Major League Baseball adopted significant rule changes for its shortened 2020 season, including the placement of a runner on second base at the start of each extra inning. The runner will be the player who made the last out of the previous inning. Pinch runners are allowed, and pitchers will not be charged with an earned run if the designated runner scores.

The rule is similar to the one first adopted in the World Baseball Classic and then in the minor leagues the past two seasons. Over that span, just 43 games have needed more than three extra innings to determine a winner compared with 345 games in 2016 and 2017 combined. According to data released by Baseball America, nearly three-quarters of all extra-inning minor league games last year and the year before ended in the 10th inning, as opposed to just under half (45 percent) in the two previous seasons.

The new wrinkle is obviously an attempt to shorten games. In 2019, the average nine-inning game lasted 3 hours 5 minutes. The 91 games that required 10 innings lasted a little over 3½ hours and each extra inning after that added an average of 21 minutes. However, the real debate is how it will affect each team’s strategy in these situations.

Teams that have a man on second base with no outs generally score 1.15 runs in that inning. Some managers will opt to move the potential go-ahead run to third with one out via a sacrifice bunt so that the team can get the runner home on a deep flyball or groundball up the middle. Yet the bunt actually would reduce their chances of success. Teams score 0.95 runs per inning when there is a man on third with one out. As you can see, sacrifice bunts in these circumstances are detrimental to a team’s outlook, but both teams get the runner on second base in their half of the inning, so it’s not an unfair advantage for either side. Yet it does allow the visiting team a chance to establish an early lead or give the home team an immediate opportunity to walk things off.

When looked at this way, the road team’s chances of winning after a successful sacrifice bunt decline from 50 to 48 percent, per data from senior data architect Tom Tango. This illustrates that the visiting team should almost never sacrifice bunt to open the 10th inning. If they are leading by one run or more, it also is not a viable strategy.

If the home team is in a tie game, there is a case for the sacrifice bunt attempt. Their chances of winning increase slightly from 81 percent with a runner on second and no outs to 83 percent with a runner on third and one out. However, they should never try to manufacture the run if they are down by one or more.

To those who feel baseball’s embrace of the three true outcomes (home run, strikeout and walk) has made baseball one-dimensional over the past few years, this strategic aspect of the game could be a welcome addition. However, if you have an above-average hitter up at the plate, it makes more sense to give him a green light to swing at a pitch he likes rather than force him to lay down a bunt that will hurt the team’s chances of winning.

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