Extra innings, at their best, provide some of MLB’s most exciting, strategic, improbable and memorable moments. At their worst, they’re baseball’s biggest bore.
Harvey Haddix once pitched a 12-inning perfect game, then lost in the 13th. The Washington Senators’ Tom Cheney struck out 21 batters, still the record, in 16 innings. The Baltimore Orioles’ Tippy Martinez once picked off three men in the 10th inning. Fans remember regular season games like that forever.
But there are also games they want to forget — with a refund for lost time. In Class AAA, Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs played in the longest professional game: 33 innings. After midnight, players burned broken bats and benches for heat. Play was halted in the 32nd inning at 4:07 a.m. tied at 2 and resumed months later. An umpire took his nephew; the boy couldn’t leave.
I never realized how much I disliked extra innings in the regular season, which occur about 14 times per team every season, until I saw MLB’s experimental new rule.
In the postseason, of course, MLB should always be played the right way, with innings unto eternity if needed. But in a sport with a time-of-game problem, in which every club plays almost every day and fans must go to work (or catch the last Metro train home), baseball’s lucky it came up with this pandemic year experiment.
Maybe the rule can even be made permanent but, I hope, with a tweak. Perhaps it would be better to start the Gift Runner Program in the 11th inning, not the 10th, so as not to punish teams with deep bullpens. Also, in the 10th inning, a buzz would build for the 11th.
Traditionally, a single extra inning produced a winner 45 percent of the time. The new rule, used in the minors in 2018 and 2019, lands on a winner in the 10th inning 73 percent of the time. That’s a big gap. But erasing marathons is the true bonus.
Historically, the odds of playing four extra innings once you got to the 10th were about 1 in 6: perfectly plausible. That’s almost 90 extra minutes. The chance of enduring six extra innings — I have never met a 15th inning I liked — was 1 in 20. With the new rules, those odds evaporate to 1 in 50 and 1 in 700.
Extreme example: Throughout history, if you watched an MLB game, there was about a 1-in-800 chance you would see a game of 16 or more innings. Sooner or later, you would see one. This season, the odds are 1 in a million.
The opinion that the free runner should be anathema because it creates two versions of the game seems antiquated. The NFL has had two versions of its sport since 1974, when it established a sudden-death overtime session, with a tie if there was no winner. But playoffs still had infinite overtime.
The NHL solved its excessive-overtime problem more than a decade ago by introducing a five-minute four-on-four (and later three-on-three) fire-wagon-style overtime, and then, if needed, a goofy but exciting shootout. It was make-the-fans-happy hockey. Purists, bite your lips. (I loved it.) Of course, the playoffs still have endless sudden-death OTs.
The NBA is the only major sport with one version of overtime. Why? Because only 6.3 percent of games go to OT and only 1 in 50 overtime games has a second session. No problem. The NFL and NHL believe enough is enough. Take note, MLB.
For years, I have winced as hitters spent an hour lunging for one walk-off swing. I have resented the way superb close games, worthy of a classy finish, ended deep in extra innings with some donkey or scared rookie issuing walks and wild pitches.
With the new rule, we will see close games decided by the best relievers because the 12th inning, on average, will arrive only once a season per team. Keep the tail-end guys where they belong: in blowouts.
Why did it take MLB so long to find a better way? Because the sport needed sabermetrics to refine its ideas about situational strategy. That evolution helped the designated runner idea emerge as something energizing that wouldn’t cheapen the game but would instead underline its elegance while bringing its range of strategies and tactics into focus.
In a monochromatic era of long balls and strikeouts, it would reemphasize small ball: speed, contact hitting and defensive soundness. There’s not much that focuses the minds of teams and fans more than a leadoff double. Now every extra inning begins with one — by fiat.
To evaluate this new world, we need some core facts. Study of both stats and minor league experience has dispelled the biggest fear — that the top of every extra inning and many bottom halves would start with a sacrifice. Oh, joy: more bunts.
Luckily, that’s not quite right.
With a runner on second and no outs in a typical inning, you have a 61.4 percent chance of scoring. Your Net Expected Run Value (NERV) in that situation is 1.138, meaning you’re probably going to average a bit more than one run in that inning. And you may need it because the home team will start its at-bat with a man on second.
Now for the strategy. If you sacrifice the runner to third successfully, you have a 66 percent chance of scoring in that inning. But the sacrifice bunt decreases your expected scoring to slightly less than a run. You just lessened your chances of a big inning.
Also, what if your sacrifice attempt fails — and it’s far from automatic. If you end with a man at second and one out, your expected run value falls to 0.720. If you bunt and your free runner is gunned out at third, then it’s man on first with one out and a 0.544 NERV — equivalent to none on, none out.
The translation: You are a bit better off just hitting away.
But managers still must figure every other factor: matchups, running-game potential and at-bats of star hitters so you can walk them or prevent such walks.
We will all watch and see if, in real experience, we feel like we are watching a different but valid form of baseball or an ugly gimmick that should die. For now, with the prospect that MLB may someday make its new rule permanent, the ghosts of Haddix, Cheney and all the other men made immortal by marathons can rest a bit easier.