We just had a conversation on Monday about the league’s ideas for changing up the game, and about tilting at windmills. Intentional walks aren’t that big a deal. Now extra innings are killing baseball, apparently.
Jeff Passan has reported that baseball is going to start testing out a new policy at Rookie-level ball. Every extra inning will start with a runner automatically standing on second base, with the idea of ending the game quicker. I can see the argument. Extra innings drag, especially if they go on for extended periods of time. This rule would theoretically protect against 19-inning wars of attrition in which position players get to try out their fastballs. Nobody wants to sit around into the wee hours of the morning until someone finally pushes a run across the plate. That’s the rationale behind this, right?
“What really initiated it is sitting in the dugout in the 15th inning and realizing everybody is going to the plate trying to hit a home run and everyone is trying to end the game themselves,” Joe Torre told Passan. And the same is likely true of the fan still sitting out in the bleachers in the 15th inning, no? Is anybody still watching at home in the 15th inning? The sooner a baseball game can end, the better. That seems to be the message here.
Yet this proposed cure may not be any better than the supposed disease.
The Australian Baseball League has this rule, and some other international formats of play employ it. It hasn’t garnered glowing reviews.
Rules putting runners on in extra innings lead to sac bunts and IBBs. Slows the game and feels exactly like the artificial gimmick it is.
— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) February 8, 2017
As we know, bunts stink. They’re a waste of an out. They work less often than you’d think. It’s not totally uncommon for a runner being bunted over from second to be thrown out at third. Plus, the league just publicly stated its vendetta against old-fashioned intentional walks this week. If MLB is concerned with pace of play, making extra innings even more of a slog through the mud feels quite counterintuitive.
Even if the implementation of the rule shortens extra-inning games, how much value does that provide to the fans? How much more valuable is a 12-inning game than a 15-inning game in the middle of the summer from a viewership-growth standpoint? Furthermore, how good is the quality of play going to be at that point? Extra-inning games tend to involve the last few guys in a team’s bullpen and the very end of the bench. Are a bunch of faceless middle relievers and utility infielders going to make extra innings more exciting when there’s a runner dropped onto second base?
I highly doubt it. Torre’s concern, according to Passan, is that the game gets one-dimensional because everyone wants to hit a homer to end the game. This rule would make the game one-dimensional by forcing everyone to try to bunt runners over. What’s better for marketing and for fan enjoyment: a walk-off home run or a walk-off dribbler up the middle after a few sac-bunt attempts?
There isn’t much to be gained here. In fact, this rule would only make these sorts of games even more laborious for fans. Nobody wants to watch players try to lay down bunts in extra innings, especially in this day and age when the art of bunting has gone the way of the dinosaur and the bullpen car. Hitting is exciting. Comebacks are exciting. Watching the latest nameless call-up from Triple-A magically escaping a 14th-inning date with the heart of the other team’s lineup is exciting and terrifying, which makes it great entertainment. Arbitrarily putting a runner on second base and kicking off a bunting-skills competition is only fun if you have Billy Hamilton on your team.
There’s a sort of delirious joy that comes with a game that drags deep into the night and into the morning. Weird Baseball is an essential part of being a baseball fan in the 21st century. There’s nothing better than staying up late and watching a position player take the mound. There comes a certain point where rooting for an end becomes rooting for more entropy and losing one’s mind to exhaustion-fueled hysteria.
I know. I know. Trust me, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds like.
All of these proposed new rules that are filtering out through the press are almost certainly test balloons. And, admittedly, those of us who read FanGraphs (or write for FanGraphs, even) are more hardcore fans than those whom these proposals seek to serve. We don’t mind when baseball runs long. Adding a pitch clock won’t eliminate extra innings or make them more exciting, but it’ll certainly make them a bit more expedient.
There are some issues with baseball. Extra-inning play isn’t one of them. Extra innings have given baseball some of its most triumphant moments. We shouldn’t seek to ruin that. Letting the game naturally play itself out in extra innings is the best option here. Let’s not fix what isn’t broken.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.