What? MLB considers starting every extra inning with a runner on second base

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Published by: Dan Calabrese on Thursday February 09th, 2017

No.

I believe it was 23 years ago that I played in a summer softball tournament, and our team's first game was tied at the end of regulation. Since tournament organizers didn't want games going on forever, they expedited the likely end of an extra-inning game by having each extra inning start with the bases loaded. Whoever was due up in the lineup would get his regular at-bat, but the three hitters before him would be placed on the bases.The theory was that inning were unlikely to end scoreless when they started like this.

It felt forced, illogical, impure and all that. But what the hell. It was a pickup softball tournament. The baseball record book would not be tarnished by what we did that day. It was not the Major Leagues, where no such apostasy would ever be considered.

Would it?

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.

A derivation of the rule has been used in international baseball for nearly a decade and will be implemented in the World Baseball Classic this spring. MLB’s desire to test it in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Arizona League this summer is part of an effort to understand its wide in-game consequences – and whether its implementation at higher levels, and even the major leagues, may be warranted.

“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.

“It’s baseball. I’m just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to score. You’re just trying to play baseball.”

While the specifics of the rule are not final, the current plan is to start with a runner on second base in the 10th and every inning thereafter. 

I suppose part of this can be explained by MLB's weird obsession in recent years with pace of game, or to put it in English, not having the games take so long. An extra-inning game is already going to blow past three hours, so if you don't find away to end it quickly, you're going to be looking at four or five hours. But I think a bigger concern here is the havoc wreaked on bullpens by games that go 12 innings or longer. Once you get into the 15th or 16th inning, you're having to consider bringing in the next day's starting pitcher, and you probably will have to make roster moves after the game to get fresh arms up from the minors - so taxed is your regular bullpen after an extra-inning marathon of extraordinary length.

But that doesn't make this a good idea. This is a terrible idea.

Before we even get into purity-of-the-game type arguments, let's consider whether this would actually accomplish what MLB seems to want it to. An inning with scoring will always take longer than an inning with no scoring, so if you start with a runner on second and no one out, you're going to make that inning take longer simply by virtue of how the game slows down for strategic considerations - holding the runner close to the bag, shifting the defense, changing signs to avoid having them stolen and relayed. A lot of things slow down with a runner on second.

Sure, you say, but even if the 10th inning takes a little longer, isn't that an acceptable trade-off if you increase the chances that it's the last inning? Maybe, but do you? What ends an extra-inning game is when you've played both halves of the inning and one team has scored more than the other. If each team starts its half of the inning with the same participation-trophy runner on second base, what reason is there to think one is more likely to score than the other. It seems to me you've cancelled out either team's advantage.

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But in a very real sense, you've given a potentially huge advantage to the home team - assuming they can prevent the visitors from scoring in the top of the inning. It's not as if no one has ever gotten out of a runner-on-second-and-nobody-out jam. It's hard, but teams do it all the time. A lot of it depends on who's coming up in the order, and who the runner on second is. But if home team can indeed shut out the visitors in the top of the inning, then it's looking at a fairly straightforward strategy for winning it. If you only need one run to win the game, you sacrifice bunt that runner to third and you give yourself two chances to knock him in. The runner on third with one out can score in any number of ways, many of which don't even have to be a hit. You would force the visitors in that situation to play with a drawn-in infield and thus increase the chances that a hard-hit grounder gets through to bring in the game-winning run.

But even if you could come up with rationalizations on all these points, it will still be a bad idea. Let's start with the problem of records and stats. How do you account for the fact that a runner was on base but did nothing whatsoever to earn his way there? Do you have to invent a new statistic to account for the charity runner on second base? What do you call that? A faux double? Presumably any run scored by the free runner would be unearned so as not to wreak havoc on pitchers' earned run averages, but it would still count as a run allowed, would it not? Or would the run be charged to no one because no pitcher actually was responsible for allowing the runner to get on base?

This whole thing reaks of sixth grade CYO sports, where parents make up silly rules to get the kids home in time to do their homework. One of the things that's great about baseball is that an inning of baseball is the same today as it was in 1917, whether it's the first inning or the 20th. Baseball has always had long extra-inning games - not every day or every week, but every so often - and managers and bullpens have had to deal with their consequences.

I am not a total baseball purist by any means. I was very much in favor of the institution of instant replay, as you might expect of a Tiger fan who watched in horror as Armando Galarraga's perfect game was stolen from him. Instant replay has made the game better by helping umpires to get calls right without tainting the basic way the game is played.

But this extra-innings idea sounds like a solution looking for a problem. Humanity will survive if we continue to have the occasional 18-inning game that produces lots of tired relief pitchers. Putting runners on base just because you want runners on base crosses a line baseball should never cross. This idea sucks. Strangle it in its crib.

Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!