A reform baseball doesn’t need

Baseball will implement a new, experimental rule this season in the very low minor leagues. When a game goes into extra innings, each extra half inning will begin with a runner on second base.

This, of course, will make it easier for teams to score in extra innings and thus make it more likely that games will end sooner. How much more likely and how much sooner will be revealed by the experiment, though I imagine these things can be estimated without it (through modeling and/or experience with the method in international competitions).

Baseball purists, especially of my age, are unlikely to favor this rule change, or even the experiment, and I don’t. I will say, though, it’s not the worst idea for breaking ties in sporting contests.

In the NFL, a team can lose an overtime game without ever possessing the ball. In big soccer matches, including the World Cup final, ties can be broken on penalty kicks — a skill that doesn’t come into play in most soccer matches.

At least in baseball’s experiment, both teams are assured a fair chance to score and ties are broken in the context of regular play. However, the experiment puts much more of a premium on bunting a runner from second base to third (and defending against this) than exists in regular play

Baseball’s new idea is similar to the way ties are broken in college football. In overtime, each team gets to start a drive on the opponent’s 35 yard line. It’s a little artificial, but not very.

The real question, though, is whether baseball needs to do anything artificial to break ties. Why not just play ordinary extra innings, as has been done for more than a century?

In announcing the experiment, Joe Torre of MLB explained that he doesn’t like games that feature a large number of extra innings. He stated: “It’s not fun when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.”

Many hard core fans would disagree. When I was seriously into baseball, a game like that was heavenly.

In any event, how common are such games? According to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, 63 of the 2,428 major league games played last season went more than 11 innings, and only eight lasted 15 innings or longer.

So baseball is considering a major rule change to address a situation — games requiring many extra innings — that rarely occurs. A good manager should be able to avoid using utility infielders as pitchers in games that last fewer than 15 innings, especially in the American League with its designated hitter rule.

Baseball does have a serious problem with the length of its games. But, as Sheinin says, the core of the problem isn’t extra inning games. Rather, it’s “the four hour, nine-inning games with 15 pitching changes and the ball in play for maybe five minutes total.”

Baseball should focus on shortening all of its games. It should, for example, limit mound visits, enforce current rules regarding hitters stepping out of the batters’ box, and get rid of replay challenges except in post-season games.

Fortunately, the extra-innings experiment will be limited this season to two rookies leagues. To use it on a widespread basis, MLB apparently would have to obtain approval from the Players Association. In exchange, presumably, it would have to give the union something — perhaps expanded major league rosters (even though the new rule would marginally decrease roster-size needs).

I hope this means the rule won’t be coming to the major leagues in the foreseeable future.


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