Extra inning games will look a lot different in rookie ball this year. MLB announced that they will be testing out a new system in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona Fall League which will automatically place a runner on second base at the start of the tenth inning. The drastic new rule, which has the approval of Hall of Fame manager and current Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, falls in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to improve baseball’s pace of play.
Only, it won’t really change the pace of play at all. MLB is missing the fact that pace of play and game length are two very different things. I’m all for quickening the pace of games, so long as it doesn’t change the actual rules of the game itself. There are plenty of little adjustments that could be made, some of which Manfred has already implemented, and I commend him for that. One of those is limiting the length of the breaks in between innings. Another good thing he did was requiring batters to stay in the dirt area behind home plate for the entirety of their at bat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though this was working initially, until umpires decided to stop enforcing it after a few months.
Teams are already limited to one mound visit by a coach or manager per pitcher per inning, but I would also be in favor of limiting player mound visits to one per inning. The catcher shouldn’t be allowed to visit his pitcher for every single batter in the inning. If you can’t get on the same page, that’s just too bad. Making that a rule could shave off ten or more minutes from each game.
Implementing a pitch clock is another idea that’s been thrown around and it sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it would work very well in practice. Again, this is something that was attempted to some degree a few years back, but it never seemed to be enforced very consistently. A better solution would be to have coaches train pitchers from a young age to get rid of the ball quickly and practice rhythm. It would actually be an advantage to the pitcher, since it would throw some batters off more by giving them less time to prepare for the next pitch. There’s no reason it can’t be done; Mark Buehrle made a career out of it, and if you look at clips from the 70s and 80s, pitchers would routinely get the ball back from the catcher and throw the next pitch within five to ten seconds. As a batter nowadays, you can take a pitch, run to the supermarket, and get back before Pedro Baez or Clay Buchholz throws the next pitch.
The rule changes that the league has been proposing this offseason badly miss the point. Earlier this month, MLB made proposals on two different rule changes, one being the raising of the strike zone and the other the elimination of the intentional walk. Raising the strike zone approximately two inches, as has been proposed, would have more of an impact on the game, presumably leading to an increase in balls in play. While I would love to see fewer strikeouts, I’m not sure if this would accomplish just that or have the adverse effect of causing a spike in walks. Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that nearly 30% of all plate appearances in today’s game result in either a walk or a strikeout, a higher percentage than any other time in MLB history. Besides, every umpire already has their own unique strike zone, so I’m skeptical that veteran umpires would change the way they’ve been calling games for decades.
Doing away with the practice of tossing four balls to the plate for an intentional walk won’t change anything significantly and for that reason, it’s a fairly curious proposal. Stark also points out that intentional walks only happen once every 2.6 games on average. That means this new rule would eliminate one whole minute every two and a half games. That’s one entire minute. Every two and a half games.
Both of these proposals will need to be approved by the player’s union, but if MLB is serious about cutting dead time out of games, this will not solve anything. Nor will tinkering with the extra inning rules. Before you panic, the extra inning modifications are not going to be implemented in the major leagues, just the lower minors. Since it will only be implemented in the minor leagues, it does not need approval from the player’s union. However, the pessimist in me knows that there’s a possibility the rule gradually works its way up the levels of the minors until MLB adopts it.
That would be a real shame. It won’t have any effect of the majority of games, but the ones that go into extra innings are usually the most interesting and most compelling to watch. Torre says that in the event of an 18-inning game, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.” Well, if managers are so concerned about that, maybe they should manage their bullpen better, instead of using five different relievers to get three out in the seventh inning. True baseball fans love the intensity and strategy that extra innings provide, and to mess with that would be inconsiderate of the sport’s fan base.