As Major League Baseball continues to contemplate ways to improve pace of play and address the grind placed upon players over a 162-game season, Yahoo! Sports reported on Wednesday that the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Arizona League will experiment with a rule change this year that would automatically place a runner on second base at the start of extra innings.
The report indicated that specifics of the rule are still being finalized, but the goal would be to obtain a better idea of the consequences of such an arrangement -- how managers adapt to it from a strategic standpoint, whether players benefit from quicker resolutions and, ultimately, whether it is worth exploring at higher levels, perhaps even the big league level. The Yahoo! report came the same week that ESPN reported that MLB has formally proposed to the MLB Players Association a rule change that would raise the bottom of the strike zone from the hollow below the knee to the top of the kneecap.
"This is something that was discussed in the big group at the GM Meetings," an American League executive said of the extra-innings rule. "It got more support than the strike zone change."
Though a variation of the rule has been used in international baseball since 2008 and will be used in next month's World Baseball Classic, this trial, non-binding though it may be, is a bold departure from the norm for organized baseball. And like any bold departure from the norm, it will invite its share of skepticism and contention.
But as Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer and one of the most respected voices in the game, told Yahoo! Sports, there's no harm in trying, especially in Rookie ball.
"Let's see what it looks like," Torre said. "It's not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it's nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time."
Time has been a subject of great discourse in the game of late, with the average time of a game creeping back up over the three-hour mark in 2016 after the pace-of-play initiatives had helped bring it down to two hours, 56 minutes during the 2015 season.
The weight of more pressing labor matters meant that pace of play was not addressed in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, but, as evidenced by the 2015 institution of the "one foot in the box rule" and other modifications, changes can be negotiated between MLB and the MLBPA outside the context of a CBA negotiation.
"Pace of play is an issue that 'we' need to be focused on," Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters at last week's Owners Meetings. "The 'we' there is players, owners, umpires -- everyone who is invested in this game. I don't think there's a magic bullet that is going to come one year to be the solution to pace of play. It's going to be an ongoing effort to make sure our game moves along in a way that is most attractive to our fans."
There could be other benefits to the extra-innings rule change, which could be instituted in a variety of ways; in international competition, the 10th inning is played the same as the previous nine, but runners are placed at first and second with no outs from the 11th inning on. Games that extend deep into extras take a toll on a club's bullpen and roster for days after the fact. And instituting this rule in the Minor Leagues could help protect young and developing arms.
If we assume that freebie baserunners would lead to quicker conclusions in extra innings, then that has the potential to address concerns among players that the travel, media and other demands in a 162-game season are affecting overall performance. Those concerns were addressed in the new CBA with the implementation in 2018 of four additional off-days, with Spring Training wrapping up slightly earlier.
And as for playing by a different set of rules in "overtime," as it were, than the rest of a ballgame, well, that's not exactly without precedent. The NFL and NHL already operate that way, as we saw most notably in last weekend's Super Bowl.
Of course, just because a rule change is worthy of experimentation doesn't mean it's worthy of application at the game's highest level. One can imagine the runner-on-second-and-no-outs scenario inviting a propensity for sacrifice bunts followed by sacrifice flies. And if so, while that does qualify as action, it's arguable whether it also qualifies as entertainment.
"I think that's why it's being tested," the executive said.
Much like the employment of the pitch clock at the Double-A and Triple-A levels that began in 2015, the rule is at least worth a look.