The start of the World Series always means that whichever ghoul is the commissioner of MLB is going to emerge from the damp and dark dwelling in which he inhabits. That’s the rule for every league of course, so it’s not to single out baseball. A Super Bowl, a Stanley Cup Final, the NBA Finals always signals a “state of the league” address from whoever is “in charge.” None of these guys are actually in charge and just work for even bigger ghouls, but that’s not why you called.
So Rob Manfred was in front of microphones and such this past weekend, and the main takeaway was that the free double that begins every extra-innings game in the regular season is almost certainly here to stay. Manfred claimed that players love it, front offices love it, and fans love it. While he gets blamed for its implementation now two seasons and beyond what was supposed to be its expiration date in 2020, it is important to remember the players sanctioned its use for this past season as well. For once, Manfred isn’t totally to blame for something that cheapens the game.
It’s obvious why front offices like it. It prevents them from having to go into the scramble that would follow a 17-inning game where they would have one or two or even three relievers burned out for days and would have to arrange a minibus to be brought full of additional bullpen help from wherever their Triple-A team was. It makes their job easier.
We know why players like it. It prevents them from having any 12-hour workday, or maybe risking an 0-for-7 night that could send them into a spiral for a week. Or that some reliever would have to throw his week’s worth of allotment of pitches in one night and either has to go on the IL or even worse, have to earn AAA money for a week or two because they can’t be used by the top team for a bit. All of that is understandable.
I guess owners like it because TV execs like it, given that games now fit into a far more predictable time window. Which will only get smaller with the pitch clock next year. Other than that I’m sure owners don’t care in the least.
Do fans like it? Debatable. I certainly haven’t done any sort of research or poll. I don’t like it, no one I know likes it, and while I’m sure there are fans that do, they probably have an outsized representation by beat writers delighted that they don’t have to miss deadlines that mean less and less in an internet age. There are probably more fans that like it than we all realize, but I would also highly doubt they make anywhere near a majority. Those that hate it are probably just less vocal because they have always known it’s not going anywhere. We knew in 2020 that once it got installed, these things tend to just stick around. Much like we knew 2020’s universal DH was going to be a permanent fixture too, even if it had a year’s delay on it. It’s just how this stuff works. You don’t “experiment” with anything at the MLB level.
Clearly, the biggest problem with the Manfred Man (or “zombie runner” or whatever term you like best) is that it was a solution in search of a problem. Marathon games were just not that big of a deal. In 2019, the last normal year without it, only 37 games went past 12 innings. That’s 1.5 percent of all games. It was barely an anomaly. Slightly over one per team, meaning front offices only had to do that scramble once per season on average.
And that scramble didn’t mean anything. Before roster restrictions, teams already had swollen bullpens that could easily carry out 13- or 14-inning games with maybe one or two guys having to throw more than one inning they’re only conditioned to do. Now that teams are restricted to just eight relievers, perhaps there is a fear of how many would have to be stretched in a marathon game. But again, this is something that comes up once or twice a season for every team. It’s not that big of a deal.
I suppose, if Manfred were looking for any kind of justification that made sense, the continued proliferation of relievers dug out of the ground like the Urukai who throws 101 with movement would mean that Astros-Mariners Game 3 would be more of a regular occurrence. When a team’s 12th or 13th pitchers can just stroll out and causally toss up a zero or two, combined with the deflation of the baseball this season, it probably would signal an increase in these types of games. Without having to carry any reliever that is the “long guy,” and that guy being replaced by another heathen that strikes everyone out, the chances of longer games and burned-out relievers are slightly higher, I guess. Except it’s quite a haul from 1.5 percent to a problem worth worrying about. Maybe there’s a bigger effect over a whole season that a team can carry only one-inning nuclear fireballers that keeps runs off the board once the starter is out of the game, but enough to really make 14-inning games common?
And, much like the demented OT rules of hockey, real things are being decided by what is very much a gimmick. The Phillies went 8-6 in extra-inning games this season. The Brewers went 8-9. Flip those records around, and we wouldn’t have any iconic shots of the Phillie Phanatic celebrating Rhys Hoskins home runs (I have a Phanatic fascination, I’m sorry). Sure, the Phils won more of their extra-inning games and the Brewers didn’t, but we know that these extra-inning games are now nothing more than coin flips. They don’t signify anything.
Acceptance is almost always the easiest path. Your threshold for that is how much you think the strikeout-heavy nature of baseball now will continue. Ks will always be a significant part of baseball. The pitchers are just too good and the science behind them too strong. But enough to cause a major spike in marathon games? Is 2 percent of games going to ridiculous length a problem? 5 percent? 10 percent? The last two numbers are probably unreachable. And those strikeout-heavy ways might start to turn, just a little bit, with the pitch clock and other rules that may be down the pike. It’s already turning a bit thanks to the baseball and hitters realizing they can’t homer as easily (22.4 strikeout rate this season vs. 23.2 last year).
But as we knew in 2020, we know that this decision isn’t based on logic or actual numbers. It’s just based on the vibes MLB and its players have chosen to feel. We know it’s not real because it’s not in the playoffs, much like the 3-on-3 and shootout isn’t in the NHL playoffs. If the Manfred Man were a viable way to end games and decide winners, it would be. Watch MLB follow the NHL’s lead soon and throw out extra-inning results in tiebreakers in the standings. And as we know, if you’re following the NHL on anything, you’re headed to the wrong place.