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How to maybe not ruin a baseball game after all

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The minor league rule of free runners in extras hasn’t been a disaster after all

MLB: SEP 27 Rays at Blue Jays Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As Jake Petricka threatened to cough to up the 2-0 ninth inning lead over the Yankees he inherited yesterday, and then the Twins and Blue Jays finished deadlocked after nine yesterday, I found myself thinking about ties. In Spring Training of course, the outcomes don’t matter, no one wants to risk overtaxing players, so they just call it a day.

Those first two provisos apply to the minor leagues as well, but until recently games could keep going extra inning after extra inning, generally until one side ran out of arms and had to put position players on the mound.

Accordingly, two years ago MLB announced a rule change for the minor leagues whereby every extra inning would begin with a baserunner on second, increasing the likelihood of scoring and thus drastically reducing the odds of successive further inning and marathon type games.

I didn’t really like the idea, partially from a traditionalist perspective, partially because I thought it would almost inevitably result in repetitive iterations of small ball as teams played for one run to plate the runner. And after seeing it in place the first week of the minor league league season, I was even less than impressed after (among other things) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bunted leading off an inning, and went as far as to provocatively suggest it was a good way to ruin a good baseball game.

Since I had such strong opinions at the time, I thought it only fair and proper in the interests of accountability to reassess with the benefit of it having played out much more. And the truth is, it hasn’t been a disaster. It certainly has worked to shorten games, with most resolved in an inning or two, and a handful to 12 or 13 innings. This is to be welcomed, since wins and losses really don’t matter and the longer the go the more games tend descend in farce anyway.

But the bigger reason it hasn’t been a horrible development is that extra innings haven’t routinely become predictable and reflexive successions of small ball. Yes, teams disproportionately play for the one run, but that’s to be expected in any close games, and it is part of baseball. But I’ve pleasantly surprised at how often it doesn’t happen, at how often the first batter is allowed to hit away. Critically, there’s been enough diversity in strategy to keep extra innings interesting.

That was really my biggest fear, and it hasn’t come to pass. Long games was a real issue, and at the time, I’d have said the best solution was playing a limited number of extra innings and then leaving it a day. If it’s still tied after 11 or 12, that’s fine, just like in Spring Training. It’s not teams are playing to maximize wins in the first place, the priority is rightly development, so why insist that each game absolutely must have a winner and loser? On balance, I still might prefer this approach, but at best it’s a soft/mild preference as opposed to a hard one.

That said, it’s still not something that belongs anywhere near MLB. Imagine that part of the reason that the strategic approach has been mixed is because the results don’t matter. Let the leadoff hitter hit away in a pressure situation, if it’s fails it’s no big deal. Or see if he can balance trying to get a hit with a secondary objective of moving the runner anyway if not. If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. That wouldn’t be the case at the major league level.

Perhaps more importantly, a second reason is that the home team gets a pretty significant advantage because they get to know how the top of the inning went before they make their strategic choice. If a visiting team fails to cash the runner in the top, they know they only need to score one, and there’s no further benefit to a crooked number as normal. Likewise, if the visitors put up a crooked numbers, you’re certainly not to sacrifice outs to move the runner (though in the top of the inning they might have done so and scored multiple runs regardless).

And finally, I don’t mind if a team runs out of pitchers. there should be some penalty for almost mindlessly (at times) cycling through relievers. If a starter’s gone five innings on a reasonable pitch count but the manager decides to yank him for a succession of one inning relievers to try and finish the game and it backfires, tough, he has to wear it and deal with the consequences.

In summary, I may have jumped the gun a little two years and read a little too much into a small sample. Whether one likes it or not, it hasn’t been the end of the world.

I do have one other quibble. When the free runner scores, it’s counted as an unearned run charged to the reliever. I don’t think this is right at all. It should be accounted for through inherited runners/scored just like if a reliever came to a regulation game with a runner on second and none pout and then either allowed the runner to score or not. At the team level, perhaps counting it as an unearned run is the best or at least least incorrect/disruptive approach.

Poll

The "free runner in extras" rule is

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Still a really bad idea
    (65 votes)
  • 20%
    A positive innovation
    (59 votes)
  • 55%
    Fine for the minors, but doesn’t belong in the majors
    (157 votes)
281 votes total Vote Now