Fans of teams in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona League will see something new in extra-inning games this season. A rule that has been used in international baseball and has found its way into the 2017 World Baseball Classic, will have teams start the inning with a runner on second base to start any inning from the tenth inning on.
Joe Torre, the Chief Baseball Officer for MLB told Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan; "Let's see what it looks like. It's not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing in a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it's nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time."
For his part, commissioner Rob Manfred emphasized that MLB is being proactive and is "focused on points of delay in the game, where there's no action."
For games in the GCL and AZL this summer, the team at the plate will be able to place a runner on second base to start the inning. The new rule will make managers decide whether to bunt the runner over and from a practical point, figures to reduce fatigue over the length of a season. It may also allow teams from having to go through a bullpen in one game and having to overuse relievers.
Statistics show that a team with a runner on second and nobody out, has a 35% chance of scoring at least one run in the inning. Of course, if the visiting team scores in the top of an inning, the home team still gets an opportunity to re-tie the game or win in the bottom of the inning.
The specifics of the new rule haven't been completely hammered out yet, and there is time, since the AZL and GCL seasons don't begin until after the draft in June. It is believed that the minor league rule change will deviate somewhat from the international rule. In the minors, teams will start every extra inning with a runner on second, while in international baseball, the rule change doesn't go into affect until the 11th inning. At that point, teams start with runners on first and second and nobody out. The manager gets to pick two consecutive hitters from anywhere in the lineup to put on base to start the 11th inning, and the next hitter in the order then is the first hitter of the inning. In successive innings, the last two players to make outs in the previous inning start on first and second, with the first hitter being the next player in the order.
Just as MLB is doing, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) tested the rule in the lower levels at the World Junior AAA Baseball Championships prior to instituting the rule in the upper levels.
Even if the rule is a success, it's likely that baseball won't include the rule in its major league rule book for years. Generally, plans as wide-sweeping as this are brought up through the minors so that when younger players finally reach the majors, they're accustomed to the rule changes and are more easily accepted at the major league level. For instance, the pitch clock is entering its third season in both Double-A and Triple-A baseball, but has yet to be instituted in the majors.
Technically, MLB doesn't need the blessing of the player's union to institute rule changes such as these, but they would be smart to work with the union to put something in that satisfies the wants of the commissioner's office and of the players. Some sort of compromise or common ground approach that works for both of them, and more importantly, for the fans.
Some thoughts on the idea...
As much as I love baseball, it does have to have a reasonable end to the game. Having seen Brock Stassi, a first baseman, pitch in the minors when the bullpen was emptied has actually been quite fun, but in reality, it's not a great idea, even if Stassi did strike out Mark Teixeira and has pitched pretty well in his limited opportunities.
Perhaps there could be a compromise. Start the tenth inning as usual, with no "free runner" on base. After that, put a runner on second, but have it either have to be a basic pinch-runner type move or have the last player to have made the out in the previous inning have to start at second base. If you want to have some fun, make the guy who is supposed to leadoff the inning start at second base. That would bring some interesting potential moves into the game. For instance, two outs, nobody on in the top of the tenth and you're the home manager. The visiting team has their number-two hitter coming to the plate. Do you intentionally walk him and face the three hitter with a runner on first, because of what might be the situation the next inning? If you get the number-two hitter out, then you've got a guy who likely has good speed on second to start the 11th inning, with the third hitter in the order coming up.
Of course, starting the inning with runners on first and second puts the team in the field in a bit of a bind, but also gives them a way out with a possible double-play ball. The odds of scoring at least one run in an inning with runners on first and second are approximately 23%, lower than the percentage of starting the inning with a runner on second and nobody out.
Baseball is a game of strategy, so if you're going to incorporate new rules designed to make the game quicker, why not add some strategy at the same time?
Baseball is also a game of tradition. While the NFL and NHL have incorporated rules changes for their overtime situations, baseball is a more traditional, old-school sort of sport. Those of us who love the game don't worry too much about speeding it up, and if we do, we'd like to see things like limiting the trips that the catcher or infielders can make to the mound to purposely "buy time" for a reliever to warm up. After all, if the manager is so smart, he should have had the guy up earlier, right?
There are definite advantages to changing how baseball deals with extra-innings, and speeding up the game, and especially quickening the pace of play all have their place and I get that. After all, the majority of fans at a game aren't those of us who are die-hards. Many are the more casual fan, with families and kids that have shorter attention spans and Mom and Dad have already filled them with food and blown the mortgage money on stuff from the team store for them. All us big time fans ask is that we be smart about these things.