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The ghost runner rule is good

Let’s not overthink it

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Salvador Perez #13 of the Kansas City Royals celebrates a walk-off single to end the game as Nicky Lopez #8 scores during the bottom of the 9th inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Kauffman Stadium on April 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Salvador Perez #13 of the Kansas City Royals celebrates a walk-off single to end the game as Nicky Lopez #8 scores during the bottom of the 9th inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Kauffman Stadium on April 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Complaining about baseball has become at least as much of a pastime as watching the game itself these days. Listen to a broadcast or a radio show during the week or read online and you will very quickly encounter all kinds of critiques, some of which clearly contradict each other. Baseball is too slow. The hitters strikeout too much. The pitchers throw too fast. There’s not enough scoring. There’s not enough home runs. There’s too many home runs. The shift is bad. The shift is good. Games are too long. The playoff system is broken. Analytics are ruining the game. Players today are too soft.

You would think that such complaints would decline when Major League Baseball explores and implements solutions to some of the problems that do in fact exist. But the last few years have proven that, for many people, complaining seems to be more fun than not complaining, especially when you can also use it as an opportunity to position yourself as a more intelligent, more pure baseball fan than those other people.

MLB first implemented what was initially referred to as the “automatic runner” rule or the “extra-inning rule” in Minor League Baseball in 2018. Once it made its way to the big leagues in the pandemic-shortened 2020, it became better known as the “ghost runner” rule. Essentially, the rule states that a runner begins at second base on every inning of extra innings—so, from the 10th inning and beyond.

The league specifically implemented the ghost runner rule to limit the length of extra inning games. It has worked. In 2019, 28% of extra innings games lasted 12 innings or longer. In 2021, with the rule in place, a tick over 7% of extra innings games lasted 12 innings or longer. Moreover, a greater percentage of games ended in the 10th inning, and importantly, the number of super long games has shrunk to just about nothing; in 2019, eight games lasted 16 innings or longer, but in 2021, only one game lasted 16 innings.

In addition to the rule’s undeniable success at doing exactly what it was supposed to do, the players love it. The reality is that no one enjoys marathon games—players and fans alike. Fans don’t come to the game to see a third string utility player hitting with the bases empty and two outs in the 14th inning against the other team’s eighth-best pitcher.

But with the announcement that the ghost runner rule is coming back next year, fans on Twitter were not happy.

The ghost runner rule gets baseball fans uniquely fired up in a way that makes it seem like we’re all in some weird Pavlovian experiment where someone says “ghost runner” and baseball fans drop everything they’re doing to yell about it online. But in the latter two tweets, you can see some of the nasty parts of baseball fandom bleed into it: that if you like the ghost runner rule, you simply aren’t knowledgeable enough to know better or aren’t a “real” fan, whatever the hell that is.

Reality runs contrary to these sweeping takes that no one likes the rule, as you might expect. Again, those most closely involved with the game are mostly in favor of it—players, coaches, media. And a poll by Seton Hall University about new rules to baseball found that real life opinions of the rule differ wildly from the apparent consensus you find on Twitter. The poll found that the biggest opinion of the rule change was...well, no opinion at all, with a full 50% off fans showing no opinion on it in either way and the other half split between liking and disliking it. Curiously, among what Seton Hall considered “avid sports fans”, 41% approved of the rule and only 34% disapproved of the rule.

More broadly, I’ve found that those who don’t like the ghost runner don’t have a strong argument for why it’s bad. They just don’t like it, because tradition or because it’s awful (no explanation given) or because, unlike every other rule for every game ever, it’s somehow contrived. I guess there’s a decent argument that other rule changes could enact the same result, or that the ghost runner is fine in theory but its specifics could use some tweaking (IE, runner at first base instead of second, ghost runner implementation starting in the 11th inning, etc.). But those arguments don’t align with the kinds of people who are calling it the “worst rule in all of sports,” something that is clearly not accurate considering that the NFL rulebook simply exists.

As for why the ghost runner rule is good? It’s simple. Teams still have nine innings to win before getting to extra innings. It provides the same opportunity to the away and home teams while still giving the home teams the classic advantage. It prevents super long games from happening. It ratchets up the difficulty level for pitchers while providing an additional tactical wrinkle for managers on both sides of the ball. And it makes every plate appearance for both halves of the inning exciting from the start.

You don’t have to like the ghost runner rule. But to claim that it is some sort of sport-destroying abomination that is wrecking the game’s integrity and history is melodramatic and, frankly, untrue. Baseball is still baseball whether you’re mad about it or not.