Horrible new idea: MLB considering starting extra innings with a runner on second base

Must everything be terrible? In an age of disruption, can we not at least keep the tradition that baseball games shouldn’t be decided by the equivalent of penalty kicks?

For cripes sake. If you’re going to throw 100+ years of good practice out the window because Americans can’t focus on anything anymore for longer than six seconds, at least go for maximum drama and hold a home-run derby after the 12th inning. One slugger for each team, 10 pitches each. That would also be unspeakably terrible, but at least it’d be a show.

Major League Baseball plans on testing a rule change in the lowest levels of the minor leagues this season that automatically would place a runner on second base at the start of extra innings, a distinct break from the game’s orthodoxy that nonetheless has wide-ranging support at the highest levels of the league, sources familiar with the plan told Yahoo Sports…

“Let’s see what it looks like,” said Joe Torre, the longtime major league manager who’s now MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer and a strong proponent of the testing. “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time…

In addition to the increase in action a forced runner would create, so too would a philosophical element enter the game: to bunt or not to bunt.

I know I speak for baseball fans everywhere in saying that what the game desperately needs more of are dramatic bunts. The basic logic here, ensuring that games end more quickly in extra innings, is straightforward: Statistically a team has a 25.9 percent chance of scoring with the bases empty and no one out versus a 61.7 percent with a man on second and no one out. Many more runs will be scored in the 10th and 11th innings, shortening games. But how many games? To hear Torre talk in the excerpt above, you’d think 18-inning marathons where the back-up catcher is sent out to pitch are once-a-week affairs, screwing up each team’s bullpen for days afterward. In reality, the most games played by any team last year of 11 or more innings was … 13, out of a 162-game schedule. The Los Angeles Angels played exactly two such games all season. Extra-inning games already often end early, for obvious reasons — once you’re past your best relievers in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings, in come the garbage-time pitchers and the hits start piling up. The new rule is a solution in search of a problem. If MLB wants to use it for, say, the All-Star Game, on the theory that no team should lose a starter for several days because he was needed for the 15th inning of an exhibition, that’d be tolerable. But even there, the threat is overstated. In the past 22 seasons, the All-Star Game has gone to extra innings … twice.

In a sense, this rule change is the opposite of the rule change for overtime implemented by the NFL a few years ago. The NFL’s problem was that victory in sudden death too often seemed due largely to chance rather than to the skills displayed by the teams during regulation. If the receiving team got a good return on the overtime kickoff, all it would need is one or two first downs and the game would soon be over on a field goal. The kicking team’s offense and receiving team’s defense wouldn’t even reach the field. The new rule, in which a field goal on the opening possession requires kicking off to the other team, is designed to make OT more of a test of the skills on both sides. Baseball has never had that problem because play continues in extra innings exactly as it did in regulation; victory is satisfying precisely because it’s not based on a gimmick, like penalty kicks or a penalty shootout, that has little to do with the panoply of skills that the sport requires for team success. Starting extra innings with a runner on second upsets that a bit by adding offense automatically — even when the offense has failed. Imagine if one team’s speedy leadoff man makes the final out in its half of the ninth, keeping a runner who’s a threat to score off the basepaths. By rule, the runner on second to start the 10th inning would be the last hitter retired in the ninth — the same speedy leadoff man who couldn’t get on base when given the opportunity. Why should a team be rewarded with a plum scoring chance after failing to manufacture any offense when it mattered? Unlike the NFL, baseball’s would add chance to overtime, not reduce it.

Ultimately, MLB’s proposed rule is a lot like overtime in college football, where teams begin in scoring position and try to keep pace in scoring until one side fails. Big difference, though: CFB is a physically punishing sport played by kids who are, after all, amateurs. There’s good reason to end those games as quickly as possible. There’s less reason to do it for multi-millionaire baseball professionals who spend most of their time on the field standing around. If MLB is worried about the pace of games, they could always widen the strike zone, reduce warm-up times for relievers, etc, instead. (I know, I know: Fewer runs would be boring!) And if they’re worried about the strain on bullpen arms from having to play extra innings, they can pass a rule that would let teams add, say, three AAA relievers to the roster for the following three games any time they play a game that lasts more than 11 innings. In the end, if you like baseball, you’ll watch a game that goes into extras — especially if it goes into extras. And if you don’t, putting a man on second for extra innings isn’t going to lead to any boom in the fan base.