Baseball fans had a short list of things they wanted to see this season.
They wanted a speedy resolution to all these negotiations, assurances that MLB would bring back the sport in the safest way possible, and a chance to truly enjoy something they loved — if not in person, then on TV.
Instead they got . . . whatever this is.
Extra innings in 2020 MLB games will begin with a runner on second base. Do you like this new rule?Show results
Putting aside the unknown for a second — whether it’s safe enough to play at all, or if the season is going to start just to be shut down again by COVID-19 — some of baseball’s new rules this year continue to show MLB's inability to read the room.
And maybe no rule makes less sense than the new extra-inning regulations.
For those insulating themselves from the chaos, commissioner Rob Manfred said last week that extra innings in 2020 will begin with a runner on second base — the sort of setup best suited to Little League games and beer league softball.
There might have been a couple of reasons Manfred wanted to make this change: Shorter games could mean less exposure to illness, slow pace of play has impacted baseball’s popularity, and people like big hits and plays at the plate, not a war of attrition that comes down to the reliever with the 9.53 ERA.
Also, it's not without precedent: The rule already was implemented in the minor leagues in 2018.
But watering down the game like this is not the answer anyone asked for.
A gift runner on second base eliminates so much of what it means to perform in a high-stakes situation, and, for the fan, it makes those big extra-inning moments all but anticlimactic. No one is going to reminisce about the game that ended with a groundout to the right side of the infield and a sacrifice fly to center.
At best, there might be times when a runner on second will add some strategy to the proceedings. At worst, we'll be watching a glorified arcade game, and the wins, when they do come, will feel cheaper.
Regardless of either outcome, there's a better way. The answer comes from looking to baseball's past, and then to the Far East.
Ties have long been a part of baseball — in the past, the result of stadiums without lights, or maybe steady rain. It didn't cheapen the sport then or make it less palatable to the masses. Outside of American sports, ties are regularly accepted.
But fine, things have changed, and more than a few people subscribe to the adage that "ties are like kissing your sister." Maybe we do need a more complete solution, and for that, we should look to Japan and South Korea.
Both the Nippon Professional Baseball league and the KBO allow games to go 12 innings before declaring a tie. This works because it puts a cap on how long a game can go, while also affecting a statistically minuscule number of games.
Let’s look, for instance, at last year’s MLB season. The 30 teams played 4,858 regular-season games, and 416 of those games, or 8.6%, went to extra innings. Of those extra-inning games, more than 43% were decided in 10 innings. Only 74 games, or 1.5% of total games played, went more than 12 innings.
Translated to a 60-game season, that would come out to 27 games that go more than 12 innings. Certainly, playing until the 12th inning and shutting it down on the small chance it stays tied would be a better answer for everyone.
Manfred and the rest of us would get our shorter games, and no one would be subjected to this amateurish rule. If baseball rules 12 innings is too much, then capping it at 10 or 11 innings still would work, given that so many games tend to end there.
The new extra-inning rule isn’t the end of baseball, and likely will disappear after 2020. But it’s also an unnecessary change that makes the sport worse, even if just for a short while.
Baseball is trying to innovate. It’s trying to make itself attractive to the new generation, assuage fans who have been turned off by recent infighting, and navigate a new, dangerous landscape. It’s extremely hard work, yes, but it’s still not as hard as they’re making it seem.
Oh, and by the way: Though it won't be charged to the team, the official way to score the extra-inning runner on second will be an error. That, at least, MLB got right.