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MLB’s Potential Extra-Innings Rule Change Is a Monstrous Idea

Let baseball be weird and long (and let position players pitch)

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On July 1, in an early preview of the eventual ALCS matchup, the Blue Jays and Indians began a weekend series at the Rogers Centre. The game started at 1 p.m., providing a nice Friday-afternoon showcase for fans, who then had to wait more than six hours for the 19-inning contest — a 2–1 Cleveland victory — to finish.

Between the sixth and 19th innings, neither team scored. The two bullpens pitched 25.1 innings, with the tie finally ending when Toronto utility infielder Darwin Barney, the Jays’ second position player to take the mound, allowed a home run to Carlos Santana.

Apparently, that marathon game was exhausting, not entertaining, and Major League Baseball didn’t care for it. According to a report by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, MLB will begin testing a rule change in the Gulf Coast and Arizona rookie leagues this season, whereby teams that reach extra innings will start each frame with a runner on second base. Variations of this rule, aimed at expediting scoring chances in extra innings, already exist in international play and college softball, but it would represent a drastic change to MLB traditions.

It likely won’t happen, as such a change would require approval by the players union, and Passan reports that even if the minor league trial is a success, “it would likely take years for the major leagues to adopt the changes.” That’s good, because this rule would seek to remove some of the best parts of baseball — its timelessness and the potential for late-inning wackiness — for little reward on the pace-of-play front.

Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, told Passan that he supports the change because “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.”

With all due respect to the manager of the Yankees teams that made me a baseball fan, Torre is wrong: Utility infielders pitching is incredibly fun to watch. Now, he might not know about that joy because in 30 years as a manager for five different teams, he never called on a position player to preserve a tie or lead deep into extra innings.

But there’s a reason the Pos Players Pitching Twitter account exists; those occasions ought to be celebrated as a manifestation of baseball’s wondrous ability to give fans something they’ve never seen before. You can’t look at a line like Chris Davis’s from the Orioles’ 17-inning game in 2012 — 0-for-8 batting with five strikeouts and a double-play; two innings pitched, no runs allowed, one win — without also appreciating the potential of a sport that creates that little bit of magic on an otherwise nondescript May afternoon.

Moreover, just as making intentional walks automatic won’t have any tangible effect on the sport’s purported timing problem, lengthy, extra-inning games occur so rarely that their elimination won’t matter on a meaningful scale.

Most extra-inning games end relatively quickly anyway, even without the intervention of an automatic runner in scoring position. Last season, two-thirds of games that went to extra innings ended in either the 10th or 11th inning, and only 63 games total lasted until the 12th; the year before, there were just 63, too. That rate extends back further — over the past decade, teams have averaged just about four 12-plus-inning games each year.

Torre specifically mentioned 15-plus-inning games as problematic, and those are even rarer, with just 82 total coming since 2007. That works out to five or six per team over a full decade, and at that rate, each of those games becomes even more memorable, even more of a classic, than the average nine-inning contest.

After all, as Torre told Passan, “It’s baseball.” We love baseball. Why try to curtail more of a good thing?

An earlier version of this piece misstated the average number of 12-plus-inning games teams have averaged over the past decade; it’s four games, not two.