The Runner-on-Second in Extras Rule Has Worn Out Its Welcome

If it feels as though you’re seeing more extra-innings games than usual this year, it’s not just your imagination. Nor is it your confirmation bias — assuming, that is, that you’re not a fan of the new-fangled rule that starts every inning after the ninth with a runner on second and thus regard every instance of such games as a seed between the teeth. Not only are more games going past nine innings this year than last, but the rate of extra-innings games is higher than it’s been in more than half a century. Unfortunately, with scoring at its lowest level since 2015, we’re probably in for more of the same over the remainder of this season.

The extra-innings rule, which was introduced in the minor leagues for the 2018 season and had previously been used in international play, was adopted last year as part of the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The goal was to end extra-innings games more quickly, thereby reducing players’ time in proximity to each other and their risk of spreading COVID-19, as well as reducing their amount of wear and tear via marathon games. The hope was that the rule would add some excitement as well as a layer of strategy by creating an immediate level of urgency given the automatic placement of a runner in scoring position.

The rule did what it was supposed to do last year in terms of shortening games, at least as measured by innings. Extra-inning games — and here I’m excluding the ones attached to seven-inning doubleheader games — averaged 10.42 innings in 2020, down from 11.26 in ’19 and 11.17 in ’18. The percentage of games going past 11 innings dropped to 0.7%, down from 2.3% in 2019 and 2.8% in ’18. Only two games lasted into the 13th inning, compared to 37 in 2019 and 39 in ’18.

As for “excitement,” that’s subjective, but the rule gained a surprising amount of acceptance within the game once people saw it in action. In November, Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark told Sportico’s Barry Bloom that the players were interested in continuing with the rule in order to cut down the stress on pitchers’ arms and position players’ legs, and commissioner Rob Manfred loved it, of course, crowing, “It was obviously adopted as a health and safety rule so games wouldn’t go on too long. But I just think it had appeal even to some traditional members of the media.”

In writing about the rule, I conceded that while I expected to hate it, I found myself simultaneously entertained by its novelty and annoyed by the imbalance it created in baseball’s eternally reliable system of accounting. FanGraphs readers were emphatically against retaining the rule. When I polled them in November, 76.4% of those responding did not want to see the rule retained for 2021, the most lopsided result in either direction from among the six rule changes I polled, including one about retaining some type of expanded playoff format. The share of FanGraphs readers against the runner-on-second rule was more than 12 percentage points higher than it was when Jeff Sullivan polled readers about it and other hypothetical changes in February 2019. What’s more, the readers I polled felt more passionately about the rule (pro or con) than any of the others besides expanded playoffs; it fired them up in either direction to a greater degree than the universal DH or seven-inning doubleheader games. Alas, even with the MLBPA hiring the stalwart Craig Edwards away from our ranks in late January, the union voted to retain the rule as part of this year’s health and safety protocols.

While I have not yet re-polled our readers as to their feelings about the rule this year, I can report that my own tolerance for it has quickly drained. Kill it with fire! Put the rule on a rocket into the sun! (No, that’s not my solution to everything.)

For starters, I really, really, really don’t like the un-earned baserunner to begin with. Throw in the bunting and the intentional walks — sacrifice bunt attempts are over six times more likely to happen in an extra inning than in a regulation inning, and intentional walks are nearly 21 times more likely — and this just isn’t a brand of baseball I care for, nor do I think the higher frequency of those plays adds excitement.

Perhaps my growing distaste for the runner-on-second is due to overexposure induced by my own viewing tendencies, which tilt towards (but are hardly confined to) Yankees games and Dodgers games; the former entered Monday tied for fourth in the majors with five extra-innings games thus far, while the latter is tied for the lead with seven. Here’s a league-wide look:

Extra Inning Game Frequency
Team Extra G W L W-L% Tot G Extra%
Reds 7 5 2 .714 24 29.2%
Twins 7 0 7 .000 25 28.0%
Dodgers 7 1 6 .143 28 25.0%
Marlins 5 3 2 .600 28 17.9%
Diamondbacks 5 3 2 .600 29 17.2%
Cubs 5 3 2 .600 29 17.2%
Orioles 5 2 3 .400 29 17.2%
Yankees 5 2 3 .400 29 17.2%
Braves 5 1 4 .200 29 17.2%
Brewers 5 4 1 .800 30 16.7%
Giants 4 1 3 .250 30 13.3%
Mariners 4 4 0 1.000 31 12.9%
Red Sox 4 2 2 .500 31 12.9%
Phillies 4 1 3 .250 31 12.9%
Rangers 4 4 0 1.000 32 12.5%
Mets 3 2 1 .667 26 11.5%
Indians 3 2 1 .667 29 10.3%
White Sox 3 0 3 .000 29 10.3%
Blue Jays 3 2 1 .667 30 10.0%
Padres 3 1 2 .333 32 9.4%
Rays 3 0 3 .000 33 9.1%
Nationals 2 1 1 .500 28 7.1%
Angels 2 1 1 .500 31 6.5%
Tigers 2 2 0 1.000 32 6.3%
Rockies 2 1 1 .500 32 6.3%
A’s 2 2 0 1.000 34 5.9%
Royals 1 1 0 1.000 32 3.1%
Pirates 1 1 0 1.000 32 3.1%
Astros 1 1 0 1.000 33 3.0%
Cardinals 1 1 0 1.000 34 2.9%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
All records through May 9.

Three teams have gone into extras in more than a quarter of their games, and two of them rank among the season’s bigger disappointments to at least some degree. The Dodgers were supposed to be the best team in baseball, but they’ve been hit by injuries that have not only cut into their offense but thinned out their pitching staff, which has been further exposed by working late so often. The Twins? Woof, they can’t buy a win in extras. As I noted on Monday, by both Pythagenpat and BaseRuns, they’re the furthest off their projected win total, and the results in extra innings are part of what’s affecting that. Relative to our preseason projections, their Playoff Odds have fallen by a greater margin than any other team.

Between the Yankees and Dodgers, 17.4% of their games have gone into extras and while I haven’t seen all of those games, I find myself paying less attention when they occur, not more; as I’m on the East Coast, an extra-innings Dodgers game usually means that it’s time for bed rather than another trip through the dregs of their bullpen. That 17.4% figure between the two teams is double last year’s rate of extra innings games (8.7%) and well ahead of this year’s overall mark of 10.7%, which in turn is higher than any season since 1965, when 11.1% of games needed extra innings.

If you’re noticing a slight tilt in that graph, with higher percentages of extra-innings games in days of yore, pandemic notwithstanding, you’re not wrong. Before this year, just once since 1992 had the percentage of extra-inning games reached 10%, a level that was far more common in the 1960s and ’70s; that happened in 2013, when teams scored a comparatively meager 4.17 runs per game. As scoring levels drop, the percentage of extra-innings games tends to rise; the lower scoring means a compressed distribution where lower run totals occur more frequently, and fewer teams erupt for run totals that almost never lead to ties after nine innings. The correlation between scoring levels and extra-innings rates from 1961-2020 is -.63, which is pretty solid but hardly perfect. In the 10 post-expansion seasons with the highest rates of extra innings games (10.1% or higher), teams scored just 4.17 runs per game, while in the 10 seasons with the lowest rates (8.3% or lower), teams averaged 4.72 runs per game. Here’s another look at the trend, this time with scoring levels:

If there’s good news, it’s that the current scoring level of 4.36 runs per game is on the high side in terms of maintaining a 10% rate of extra innings games, and if scoring rises just a bit when the weather warms up, the likelihood of extras should go down:

Only twice have we seen teams average 4.40 runs per game in seasons where at least 10% of those games go into extras. Not that there’s a huge difference between a more normal rate rate of, say, 8% than 10%; over the course of a full season, that’s about two more such games per week, and for a single team, it’s the difference between 13 and 16 games per season. Even so, the combination of the proliferation of such games with their jarring break from one of the game’s most basic tenets — every inning starts with a clean slate of no baserunners — is as grating as nails on the blackboard to at least some ears.

And here’s the kicker: as for the actual time saved, it doesn’t amount to much. The average extra-innings game in 2018 clocked in at 239.7 minutes (four hours, basically) and fell to 229.3 minutes in ’19. With the runner on second rule in place, that shrank all the way to 224.5 minutes last year, a drop of just under five minutes. This year? They’re back up to 226.3 minutes. In other words, we’re talking about a savings of somewhere between five and 10 minutes for a slice of games that’s in the ballpark of 10%, all in exchange for a major disruption of baseball’s rules and accounting that produces far more bunts and intentional walks.

With players getting vaccinated to the point that a dozen teams either have reached or will soon reach the threshold to relax the health and safety protocols, and with no new positive tests among players in the past week, concerns about them spending extra time at the ballpark are significantly reduced. But even with the claims of extra wear and tear on players amounting only to a few extra minutes per team per week over the course of the season, the fear from us purists (the first time I’ve ever used that term to describe myself) is that players like this rule enough anyway that it gets lumped into the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement as a minor concession once the two sides pull their respective forks out of each other’s eyes.

To hell with that entirely. Give us the old way back, with the once-a-year 17-inning epic that runs until 2 AM. Or give us ties after 12 innings of normal play, as they do in the KBO without any kind of aesthetic crisis, and a frequency of about one to three times per team per season. Give us a home run derby or a dizzy bat race. Anything but this dumb rule, please.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Joseph Meyermember
3 years ago

Hear, hear!