–30 extra innings played total. In exchange, you’ve started to fiddle with the legitimacy and strategy of the game in a way that may have unintended consequences. While managers, pitchers, and fans may appreciate getting rid of 15-inning slogs, how will they feel the first time a game is lost because a runner magically appeared on second, moved over to third on a bunt, and scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly? In a short campaign where every game is now much more important, how badly will it sting if that one loss — one that maybe wouldn’t have happened had the rule not been in place — is the difference between a division title and second place, or the playoffs and the offseason?
And this rule could backfire, too. With each team getting the runner on second in each half-inning, you run the risk of the visiting team scoring in the top of the frame only for the home team to tie it in the bottom half and force more baseball. Theoretically, the rule could create longer games by upping everyone’s chances of scoring. Similarly, you might see more multi-run extra innings, which would by default take longer than scoreless frames. But in the interest of keeping things compact — a fitting move considering our subject — that’s a tangent that I’ll leave for another day.
Exactly how teams handle the runner on second the first time they encounter it will be a fascinating peek into the mindset of modern managers and a small nightmare for official scorers, if nothing else. (The runner will be ruled to have reached on an error that no one committed, which raises all kinds of metaphysical questions.) But the rule’s purpose isn’t to improve the game; it’s to end it. And while that’s an understandable impulse given the constraints of the pandemic, tweaking the formula to produce a solution more quickly feels antithetical to the spirit of baseball, where play can go on (and on and on) indefinitely. It’ll be a shame to lose that reality, as well as the silliness that those seemingly endless games create, for a slightly higher chance of going home earlier.