5 reasons to the love automatic-runner rule

May 13th, 2021

The thing about baseball debates, as fierce and angry as they can get, is that, deep down, they are all about love. We are passionate about the things that we care about the most. You can tell me that Peter Pan peanut butter is better than JIF peanut butter all you want, and it will never make a difference to me because I do not care about peanut butter. But if you want to battle over the designated hitter or whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame, I will sit down and arm wrestle with you about it for hours.

Ultimately, though, these debates are mostly just that: Debates. In the real world, change happens slowly, then quickly. Look at the aforementioned designed hitter. I feel like I have been having fights with people about the designated hitter for my entire adult life, and then last year the National League had the DH and it was … fine. It was fine! The world did not explode. Baseball went on just fine. We made it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that, about how half of the fun of baseball is arguing about it, every time I see grousing about the new extra-innings rule, in which a player is placed at second base to start each inning. This was instituted for the 2020 season, ostensibly to speed up games and preserve the health of pitchers, and I was pleasantly surprised not just by how well it seemed to work, but how eagerly fans seemed to accept it, or even like it. So imagine my surprise when '21 came around, and suddenly, this rule became … well, it became the new designated hitter: Something for people to scream at each other about over social media.

This is a shame, because -- and this is a great way to get yelled at about this on social media myself -- but I think the rule is still good, and it's still important, and it still works. I like it and want it to stay a part of baseball. I thought this last year and think so again this year … but it feels much more controversial this year. So here’s my case. Here are the best five reasons, in this view, to keep the automatic-runner rule.

1) It shortens games, but in the right way

Whether you think baseball games need to be appreciably shorter, or faster, or whatever, tends to depend on your individual sensibility. Some people think baseball games are too long; some people (people, I confess, like me) can’t think of much else they’d rather be doing out in the world other than watching a baseball game and are happy to let them go as long as they’d like. (Why are you all in such a hurry? Are you really that eager to go sit in traffic?) Either way, if you are in the games-should-be-shorter camp, there is no better way to make games shorter than to have them end three or more innings earlier than they would have otherwise.

A game that ends in the 10th or 11th inning now very well might have ended in the 15th were it not for the new rule. Do you know what you missed by not seeing those innings? Nothing! By definition! The game just stayed tied! By adding this rule, you eliminate innings in which nothing is resolved. You make the most insignificant innings, ones that never ended up happening, vanish entirely. You didn’t need a clock or an alteration of the game. You just made them go 'poof' into thin air.

2) It is instant high-stress baseball

Think about the difference of energy in a ballpark between the time before a player hits a leadoff double and directly after it. Everyone’s body immediately tenses up, right? We instantly went from “nothing happening” to “whoa, something’s happening!” The runner on second tries to distract the pitcher. The pitcher bears down on every pitch. Strategy intensifies: Should we get him to third? Should we go for a big inning? Who made the last out last inning? How many guys do we have left in the bullpen? There is, inherently, a slack pace to extra innings without this rule, because no one knows when it’s going to end. (We always relax a little bit when we think we have more time.) But with a runner on second, it could end at any second! And not even with a homer! You want instant pressure? You got instant pressure. Every pitch counts, every second.

3) It allows you to know that, in all likelihood, you’re going to be able to see the game that you’ve been watching for three hours reach its conclusion

This one specifically applies to fans in the stands, something we didn’t have in 2020. The thing about going to watch a sporting event is that, in addition to all the fun things that come with it (sunshine, camaraderie, snacks, the occasional mascot race), you go to see the event completed. You put in an investment of your time and your energy, three hours' worth or more, and it is perfectly reasonable for you to expect a resolution. This is particularly true if you have traveled to the ballpark for a night game and need to, say, get to work tomorrow. But without this rule, once you get into the 10th inning, you have no idea how long this thing is gonna go. How long are you willing to stay? 11th? 12th? What if it goes 20? You still staying until the end then? Hope your boss doesn’t mind!

This rule doesn’t entirely rule out uncertainty: Theoretically, it could go into the 20th. But it sure is a lot less likely to. It is perfectly reasonable for a person to say, “I love baseball, and I’m loving watching this game, but I cannot stay if it goes into the 17th inning, so I have to go home before I find out who wins.” This rule makes it a lot more likely for that reasonable person to say, “I can stay, because I bet I’m gonna see a winner soon.” And they’ll be right!

4) It goes against the other part of baseball everyone’s always complaining about

Are you tired of three-true-outcomes baseball? Do you wish the game had more action? Do you wish it was more important to put balls in play? These have become standard issue baseball complaints in the year 2021, and whether or not you agree with them, it’s undeniable that having the man on second in extra innings deters from relying on the three true outcomes. With a guy already on second and the game tied, it doesn’t make sense just to swing for the fences or strike out, the dinger-or-bust mindset that has permeated the game. You want to put the ball in play. You want to avoid the strikeout. You want solid, strategic contact.

Did any of you watch that Phillies-Braves game on Saturday? In extra innings alone, we saw Bryce Harper play first base for just the second time in his career as part of a five-man infield that helped prevent a run in the 10th inning; the two teams trade runs in the 11th; and then the Phillies score three in the top of the 12th, only to allow four runs in the bottom of the inning in a crazy 8-7 walk-off win for Atlanta. That game was absolutely bonkers, and it was because of the runner-on-second rule that we had so much craziness packed into three innings.

You know the game people claim to want, the one where it's played more like it was in the 1980s instead of the "Launch-Angle It To The Moon" way the game is played today? Well, the former is exactly how the game is played in extra innings right now.

5) It’s the regular season

A confession here: I would not want the runner-on-second strategy extended to the postseason, in the same way that they don’t do shootouts in the NHL playoffs. The reason is an obvious one: They’re more important, and coming up with a semi-artificial way to end them would seem unfair. So, detractors might ask, are you saying that regular-season games are less important? Yes! Yes, I totally am! There are 162 of those suckers!

With Wild Card teams, potential expanded postseasons and the general ethos of win-a-World-Series-or-die-trying that we see in baseball today, if you are arguing that every game of the regular season is of optimum, sacred importance … well, I’m afraid the horse has left the barn on that one. Heck, even players and managers appreciate how long the season is, and that's why every break and shorthand they can get is vital: Note how they tend not to be too upset about avoiding possible 20-inning Tuesday night games before having to hit the road to a new town the next day. Essentially, every extra-inning game is an implicit tie: It’s more or less a coin flip once you get that far. So if we’re not going to have ties -- and we’re not going to have ties -- might as well do it like this, no? What’s it hurting? It’s not. It’s not hurting anything. It’s actually helping.

I know that baseball is beloved by so many people -- myself forever included -- and that any sort of change can feel sacrosanct. But this is a harmless rule that speeds up games, injects fun and gets people home and asleep in time to do it again tomorrow. There will be much debate this offseason whether or not the automatic-runner rule will continue into 2022. I hope it does. I hope they keep it.