New extra-inning format stirs debate as teams plot strategy
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Baseball has its answer to penalty kicks, overtimes and shootouts, and it figures to stir just as much debate as all those other tiebreakers.
Major League Baseball will start each extra inning in this abbreviated, 60-game season by putting a runner on second base. The rule has been used since 2018 in the minor leagues, where it created more action and settled games sooner.
“It’s like ‘arena baseball,'” said Scott Thorman, who managed the Kansas City Royals’ Single-A Carolina League affiliate in Wilmington, Delaware, last season.
Those words may cause traditionalists to shudder.
“I haven’t met anyone so far that likes it,” Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez said.
Dave Martinez, meet Christian Yelich.
“I think it’s great,” said Yelich, the Brewers outfielder and 2018 National League MVP. “As a player, there’s nothing worse than extra innings. Especially in a season like this, where you literally can’t take on that 15- or 16-inning game with just how rosters are constructed and pitchers not being built up to where they usually are and not really having the option to draw from this minor league talent pool.”
Indeed, MLB is experimenting with the rule this year in part to prevent marathon games from causing long-term damage to pitching staffs.
Brady Williams, who manages the Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple-A affiliate in Durham, North Carolina, said he initially considered the extra-inning format “Mickey Mouse baseball” but eventually appreciated how it reduced his bullpen’s workload.
According to minor league data, 71% of extra-inning games ended after one or two more innings in 2016 and it was about the same in 2017 (74%). With the new rule in place, that number climbed to 93% each of the last two seasons.
Brewers general manager David Stearns, who backs the change, noted a game that lasts at least 15 innings “can impact you for weeks after that if they are compounded by other challenging games.”
“I think it makes sense in terms of trying to bring some finality to the game in this short season,” Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “And, frankly, in a year where we’re playing 60 games, why not try something different? Why not experiment a little bit?”
There will be experimentation in dugouts as baseball adjusts to the change.
Will road teams try to bunt that runner over to third or play for the big inning? How often will pitchers walk the leadoff batter to set up a double play? How frequently will teams pinch-run for the guy on second?
“It’s a whole different realm strategy-wise,” Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said.
Minor league managers already know that.
Thorman used to make sure he saved at least one or two relievers in case a game ended up lasting 14-plus innings. He said he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore because games rarely last that long.
Matt Erickson, who manages the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of the Single-A Midwest League, said the cold weather had road teams often bunting and playing for one run early in the first season under the new rule.
“But as the summer went on, you find out you’re not really playing for a run as the visiting team,” Erickson said. “You’re pretty much playing for multiple runs if you’re on the road, trying to get a big inning.”
Williams believes road teams have an advantage because the runner on second scores so often, putting immediate pressure on the home team.
“As the season went on, I was talking to my coaches and I’d say that I wish you had a rule where if you’re the home team, you had the option of hitting first or pitching first (in extra innings),” Williams said.
The other side of it is that when a road team doesn’t score, the home team can win the game without another batter even reaching base safely.
Home teams won minor-league extra-inning games 50.5% of the time in 2019 and 51% of the time in 2018. That’s down from 52% in 2016 and 53.8% in 2017 — the two years before the rule change.
Some players wonder if all these tactical decisions could defeat the purpose of the format change by lengthening time between pitches.
“I think you’ve all seen, with a runner on second base these days, we have to be pretty complicated with our sequences,” Minnesota Twins closer Taylor Rogers said. “I don’t see that speeding up the game. In fact, I see that slowing it down.”
That hasn’t been the case in the minors.
Extra-inning games in the minors lasted 29.3 minutes longer than an average nine-inning game in 2018 and 29.7 minutes longer last year. That’s down from a 45-minute difference in 2016 and a 43-minute margin in 2017.
Skeptics of this format may need to get used to it even though MLB has indicated this is a one-year deal put in place because of this season’s unusual circumstances.
“I wouldn’t necessary say I support it or don’t moving forward,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “In the short term, I’m OK with it. I do think there’s some tactical advantages to be taken advantage of there if you can be smart about it.”