To hear Joe Torre tell it, Major League Baseball is plagued by a plethora of bullpen-draining, fan-shedding, 15-inning slogs that end after midnight with some poor position player comically lobbing 75-mph meatballs over the plate.
That, at least, was the reasoning Torre, the sport’s chief baseball officer, gave Yahoo Sports this week to support the experimental new rule MLB will implement in the low minor leagues this season, with each extra half-inning beginning with a runner on second base.
“It’s not fun when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch,” Torre said.
But the facts don’t back that up — which is just one reason, and only the most superficial of them, why MLB’s latest idea to speed up the game is a misguided one. In 2016, there were 185 extra-inning games out of a total of 2,428 games played, or 7.6 percent. Of those 185, nearly two-thirds (122) ended in 10 or 11 innings, and just eight (4.3 percent) lasted 15 innings or longer.
And only one of those 185 extra-inning games — the 19-inning marathon in Toronto between the Indians and Blue Jays on July 1 — ended with a position player on the mound. So this was by no means a massive problem that was crying out for an aggressive solution.
Besides, plenty of hard-core baseball fans — including the dedicated operators of the Twitter account “Pos Players Pitching” (@70mphfastball) — love the occasional spectacle of a backup shortstop on the mound, reliving his high school glory days as an all-county hurler.
The 19-inning game in Toronto actually featured two Blue Jays position players — Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney — called on to pitch, and the Indians’ 2-1 victory, with Barney surrendering the go-ahead run in the top of the 19th, stood as one of the most memorable games of the season and served as a precursor to the dominance the Indians’ bullpen displayed in its march to the World Series a few months later.
Yes, baseball games are too long, and the sport’s efforts to address pace of play are laudable and necessary. But there are plenty of ways to make a more significant impact — by limiting mound visits, for example, or enforcing current rules regarding hitters stepping out of the batter’s box — than by toying with extra-inning rules.
It’s not even clear that starting each extra half-inning with a runner on second would have the desired effect of ending games more quickly. Yes, based on run-expectancy data, teams that have a runner on second and nobody out typically score in that inning about 61 percent of the time. It would give the home team a massive advantage should it hold the visitors scoreless in the top half, because one run would win the game.
But once you account for the inevitable sacrifice bunt, the two intentional walks in order to create a force at every base and the parade of pitching changes, how much time have you actually saved?
Here’s the thing: It’s not the 18-inning, five-hour marathons that are turning off fans. It’s the four-hour, nine-inning games with 15 pitching changes and the ball actually in play for maybe five minutes total.
Thankfully, this extra-innings trial likely won’t make its way to the big leagues anytime soon, if ever. MLB is trying it out in the rookie-level Gulf Coast and Arizona leagues because it doesn’t need to have the Players Association’s approval to do so. The runner-on-second rule has long been in use in international competition — beginning with the 12th inning — and will be on display again this spring in the World Baseball Classic, more a curiosity than anything.
But aside from the legitimate efficacy questions, there’s a larger, fundamental, philosophical issue at play here.
Over the years, as other sports have made fundamental rules changes that altered the nature of how points are scored — the three-point shot in basketball, the overtime changes in hockey, the constant tinkering in football with the extra point — baseball could look on with smug satisfaction that the nature of its game, and how runs have been scored, has remained virtually unchanged for more than a century.
It’s one of the game’s greatest appeals: a .300 average or a 2.00 ERA means more or less the same thing today as it did in Babe Ruth’s era. Shortstops have been throwing out fast base runners by a half-step since your great-grandfather was attending games. Games forever have been played without a clock, and with one guiding principle: It isn’t over until the final out is secured.
Do you really want to mess with that near-perfect equilibrium over a rule that would, at best, affect just a handful of games a year that might get wrapped up before an entire bullpen is blown for the rest of the week?
There’s a reason baseball hasn’t made a fundamental rule change since 1973, when the American League adopted the designated hitter, causing an awkward split between the leagues that was never fixed. More than 40 years later, we’re still arguing about that one.