If you have watched any extra inning games in Major League Baseball this year, you might have asked yourself “Did I miss something? How did that guy get on base during the commercial?”
Don’t worry, you’re not going crazy. Under rules carried over from last year’s shortened season, all extra innings will begin with a runner placed on second base. The idea is ostensibly to create more action, increase the ability to score runs, and prevent exceptionally long games.
I was actually very familiar with this concept before it was instituted by MLB. The rule, known as the International Tie Breaker, or ITB, is used throughout college softball. As such, I have been watching and scoring games like this for many years.
It is notorious for giving Sports Information Directors fits when it inevitably comes up for the first time each season. Every year, at least five SIDs post in Facebook groups asking “how do I place a runner on second base in this scoring software?”
The idea always seemed sort of gimmicky to me – one of those weird wrinkles that makes scoring softball more confusing than baseball, like the DP or the flex position. When I heard that Major League Baseball was going to implement it, I thought it was a cheesy move from a league trying to deal with Covid and a poor on-field product.
What I can say, however, is that the ITB works at limiting the length of softball games. I can think of very few softball games that have gone past one, maybe two extra innings. Maybe that’s because it’s a standard softball rule, and teams likely have a strategy and work on executing in the different situations that will arise.
It’s Not Just About the Length of the Game, Though
The game of baseball has changed so much in such a short amount of time. Small-ball is barely relevant. Analytics has taken over the game so much that singles are frowned upon by the stat crunchers. Even in the extra innings scenario with a runner placed on second, some teams are refusing to change their approach and are still searching for the three true outcomes.
In the 2011 major league season, there were 1,667 sacrifice bunts. Juan Pierre led the league with 19 sacrifice bunts, and there were 28 players with 10 or more sacrifices.
By 2017, the number was down below 1,000, and in 2019 there were just 776 sacrifice bunts. The leader in 2019, with 15 sacrifice bunts? Clayton Kershaw. In fact, of the top ten in sacrifice bunts in 2019, only two were not pitchers, while in 2011, only three of the top ten were pitchers.
Position players don’t bunt because they’re not supposed to bunt anymore. Analytics don’t want players giving away outs or putting the ball in play in the infield. That’s not what statistically gives you the best chance of winning over the 162 game schedule.
That’s what makes the extra innings format good for baseball – if teams will approach it the right way.
It makes teams play situational baseball. Instead of approaching the game, the week, the season, in a way that’s going to average out to the most runs produced, it makes the manager and the players confront the here and now. How are we going to approach this so that we win this game tonight?
How does the visiting team address their at-bats in the top of the tenth? Do you try to drive in that one run and then hope you can close the door on the home team? Do you play it straight up, swing away, and try to plate a few runs for a big inning?
What scenario does the home team inherit? If they can stop the visitors from plating that run, they can try to execute small-ball for the win. If they are down one, do they risk sacrificing the runner to third and playing for the tie? Or is there too much pressure to tie the game for them to give away outs in the bottom of the frame?
Home runs are exciting, and extra base hits are fun to watch. But when the money is on the table, I think it’s more interesting to watch the chess match play out and see who can execute the game of baseball.
The new extra inning rules add a whole new layer of strategy and complexity to the game.
Rather, they bring back some of the complexity that has been lost in recent years.
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