Baseball fans feel that way. Baseball executives don’t.
On Wednesday, Yahoo reported that the institution of Major League Baseball was considering a change to the extra-inning rules to speed play. Starting in the Rookie League — the lowest tier of baseball’s tiered talent system — the league might now begin each extra inning with a runner already on second base. The thinking is obvious: Put a runner in scoring position (as that is known), and maybe teams will score sooner. Shorter game.
This is a bad idea for a lot of reasons, the worst of which we will save for the end. To demonstrate how little effect this will have, let’s talk about how it would affect the league most people actually pay attention to: The Majors.
Over the history of professional baseball in the United States (and Canada), there have been 16,668 extra-inning games, according to data from Baseball-Reference.com. Since 1920, around the start of the more-hitter-focused live-ball era, there have been 15,596 games. About half of those have been played since 1980.
The number of games that go into extra innings varies by year, but has generally hovered in the vicinity of 10 percent. Last year, there were relatively few extra inning games.
A good rule of thumb for baseball games these days is that each half-inning takes about 10 minutes. So a full inning takes 20 minutes, three innings takes an hour and a game takes three hours in total. That was about precisely the average game length last year, up from about two hours 60 years ago. Now, of course, we have replays and television breaks and so on.
As you would expect, extra inning games are longer than non-extra-inning games, though, according to Baseball Reference’s numbers, they don’t increase the average overall game length by very much.
Most extra-inning games don’t add much to the length of the game because they don’t go into many extra innings.
Here’s every extra-inning game since 1920, tallied by the inning in which it ended.
The longest game in history stretched 26 innings, in 1920. That’s happened only once. The most common length of an extra-inning game since 1920 is … 10 innings, which makes sense.
Since 1980, that’s held true, though the percentage of 10-inning games of all extra-inning games has been slightly higher over the past four decades.
Why’s that significant? Because it means that much of the time, a game is only tacking on one more inning to the three-hour span. That’s an extra 20 minutes — 20 minutes that enjoys heightened tension because the stakes are so much higher.
In fact, in nearly every season since 1920, about two-thirds of extra-inning games have ended in the 10th or 11th innings. That’s about 40 extra minutes of ball by today’s standards.
For someone who’s watched two teams battle to a draw for three hours, adding another 20 or 40 minutes of play — half of which are sudden-death! — isn’t that onerous.
But instead of being abstract, let’s be specific.
The most extra-inning games in a season was 31, played by the Red Sox in 1943. (The record for most for a franchise is held by the Cardinals, at 1,641. Their long-lost colleagues in St. Louis, the Browns, hold the record for the highest percentage of games running 12 innings or longer for teams that played at least 100 extra-inning games, at 35.5 percent.)
In the 2016 season, it was the Atlanta Braves that played the most extra-inning games. Twenty-two times the Braves went into at least the 10th. Thanks to the detailed box scores at Baseball Reference, we can estimate whether those games would have been made any shorter by the introduction of the MLB’s new rule.
First, we can set aside 10 of those games, since they went only 10 innings — which any extra-inning game would necessarily do, even under the proposed new rule. So we can look at the other 12 games.
By my estimates, considering how batters hit in those games and thinking about a ghost-runner on second for those plays, six of the 12 games would have ended earlier than they otherwise did. In several cases, they would have ended several innings earlier.
|Game||Actual innings||Would it have been shortened?||How||Minutes saved|
|Diamondbacks, May. 8||11||Yes, to 10||Fly to right, single to center||20|
|Royals, May. 15||13||Yes, to 10||Single, fly to right||60|
|Brewers, May. 25||13||No||0|
|Giants, June 1||11||No||0|
|Reds, June 15||13||Yes, to 11||Single, Balk, Single||40|
|Mets, June 25||11||No||0|
|Marlins, July 1||12||Yes, to 10||Single, Flyball||40|
|Cubs, July 7||11||No||0|
|Reds, July 19||11||No||0|
|Brewers, Aug. 8||12||Yes, to 10||Flyball||40|
|Diamondbacks, Aug. 24||11||No||0|
|Nationals, Sept. 7||11||Yes, to 10||Double to left||20|
So how much time do we save? That’s about 220 minutes less of free baseball, using our 20-minutes-to-a-full-inning metric.
About 13.3 million people-hours — that’s the number of people in attendance times the length of the game — were expended on the Braves’ season in 2016. (Unhappily for them; the Braves did poorly.) If we remove those 220 minutes that MLB sliced away? It drops to 13.2 million.
The number of games that stretch out into 13 or more innings — adding at least an hour and 20 minutes of play — is tiny each season.
We’re talking about making a big shift in how the game is played for a small reductions in playtime.
But then there’s the dumbest part to all of this: The nature of baseball mandates that both sides get a shot at playing offense. This isn’t like the Super Bowl, where the Patriots won a coin toss and got an unbalanced advantage in possessing the ball first. Even if the visiting team scores in the top of the 10th, the home team gets the same chance in the bottom of the 10th — and the same runner on second. The odds of a team scoring increase, but the odds of both teams scoring increases, too.
For what? A shift in how the game has been played for a century-and-a-half to make a handful of games shorter — at the point at which there’s already the most tension?
Good thinking, baseball executives. As always.