The Reimagining of a Game of Baseball

On Friday night, I had a crazy thought. Over the last few days, I’ve kind of fallen in love with this crazy thought, and the two people I’ve shared it with kind of loved it too. Though they were drinking at the time I shared it with them, so now I’m going to present it to a group of (probably) sober readers, and see if my crazy thought maybe isn’t so crazy.

A baseball game is nine innings, and occasionally more. Okay, rain makes it so that it can also last fewer than nine innings as well, but outside of weather problems forcing an early end, baseball games are nine inning affairs, with the availability of extras if needed. This is the sport we all know and love. But maybe there’s a different version of a baseball game that could be just as great. Or maybe even better.

Here’s my crazy idea for Baseball 2.0.

Instead of one nine inning game, each day’s contest will consist of a set of three games, each lasting three innings apiece. The games would be played consecutively, so that a day at the park would still consist of each team being allotted 27 outs; they would just be broken into a set of three distinct contests, rather than being the sum of one single event.

While each set of games would see one team “win” and “lose” the day — either 2-1 or 3-0 — and thus move up or down in the standings from where they were when the day began, each individual game would count. While the set of games-within-a-match structure already exists in sports like tennis, this would not be a series of contests to determine the day’s winner or loser, but a set of games that all count individually, regardless of the outcome of the other games on that same day.

Each game would be almost entirely self-contained. Line-ups would reset, so the leadoff hitter would bat first in each of the three contests, regardless of the point in the batting order where the previous game ended. The score at the end of one game would have no bearing on the next. The games would be independent, with just a few exceptions:

1. In the event of a tie at the end of the three innings, the outcome of that game is then determined by the outcome of the subsequent game, so the next contest would count as two wins for the victor. If both of the first two games ended in a tie, then the final three inning contest would be a winner-take-all affair, with the team that finally ended a game with a lead taking all three of the game’s wins for the day. The last of the three games could not result in a tie, but would go into extra innings to determine the winner of the three games if need be.

2. Pitchers who are removed from a game would not be allowed to re-enter any subsequent game on that day. A pitcher may pitch in multiple games if he is the last pitcher on the mound in one game and the first pitcher on the mound in the next. Once a pitcher is relieved, he is done for the day. This rule does not apply to position players, who can be removed during any game while maintaining their eligibility to play in all future games, even when the outcome of an earlier game resulted in a tie, and the credit for that game has been transferred to a later game. Once a position player has been removed from a game, he is ineligible to return to that specific game, but his eligibility is restored at the beginning of the next three inning contest.

This would, in essence, be the equivalent of taking the current structure, only starting every game as if it were a 0-0 game heading into the top of the 7th inning. By only playing the final three innings, low leverage innings are reduced to a bare minimum, as even an early blowout would simply be over in an hour or so, with a 0-0 score and a victory once again up for grabs not long after the blowout commenced. Nearly every inning would become extremely important, and there would no longer be an incentive to leave a game (or change the channel) halfway through.

Currently, the 27-out MLB game creates 38 plate appearances and 4.2 runs per contest for each team; if we just broke that down into thirds, you’d be looking at roughly 13 plate appearances and 1.4 runs per game on each side. Every run would become vitally important, and likely, these numbers would go down a bit further as teams adjusted the way they deployed their talent in order to maximize individual game wins. And the resulting strategies would be fascinating.

Would teams continue to preserve their best relievers to try and win the final game of the day, knowing that the last game would often count for two or three victories? Or would they throw away the entire starter/reliever dynamic, turning to pitching staffs full of multi-inning specialists who could both finish one contest and then stick around to start another? Would they continue to roster situational specialists, knowing that using them to get one batter out in one game would do nothing to help their chances of winning the other two equally important games?

Maybe the most interesting question is how to best use a true top tier pitcher, like a Clayton Kershaw or a Jose Fernandez. You could simply continue to use them in the same role they’re used now, taking the ball at the beginning of the night and pitching until they’re no longer effective, which might very well get you through the first two games and into the third, saving all of your relievers for that final contest. But, maybe it would be better to hold that kind of pitcher until the second or third inning, allowing them to enter when a lead needs protecting and then potentially pitching all the way through the end of the final game. If no lead is ever created in game one, you’ve managed to reduce their workload while still also having them available for the entirety of games two and three. Given the higher leverage nature of each inning, maybe asking even the best pitchers to go more than six would be too much, and the best way to get six innings from an elite pitcher would be to pitch innings 3 through 8?

Batting orders would become far more important as well, as the gap in plate appearances between the hitters at the tom and bottom of the line-up would increase, thanks to the line-ups turning over every three innings. Teams would be incentivized to place their best hitters as high as possible, and more at-bats in each game would go to players who could really hit, with fewer going to defensive specialists who simply are around because of their fielding. In fact, maybe those guys would become even more valuable, as they would often only hit once per game, and if it was a particularly important at-bat, they could be pinch-hit for without losing their fielding value for the next two games. Pinch-hitters would become extremely valuable, as they could potentially replace a weak-hitting shortstop three times in a single day.

Pretty much everything we know about the sport would change as a result. It would be a different game, essentially, which is why we’ll never see this happen in the Major Leagues, where the history of the game is one of the great selling points. Records would cease to have meaning, and the numbers used to measure player performance would have to change dramatically. In regular season MLB games, this is almost certainly a non-starter.

But in the post-season? The playoffs have been tweaked a lot over the years, and playoff records are hardly sacrosanct. Maybe we don’t want October baseball to look so radically different from April-September baseball, but then again, we already have so many off days that roster construction and player usage is significantly altered from what teams do for the first 162 games. This would be a more radical departure, but the constant drama of every at-bat actually having a huge impact would be amazing.

But even that is probably a stretch. Perhaps the real home for an idea like this is in exhibition tournaments like the Olympics or the WBC. This kind of structure could make that kind of tournament something unto itself and help assuage many of the issues that come with professional teams entrusting the health of their assets to a third party, as it would be far easier to limit pitcher usage in this kind of context.

Maybe this idea is too radical. Maybe the resulting sport would be too different, not much of a departure from what we’ve all grown to know and love. But I will say that the idea of converting nearly every inning into a high-leverage affair has some real appeal. Baseball is great, but even I tune out when one team is up 9-2 in the fourth inning. A series of rapid-fire, low-scoring, high-energy contests? Maybe it’s crazy, but it sounds kind of amazing to me.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

This is a horrendous idea. Note: I am sober.

Dusty Baker
9 years ago
Reply to  Nifty

It’s a TERRIBLE idea! If you only have 3 innings, how can a starting pitcher ever get a win?

That would take Wins and make it useless. And you geeks are supposed to be all about the stats!

Rubèn Amaro Jr.
9 years ago
Reply to  Dusty Baker

Even I think these Dusty Baker jokes are getting old.

9 years ago

Old enough that you are giving them a multi year deal?

Pirates Hurdles
9 years ago
Reply to  Nifty

Yeah, gotta go with horrendous as well. I don’t see any benefit to this type of change other than it would completely different. The game has lasted 120 years as structured and this would be an artificial attempt to get the best players more at bats and totally change pitching leverage. The NBA Jam of baseball.

9 years ago

Yeah, but NBA Jam was fun! Actually, that is actually probably the exact right comparison, because if Dave ever *really* wants this vision to come to fruition, it’ll most likely have to be through a video game.

Pirates Hurdles
9 years ago
Reply to  atoms

True, it was very fun, certainly more of a side game than MLB, maybe a small league like Arena ball, but I’m still don’t think it adds enough to be worth it.

Matthew Tobin
9 years ago
Reply to  Nifty

This is a horrendous idea. Note: I’m not sober.

9 years ago
Reply to  Nifty

So let me get this straight – 3 games a day of 3 innings each. So a season is 60 days with normal time off and the all star game. 2 months? 2 1/2 months with playoffs. Is preseason condensed too? What the hello would a do with my life for 4-5 months every year if you did this? Man, fangraphs would have to write its articles A LOT quicker at 45 games a day to cover.

DAVE CAMERON you better type fast.

Ned Yost
9 years ago
Reply to  Nifty

How about rules that create more bunting and intentional walks?