An experimental approach to deciding extra inning ball games

I read somewhere that this year non-pitchers are pitching an unprecedented number of innings in major league baseball games. A manager might call on a non-pitcher (a catcher, infielder, or outfielder) to pitch if he has used all of his relief pitchers or if the game is so far out of reach that he doesn’t want to burn his remaining relievers.

It seems odd at first blush that we’re seeing more of this now. Most teams carry at least seven relief pitchers, compared to the five-man bullpens of the past. However, starting pitchers aren’t pitching as deep into games as they used to, and managers don’t like to work relievers more than one inning anymore. Nor do they like to work relievers in back-to-back games.

Last night in a minor league game between Syracuse and Pawtucket (Triple A baseball) both teams had non-pitchers on the mound at the end of the contest, a 13-inning affair that ended 11-10. Utility infield Benji Gonzalez got the win for Syracuse. Outfielder Cole Sturgeon took the loss for Pawtucket.

In the top of the 13th, Gonzalez set down Pawtucket in order. In the bottom of the inning Sturgeon gave up a run without retiring a batter, but under extenuating circumstances.

This year, you see, the minor leagues are using a novel approach to deciding extra inning games. Teams start off extra frames with a runner (the last batter from the previous inning) on second base.

The idea is to increase the odds of scoring, and therefore the odds that the game will be decided sooner rather than later. I haven’t seen the data on the extent to which this experiment is cutting down on extra innings, but I assume it is having something like the desired effect.

Not last night, though. Pawtucket and Syracuse both scored a run in the tenth inning and two in the twelfth. In the thirteenth, as I said, Gonzalez the infielder set the PawSox down in order. The runner who started on second base stayed there.

In the bottom of the inning, on Sturgeon’s first and only pitch, Gonzalez hit a grounder to the shortstop. Irving Falu, the runner who had been placed at second base broke for third. Ivan De Jesus, Jr. tried to throw him out but the toss to third was wild. The error enabled Falu to score the winning run.

I’ve attended two minor league games this year that went to extra innings. How do I feel about the experiment?

I think it’s fine for the minor leagues. These games aren’t televised (though I think die-hard fans can watch them through some sort of subscription) and those who attend them don’t seem to be up for inning after inning of extra baseball. I haven’t heard anyone at the games complain about the new approach. I love minor league baseball, but ten or eleven innings of it are enough. After three and a half hours, I’m ready for the long drive home.

I wouldn’t want to see major league baseball adopt this approach, though. Long extra inning games are one of baseball’s pleasures for hardcore fans, at least for those watching at home. I love to see the way managers navigate their pitching staff through, say, an extra five innings of baseball. With the game on the line, every inning is a high stakes drama. The more of them the better, I say.

It’s true that the length of baseball games is a problem for the sport. But I think the problem centers around the pace of play over nine innings, not the occasional long extra inning game. Hardcore fans want a faster pace of play, but are fine with extended games. Casual fans probably want the outcome decided quickly, but their main problem is with pace of play. I don’t think baseball is losing popularity because of extra inning games.

For purists, the experimental approach raises interesting questions as to how runs scored are treated for purposes of the record book. Judging from the box scores I’ve seen, if the runner placed on second scores, his run is treated as “unearned” — it doesn’t count against the pitcher’s ERA. Nor should it.

But what about the guy who scores the run from second? He is credited with a run scored even though he didn’t earn his way on base. That’s no big deal. A player is credited with a run if he reaches first base by striking out (and the ball gets away from the catcher). In any case, no one pays much attention to the number of runs a player scores in this age of advanced stats.

From the record book standpoint, purists have no good reason to object to the experimental approach. The best reason for having extra inning contests decided the way they always have been is the tension and drama the extra innings bring.

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