The history of baseball is littered with different proposals designed for making the game more fun, exciting, and accessible. A quick perusal of the careers of Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley will tell you that Major League Baseball used to experiment a lot more than it does today. Letting fans manage a game, using yellow baseballs, printing nicknames on jerseys, and launching fireworks after home runs: this is merely a brief list of the gimmicks that have been tried. Some of them still remain, or at least resurface periodically.
Recently, MLB has turned its focus to pace of play, tinkering with the rules and enforcement of rules to speed up the game. At their heart, these changes have been proposed to make the sport more enjoyable for fans without fundamentally altering it.
A recent suggestion has made the rounds and received some attention. Rich Eisen introduced the idea on his show — apparently as it was related to him by a league executive. This particular proposal? To allow any batter to hit in the ninth inning of a game.
On its face, the idea is ridiculous, representing a massive change in the way we understand and watch the game. On the other hand, it might make the game more a little more exciting, particularly in its latter stages, and might keep fans at the ballpark a little longer. Ultimately, it probably isn’t worth changing the fabric of the sport for a little extra excitement; plus, the end of most contests features a certain amount of excitement already. That said, consider the following graph, which depicts offense by inning relative to average.
In the first inning of games last year, hitters put up a 106 wRC+, or roughly the 2017 equivalent of Kyle Seager. In the ninth inning, batters recorded an 82 wRC+, or more like Freddy Galvis. The reasons for this are relatively simple: in the first inning, teams begin with the first three hitters in their lineup, and the pitcher almost never bats. Managers usually put their best hitters at the top of the lineup. If we removed pitchers, the numbers in innings two through five would all get a decent bump. The 109 wRC+ in innings three to five in that case is actually better than in the first inning.
As for the ninth inning, there’s a simple reason for the futility present there, too: by and large, teams make their best relievers closers, and those closers pitch in the ninth inning. Batters record weaker numbers in the ninth because the pitching is better then. As a result, if a manager were allowed to utilize his best hitters at that point, the numbers in that frame wouldn’t immediately resemble the sort produced in the earlier stages of the game.
As for who those “best hitters” might be, there’s an interesting point to consider here. Leadoff batters, on the whole, produce league-average batting lines, while hitters two through four in the lineup recorded a 111 wRC+ last season. So that’s likely the arrangement we’d most often see. Sending those hitters to the plate in the ninth might move the numbers up to something like 10% below average — or, more like what we see in the seventh and eighth innings.
To get a sense of how that would affect run-scoring, let’s look at the average runs by inning by team.
In the seventh inning, 4.56 runs were scored last season, while just 4.14 were recorded in the ninth. That increase in scoring would increase the number of runs scored per team by about five runs per season, or 150 more runs total. The average ERA might go up by something like .03 or .04 when you average the runs out and account for one-quarter of potential ninth innings not taking place with the home team ahead heading to the bottom of the ninth. These changes actually won’t do much in terms of the overall numbers.
Consider the run-expectancy charts and the likelihood of scoring a run in an inning. In an era of big offense, from 1993 to 2009, the chances of scoring a run in an inning were 29.4%. In a lower run-scoring environment — in this case, from 2010 to -15 — the chances were 26.8%. That’s a 2.6-point gap in the chances of scoring. The change proposed here would actually create an even less significant different than that — say, something closer to 2%. With 630 one-run games last season, we are talking about only a dozen games — maybe two or three times that when considering all variables — that would have the outcomes altered by a change in rules.
That doesn’t seem like much. Keep in mind, however, that in exchange for a little more fun at the end of games, there would also be a few unintended consequences, some of which aren’t exactly exciting.
More Manager Complaints
The focus should be on the players, and that is seemingly one of the benefits to the rule, but the more decisions given to a manager, the more attention the skipper receives. That isn’t necessarily good. Will a manager still put one of his best three hitters in the cleanup spot and potentially leave a Ronaldo-esque situation waiting to take a penalty that never comes? Might a manager put in a player good at bunting in the second spot if the leadoff hitter gets a double? The horror. If the manager’s ninth-inning lineup differs from his opening lineup, we will have to here about why. More of the focus on the game will go to the manager, which is decidedly less fun.
Even Worse MVP Arguments
Didn’t care much for the Jose Altuve vs. Aaron Judge debate last year, discussing how players hit in close situations? Those discussions would only increase with the league’s best hitters getting a lot more at-bats in important situations. Ninth-inning stats would very much become a thing on your television set. It would drive me crazy, I know. I can’t speak for everyone, of course.
A New Plate-Appearance Record
In 2007, Jimmy Rollins had 778 plate appearances, setting a record. Last season, Charlie Blackmon had 725 plate appearances to lead the majors, but only 45 of those happened in the ninth inning. Assuming that Blackmon were to bat in the ninth inning of every home game and that his team is in the lead heading to the bottom of the ninth in around half of home games, that would add close to 80 plate appearances to his seasonal total, possibly pushing the Rockies center fielder past the 800 PA mark. In MLB history, there have been 28 seasons of at least 750 plate appearances. Last season, 22 players had at least 670. We would probably double the amount of 750 PA seasons in just a couple years.
A Somehow Even More Valuable Mike Trout
Mike Trout is currently projected to put up a 172 wRC+ in 651 plate appearances this year, resulting in an 8.3 WAR season. What if he were to receive another 80 plate appearances in the ninth inning. For one, his hitting line would likely get worse because of the tougher competition at the end of games. Let’s say he recorded only a 140 wRC+ against the game’s best. In that case, his total wRC+ would drop all the way down to 168 for the season. Those extra plate appearances are going to be worth about four extra runs over the course of the season, adding nearly a half-win to Trout’s WAR.
The End of the Bullpen Revolution
For years, sites like FanGraphs have begged teams to use their best relievers in spots other than the ninth inning. We are finally getting to see some of that happen: Andrew Miller, one of the top-three relievers in baseball probably, entered only six of 57 contests last year in the ninth. With the best batters always coming up in the ninth, the best relievers would go there, too. The new argument might be to make sure the best reliever is actually pitching the ninth inning and getting rid of Proven Closers if other relievers on the team are more effective.
We know it isn’t going to happen — not because it wouldn’t be entertaining, but because it would be a huge change to the way the game is played and upset the game’s general perception of fairness. Promoting the game’s stars is a worthwhile pursuit, but as a team game, this idea moves too far towards individuals and away from the team. It would also present big changes in the way we value players, with big playing time swings to elite hitters and more value on the traditional role of closer. We’d see more scoring in the ninth inning, yes, but the ninth inning is already pretty exciting regardless of who comes to the plate. It would be fun, but ultimately not necessary or all that helpful in enjoying, learning, and teaching the sport.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.