There are three things in life that are a surety: death, taxes, and baseball people complaining when things change. To be fair, humans in general complain when things change. We like just enough change for things to be relatively fresh, but are quickly overwhelmed whenever there is any substantive difference on the horizon.
The only constant of 2020 has been change, which has been hard on everyone. But one change that we knew about before...everything else...was the change to the extra innings rule. If a game was previously tied at the end of nine innings, the game would just keep adding innings until someone won. But now, the last person to make an out in the previous inning starts on second base. That player counts as an unearned run for stat purposes, but is otherwise very real.
Kansas City didn’t have to wait very long this season to experience the new hotness themselves. The Royals’ second game of the season, against Cleveland at Progressive Field, went to the 10th inning. Brett Phillips pinch ran for Alex Gordon, who ended the ninth inning with a fly ball to center field. Erick Mejia bunted him to third. Maikel Franco hit a sacrifice fly. Then, in the bottom of the tenth, Greg Holland struck out the side. It was rather anticlimactic.
Major League Baseball started to float the idea in 2017, and it was met with an awful lot of derision. Grant Brisbee said this about it on the SB Nation Mothership site, not exactly beating around the bush:
You monsters. The whole country is a rejected Final Fantasy plot right now, and you drop this in our laps? You absolute monsters.
If that change were implemented in the majors, it would cut to the core of those other games, the ones that define your affection for the sport. It would be an absolute travesty.
A travesty! Over at the MLB Daily Dish, Mike Bates didn’t mince words either:
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!”
More recently, fans have been, shall we say, less than enthused by the rule’s implementation. In the August edition of SBN Reacts, only 41% of fans liked the new extra innings rule change, and only 27% of them said that the rule should stay beyond 2020. Unfortunately for those fans, and for my fellow Royals Review writer Craig Brown, it sure seems like the extra inning rule is here to stay:
These are two of the worst ideas of the Wild Card Era. Of course Manfred supports them. https://t.co/LZuntYbhni— Craig Brown (@CraigBrown_BP) October 20, 2020
In the above news article Craig is quoting, Manfred also favors keeping the expanded playoff format. Now, that has some criticism with some teeth to it. We were one game away from the sub-.500 Houston Astros in the World Series, and that’s in the first year of the format. What happens if that does happen? What happens if a 100-win team loses two fluky games in the Wild Card round to some random 79-win squad? Then, there’s the whole thing that over half the league makes the playoffs every year now (at least until expansion).
But, with respect to everyone who loves the game of baseball and has very strong opinions on the new extra innings rule: the new rule is good, actually.
Why is it good? Well, it is mainly good because it cuts down on long extra innings affairs. The Royals played three extra innings game in 2020, and all ended in the 10th inning. That was not unusual: in 2020, there were 136 regular season extra innings games, of which 95—or 70%—of them were 10-inning affairs. But in the previous two years, there were 848 regular season extra innings games, and 398—or only 47%—of them went for 10 innings.
Baseball is an odd duck of a sport for many reasons, and one of its particularly weird quirks is that it has no time limit. There’s no clock anywhere. There are also no ties. By going into extra innings, the limiter comes off, and games suddenly have no stoppage to them. That necessarily wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that no one prepares for an extra-innings game. Substituted players can’t come back in. And that makes every extra innings game longer than 10 or 11 innings a drag for everyone.
It is true that really long games are rare. From 2018 through 2019, only about 28% of extra innings games went longer than 11 innings, and only 6% went 15 innings or longer. Still, that’s a few hundred games of nearly unwatchable baseball. By the time the 12th inning rolls around, teams have shot all the bullets they can. The argument for extra innings is that extra innings is exciting, sudden death baseball. That excitement is no more if the guys batting in the middle of the order are your backup catcher and fifth outfielder, hitting against the opposing pitcher’s seventh guy in the bullpen.
But beyond the reasons for cutting down on extra innings affairs, the arguments that the new extra inning rule is ruining baseball fall flat for me. In extra innings, baseball is baseball. There’s no wacky thing that happens, like pitchers being forced to throw with their opposite hand, or a sudden death arm wrestling tournament, or a lion being released onto the field for chaos reasons. Literally the only thing that’s different is that a runner gets to start off on second base, which is—funnily enough—a thing that happens during normal baseball.
Other sports endure far more onerous shenanigans when games are tied. Football’s scoring system devolves into a quasi luck-based system where certain scores will end the game and others won’t, and it’s not even consistent from level-to-level. And this is to say nothing of hockey and soccer shootouts, which look so utterly different from the game preceding it that it might as well be an entirely different contest at that point.
Fundamentally, the new extra innings rule changes nothing. Home runs still break the tie, and both pitchers and batters have to execute their gameplan. Both teams benefit equally from the rule. There is simply less margin for error. That is all. And if you really hate the extra innings rule? Your team had nine innings and 27 outs to come out with the win and they didn’t get it done. Tough.
Like everything else, baseball fans will complain. But like everything else, baseball fans will eventually get used to it. Sports change. Baseball is no exception. It’s ok.