2020 is not going to be a conventional season. It was expected that everything would look different than usual although there are some unexpected changes. One of those is the altering of extra-inning rules. This change was made official on Monday, almost a week after MLB and the MLBPA came to an agreement on the 2020 season.
Previously, extra-inning rules would mirror those of regulation, and they were simply an extension of the game. Now, MLB will start all half innings with a runner on second base during extra innings.
MLB officially announces rules changes:
– DH in the National League
– Extra innings will start with runner on 2nd
– Arguing/brawling and spitting prohibited
– No pregame lineup card exchange
– Three-batter minimum remains in effect
– Any player may appear as a pitcher
— Kyle Glaser (@KyleAGlaser) June 29, 2020
This change to the extra-inning rules has been talked about for years now. In fact, it has been in effect in all levels of MiLB since 2018. As noted, this rule puts a runner on second base every half inning during extra innings. The intent is to generate more offense and finish the came quicker.
The runner will be the player listed directly prior to the batter leading off the inning. For example, if the the cleanup hitter is leading off in the tenth inning, then the three-hole hitter will run. That player can be pinch run for although they will be ineligible to return to the game, just like a regular pinch-runner scenario.
Also, the runner is treated the same as a runner who reaches by an error. If he scores, the pitcher will not be credited with an earned run. However, no error will be credited to any fielder.
This type of change is not uncommon in professional sports. The NHL altered their overtime rules in 2015. This change brought overtime play to a three-on-three matchup, similar to their All-Star Game. This brought more excitement to overtime. Fans have seen more tactical play and more skill from skaters.
The reaction to this announcement has been largely negative, especially from baseball purists, but there are strong arguments both for and against the changes.
MLB has become one dimensional over the past few seasons. The three-true outcomes of home runs, walks, and strikeouts have become the norm from batters. The strategic aspect of the game has given way to the idea of hitting the ball over the fence for instant offense.
That mindset notably rears its head in extra innings. At times, it is noticeable when players are swinging for the fences with the intent of the ending the game as quickly as possible. Similar to the NHL, starting with a runner on second base can lead to more strategy. Teams can get more creative then swinging for the fences in extra innings.
Lack of Bunts
The use of sacrifice bunts has declined over the past few seasons. By looking at the category leaders in the 2019 season compared to the 2010 season, this becomes more evident. Clayton Kershaw led MLB both years. However 26 players recorded double-digit sacrifice bunts in 2010, and 11 of them were pitchers. In 2019, six players were in double digits, and five of them were pitchers. Leury Garcia was the lone position player on that list.
20 fewer players reached double-digit sacrifice bunts in 2019 than in 2010. Additionally, the list is now loaded with pitchers who will not be hitting in 2020 with the universal DH implementation. In 2010, there were 15 position players among the 26 with double-digit sacrifice bunts. In 2019, the 15th-highest ranked position player was 54th-overall with four sacrifice bunts.
Starting a runner on second base could inject new life into using this kind of strategy. With the runner already in scoring position, sacrificing an out to move a runner over to third base will not be detrimental to the inning.
Likewise, opposing managers will get creative as well. An intentional walk sets up a double play, making it more likely to escape without surrendering the run. That could be the strategy for the team in the field, both to start the inning or after a possible sacrifice bunt. Additionally, in an era where defensive shifts are frequent, this rule opens the door to different alignments from the defense in order to prevent that runner from scoring at all costs.
Some of these strategical tactics have faded as the emphasis among teams has become about scoring as many runs as possible. However, each team is playing for that one-run lead in extra innings in order to win the game. Therefore, there should be an uptick in strategic maneuvers because that one run is already half way around the bases before anyone steps up to the plate.
Normally, the 162-game season is a marathon for MLB players. It is hard enough to play that number of games in 180 days without experiencing some wear and tear on the body. That is why the terms “June swoon,” or the “dog days of summer,” are relevant during the season.
It is all the more taxing on players when they have to play more baseball in order to end a game. Players have played in front of near-empty stadiums long past the end of the ninth inning and deep into the night, trying desperately to determine a winner.
Sometimes, teams wind up playing double headers by accident when these extra-inning games go into the 18th inning. Playing an unintended-extra game can further beat up players’ bodies and throw off their already wacky sleep schedules when they have to wake up and play another game the next day. These games also put managers in a tight spot in terms of how they utilize their pitching staffs.
This is an argument frequently voiced in favor of this extra-inning rules change. It does come with a caveat that these marathon games are the exception. There are 2,430 MLB games scheduled in a normal year. In 2019, 192 of those games went to extra innings. 138 of those 192 games ended in the tenth or eleventh innings anyway. That is 71.9% of extra-inning games. As for the marathons, only 16 games ran 15 innings or longer. That is 8.3% of the extra-inning games last year and 0.0066% of all 2019 games.
Putting a runner on second base in extra innings does not guarantee that these games will go extinct. While it is unlikely that both teams consistently fail to drive a runner in from second with zero outs, it is certainly not impossible.
A glaring negative to this extra-innings rule change is the disadvantage that the home team finds themselves in. Think about it. Nine innings are played with one set of rules. Then, they suddenly change if a game goes to extra innings. The away teams gets the first crack at scoring with this new set of rules.
Run expectancy, which takes into account the batter’s wOBA and the run environment, is a great indicator of the likelihood that a team will score given different situations. An average-offensive player is considered one with a wOBA of .320. The 2019 MLB run environment saw 4.83 runs scored per game. Run expectancy calls for rounding to the nearest 0.25, so use 4.75 for this calculation.
Given those parameters based on 2019, when an average player comes to the plate with zero outs and a runner on second, the team batting is expected to score 1.113 runs in that inning. Even if a below average hitter, with a wOBA around .310, is hitting, the run expectancy is still over 1.000 runs in that situation. Naturally, it goes up with a better hitter. For reference, in that same scenario with the bases empty, the run expectancy is 0.518. Starting with a runner on second base more than doubles the run expectancy.
If the visiting team manages to score that run in the top of the tenth inning, the home team’s win expectancy drops substantially. The data on FanGraphs does not show win expectancy for extra-inning situations. However, in extra innings any inning can be the final inning, just like the ninth inning. While it may not be an exact carry over, the win expectancy numbers for the ninth inning can give a good idea of what they would be like for extra innings.
According to FanGraphs, the home-team win expectancy is 0.500 when the game is tied with no runners and no outs on in the top of the inning. In that same situation in the bottom of the inning, it shoots up to 0.634.
Under the new rules, the home team’s win expectancy at the start of the inning will be 0.434. Even though they would get the same situation to start the bottom of the inning, their win expectancy barely changes at 0.437 if they are down one run.
The caveat is that the 0.437 win expectancy while down one run in the bottom of the inning, with a runner on second base, is better than the 0.194 expectancy if there was no runner on base to start the inning. However, the fact that the runner being on second base to start the inning tilts the win expectancy in the visiting team’s favor and more than doubles the run expectancy, it is clear that this extra-innings rule change gives home teams a disadvantage.
Losing a game by this means can be detrimental for a team. Everything is different in 2020, with the lack of games making the season a sprint rather than a marathon. One bad stretch could, conceivably, ruin one team’s entire season.
Therefore, losing a game this way can be an awful setback. Consider that this rule has never been used at the MLB-level before 2020. Now, it will be used for the shortest regular season in history, the regular season where each individual game means more than ever before.
After, that the extra-inning rules will revert back to normal in 2021. It is possible that it could return in 2022 when the new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated although it is not guaranteed to become permanent.
The result is that a season could be made or lost in extra innings from a rule that could only be in effect for one season.
The fact that a fraction of 1.0% of MLB games were marathons in 2019 shows that this rule is fixing the exception rather than correcting the norm. Even though it puts the home team at a disadvantage and could be the make or break fact or of a season, it could lead to more bunting once in a while.
Baseball fans may have a negative-knee jerk reaction to this rule. Either way, it is here for 2020 so it is worth giving it a shot. Given the pros and cons for the change, it is worth experiencing with an open mind. Some may be dead set on hating it, but some may learn to like it.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images