Yesterday we learned that Major League Baseball is testing out a new rule designed to limit extra innings at the World Baseball Classic and in some of the minor leagues. Already in practice in international baseball, this year the Arizona League and the Gulf Coast League will all start innings 10 and beyond and the WBC will start innings 11 and beyond with a runner already on second base. This is an attempt to address the interminable debate about whether or not baseball games are getting too interminable by artificially hastening the scoring in extra innings. Restless teens and fans with poor attention spans may find this idea to be “cool” and “disruptive,” but it’s actually an extremely dumb solution to a nonexistent problem.
Imagine watching the last postseason and coming away with the belief that extra innings are somehow bad and need to be limited to keep the game interesting. Baseball seasons are long, baseball games can be long, too, but extra-innings baseball consistently brings much needed tension and wackiness to the proceedings. Games get more exciting when they go beyond the ninth inning, which is why it feels oddly amateur to want to shave off the rough edges at the highest level of the sport to in order keep things within certain set of arbitrary constraints—why not institute a mercy rule to prevent tedious blowouts?
Beyond that, the particulars of this proposal are self-defeating. Joe Torre tells Jeff Passan, “What really initiated it is sitting in the dugout in the 15th inning and realizing everybody is going to the plate trying to hit a home run and everyone is trying to end the game themselves.” But apply that logic to a series of extra-innings at-bats with a man on second and no outs: everybody will be going to the plate trying to bunt. Extra-inning walk-off home runs will be rendered superfluous and assholes will start complaining about showboats who swing for the fences when a sac fly would suffice.
There’s another issue here, which is that starting extra innings with a runner on second is a solution to the wrong problem. We can all agree that baseball games are often too long, but that’s an issue that is derived from the pace at which the game is played, not the design of the game itself. Increased micro-managerial decisions, replays, specialty relievers, and batters and pitchers taking an eternity between pitches all contribute to a lot of mid-game inaction. Rule changes designed to speed things up—the pitch clock is also currently getting the minor league soft launch—are sensible, but lopping off the back end of what is necessarily a close game won’t bring in new viewers, and messing with the fundamental structure of an inning will alienate traditionalists who, for once, have a point.
If anything, this rule caters to people in the business, players and sportswriters who bemoan long nights at the ballpark. But baseball games are not, actually, a means to an end. This is why, to borrow a cliché, they actually play the games and don’t just run the algorithm on sets of opposing stats. If you stay out or stay up way past your bedtime to watch a marathon end in a walk-off dinger off a backup infielder pitching for the first time in his life, that’s the game you’re going to remember and tell your friends about. Extra innings are just fine.