Major League Baseball’s new extra-innings rule, in which a baserunner is automatically placed at second base with no outs to start every half-inning, is probably the most material change to the way the game is played since the adoption of the designated hitter. And considering the DH has been around in the American League since 1973 and still generates, um, spirited debate, I think it’s safe to say we’re not likely to see baseball fans ever come to 100% agreement on whether the freebie runner is a good idea.
But it’s definitely a good idea for this shortened 2020 season, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. And having seen the rule in action a handful of times already, I’m willing to go so far as to say -- with all apologies to the purest of purists -- it might be a good idea for future seasons, too.
That sound you hear is my inbox dinging with the arrival of hate mail.
OK, I get it. Some of you really, really, really don’t like the rule. Cleveland starter Mike Clevinger called it the “whackest” rule he’s ever seen, reminding us, “This isn’t travel ball.”
In my super scientific scrutiny of the early results, however, I’ve noticed that a sizable number of the complaints about the rule (Clevinger’s included) seem to come from people whose favorite team has just been adversely affected by it. And intriguingly, when the rule works out in favor of a particular club, it seems to garner support from those associated with that team.
Very thought-provoking, I know.
The rule was in place in the Minor Leagues for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, which means it stands a chance of eventually being implemented at the big league level permanently. I don’t know if that will, indeed, be the case, but I do think we need to leap past preferences for now and make six objective points about this rule:
1) It is vital for the completion of this season.
MLB is trying to complete 60 games per team in a total span of 67 days during a global pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on the country where MLB is based. That ain’t easy, folks.
Which is why the extras rule was part of the health and safety protocols negotiated between MLB and the MLB Players Association. Games that go on interminably are a great thrill for night owls and lovers of weird baseball, but they also create more time that players are in the vicinity of each other on the field. They also have a days-long impact on the involved clubs’ bullpens. Relievers en masse are shuttled back and forth from the Minors -- rushed to the airport and put on a plane to wherever, whenever -- to get the big league ballclub fresh arms.
Raise your hand if you think any of the above sounds like a good idea amid the already complex pandemic baseball schedule. Didn’t think so. Anything to speed up the resolution of games that go to extras (and make no mistake, the Minor League results from 2018 and ‘19 made clear that this rule does that) is welcomed in this environment.
2) It sure beats ties.
The alternative to trying to expedite the end of extras would be to have an arbitrary end point to games. Perhaps, after 11 or 12 innings, the games could simply end.
I wish I could offer an artful, eloquent response to this idea, which has been espoused by quite a few frustrated fans on social media. But really, all I can come up with is … TIES?! YOU WANT TIES?! This is baseball, friends. We don’t do NHL-style points systems. We don’t do NFL-style half-wins and half-losses. We finish what we start, one way or another. This is why we erected lights everywhere, even Wrigley Field. This is why the 2002 All-Star Game lives in infamy. Only in the most extreme, weather-related circumstances do we have ties … and only then if the game has absolutely no bearing on the postseason. Other than that, baseball is open-collar all the way. No ties. Deal with it.
3) It does not lead to Buntapalooza.
My biggest concern and assumption with the extras rule when it arrived in the Minors was that, nine times out of 10, the formula would be: Bunt, sac fly, rinse, repeat. With the notable exception of the ghost of “Wee” Willie Keeler, I don’t think any of us views a bunt parade as a particularly entertaining product.
As it turns out, bunting was not the de facto tactic in the Minors, nor has it been the go-to option thus far in 2020. As of this writing, there have been 22 half-innings in extras so far this season, and only one successfully executed sacrifice bunt (Erick Mejia did it to set up the Royals’ winning run on a sac fly against Clevinger’s Indians). And as the Dodgers showed Wednesday, the better play in extra innings is to hit a leadoff two-run homer.
The diminishment of the sac bunt, in general, has been going on at the MLB level for more than a decade. Analytics have created an increased understanding of the precious value of each out. And with fewer managers calling for them, the truth of the matter is that fewer players are skilled at dropping them down.
As my pal Mike Petriello recently explained, the only scenario in which a team’s win expectancy goes up after sacrificing the runner over to third for the first out of the inning is if the home team is up to bat and the game is still tied. But even then, the rise in win expectancy is negligible, from 81% to 83%.
4) It’s the same for both sides.
It might seem odd to emphasize this point, but, again, check out the social media feeds of fans whose clubs lost in extras this year. You’ll see a lot of complaints that would lead one to believe the winning team was the only one that received a free baserunner. I’ve even seen it argued that, if the visiting team scores first, it’s a disadvantage to the home team because, now, the home has no choice but to bunt the runner to third, thereby effectively limiting the home team to two outs.
If that last sentence sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Both teams get a runner at second with no outs. It’s not that complicated, and it’s not unfair.
• Brewers prefer auto runner: 'A lot of strategy'
5) It’s not in effect for the postseason.
That’s the case in 2020. And I would venture to guess that, if MLB and the Players Association ever did make this rule permanent, that would be the case in future seasons, as well. There are plenty of reasons to get to the point (or the run, as it were) in the regular season, but October all-nighters are always welcome.
6) It adds instant intensity.
One of the biggest complaints about modern-day baseball is the lack of balls in play and, ergo, the lack of action. Teams have become matchup-savvy. And even in a 2019 season in which bullpens waned in effectiveness, relievers still limited opponents to a .327 on-base percentage, the 40th-lowest such mark in 116 seasons on record, per STATS LLC.
Manufactured though it may be, the pressure placed upon the 'pen by the freebie baserunner is an immediate uptick in entertainment value. It automatically creates a strategic situation that did not otherwise exist. Managers must make decisions immediately. It’s a Major League Monty Hall problem: Which door do you choose? For the pitching side, do you issue the (increasingly rare) intentional walk? For the team up to bat, is it the best move to bunt? Steal? Pinch-run? Pinch-hit? All of the above?!
I’m not 100% sure about this rule, because it is so different than what we’re accustomed to at the Major League level. I understand the concerns of Clevinger and others.
But I have to say: Having seen it in action, I like the rule a heck of a lot more now than I did a week ago. It’s in place for a reason -- a good reason -- in 2020. There just may be more than one reason for it to continue during the next full baseball season as well.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.