In what is the worst idea in a long litany of bad ideas for shortening Major League Baseball games, earlier this week Joe Torre announced that MLB would test new extra-innings rules in the Rookie League and the Arizona Fall League in 2017 that would allow teams to start with a runner on second base every inning in an effort to get those extra-inning contests over faster.
I have…questions. And objections. And swear words. Mostly, my opinion echoes that of novelist (and close personal friend of BatGirl; look her up) Anne Ursu:
Hey, I know! You know what America needs? Let's ruin baseball!— Anne Ursu (@anneursu) February 9, 2017
I mean, it proposes to fundamentally change the nature of the game in extra innings. Baseball is a sport that can, in theory, go on forever. No, we don’t actually want that, but the tension of knowing that things can just keep going, and don’t have to end, is important. There are no ties. There are no accommodations made. They just keep playing until someone fails to execute more than the other guy.
This idea leaves so many questions unanswered. If the runner scores, to whom is he charged? Usually, that run is charged to the pitcher who allowed the baserunner. But nobody allowed those runners on. Also, who gets to be the baserunner? Is it the last batter of the previous inning? Is it a pinch runner? And if it is a pinch runner, once that player comes off the field, are they considered used and therefore ineligible to enter the game? If they score, do they get credit for a run even though they did nothing to get on base and only made it halfway around the bases?
But an even more immediate concern would be how this move would change Major League rosters. The average team was involved in roughly 13 extra-inning games in 2016. That’s enough of an incentive for clubs to start to employ specialty players just for these kinds of situations. Especially if you could reuse that same player over and over to start each inning. A specialist, for instance, of Billy Hamilton-esque speed who can cover the ground from second base to home in a flash would be a massive advantage.
Moreover, there’s a good chance that the move would backfire in the majority of extra inning games, as the runner on second base encourages teams to focus even more on relievers who strike out batters at an even higher rate than they do now. More strikeouts, of course, lead to more pitches thrown.
Already, 17 of the top 20 pitchers in terms of pitches per plate appearance (min. 30 IP) were elite-performing, strikeout-heavy relievers. This included guys like Aroldis Chapman, Cody Allen, Kyle Barraclough, Craig Kimbrel, Carl Edwards, Ryan Buchter. This rule would just give teams more incentive to use these strikeout artists over guys like Darren O’Day and Dan Otero.
Pitchers also generally work much slower with runners on base than they do with the bases empty. And with runners on, Rule 8:04, the largely unenforced regulation that requires pitchers to throw the ball within 20 seconds of getting it from the catcher, is void with runners on.
The pace of games has slowed. There’s no denying that. But it’s not as precipitous a rise as you’d think. Since baseball last expanded in 1998, the average time of games is roughly two hours and 56 minutes. Last year, the average Major League game was three hours and four minutes. We’re talking about, on average, an eight minute difference.
The problem is especially noticeable, of course, during nationally televised games and the postseason, when the most casual fans are watching and Baseball extends the time between innings from two minutes and 25 seconds to, in theory, two minutes and 45 seconds. That’s what’s driving this idiotic proposal.
Assuming that shortening the break between innings is off the table, Baseball still can trim much of the extra fat off its run time by enforcing Rule 8:04. Any common sense solutions Baseball can create that would reduce the number of strikeouts and promote putting balls in play would speed the pace of games immeasurably as well without fundamentally altering the fabric of the game itself.
These moves would reduce downtime and increase action, both of which are going to have a far greater impact that artificially trying to lop innings off the end of games. And will go far further in keeping fans interested in what’s happening on the field and on their TVs.