Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Major League Baseball has concocted another idea that it plans on testing in the minor leagues this season: automatically placing a runner at second base at the start of extra-innings play. The proposed rule has the blessing of MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre and support “at the highest levels of the league,” according to Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan.
The argument for trying out this rule, is to shorten those long extra-innings scenarios, and protect teams from completely emptying their bullpens and resorting to using a position player on the mound.
“It’s baseball,” Torre told Passan. “I’m just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to score. You’re just trying to play baseball.”
Interest in preserving arms is understandable, wise even. That’s also the responsibility of team managers. Baseball isn’t governed by a clock, nor is it a Whac-A-Mole game with “please like my sport” signs flashing. Situations arise in every game, and forcing a runner takes away a large part of strategizing for the long haul.
Strategy is what gives one team an edge. Luck is just the bonus. Managers are hired and fired on the basis of how well they can manage, in and beyond the confines of the game. Players coordinate with each other how to face one reliever over another. Urgency exists with every inning that passes, but all things being equal, nothing is.
Planning is part of the game. “Trying to play baseball” already exists. A new extra-innings mantra doesn’t need to be created. Start changing the situation a reliever inherits, and regardless of the experience, that will be a mind game in itself. Pitchers will face batters differently, which could lead to pitching around certain batters, which would up the pitch count and stress on an arm. Mitigation only goes so far.
There’s also the matter of who gets placed on-base to start an inning. Say the ninth ends with the No. 9 or 2 hitter, but Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout are next up to start the 10th. Sorry, pal. You just lost your best hitter. Better luck next time. Unless there’s some trick that skips them and it just hasn’t been addressed yet, the normal rules of following the lineup card still apply.
As Passan mentions, there’s also bunting to take into account. And if you’re looking to force the issue, why not have a dinger-off if the game goes past 15 innings? Or flip a coin for it. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should mess with certain aspects of the game. But who knows, maybe it’ll turn out swell. After all, baseball adopted the between-innings clock and the four-pitch walk might be going away, so anything’s possible.
Still, there is some measure of valid concern as it relates to health. A version of this same rule will be implemented in this year’s World Baseball Classic, as Passan notes, and the International Softball Federation has used its own variation for any game still tied after the seventh inning. Bringing up minor leaguers the day after an 18 or 20-inning game late in the season not only robs a team of its pitching strength, but weakens an organization’s minor league depth temporarily.
“What really initiated it is sitting in the dugout in the 15th inning and realizing everybody is going to the plate trying to hit a home run and everyone is trying to end the game themselves,” Torre told Passan. “I don’t know what inning is the right inning. Maybe the 11th or 12th inning. But there are a number of reasons.”
But that’s part of baseball, and it always has been. Health concerns will always exist. If long-term health is truly the concern, shortening a season by X number of games would better serve players than addressing the possibility of extra-inning games that extend past 13 or 14 innings.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been one to test the waters on just about everything, even if it’s just to gauge the overall reaction and reception. It will be interesting to see how players across the league feel about this proposal, and whether it carries any favor with managers. Forcing the issue by way of sudden death runners on-base sounds like fun, but in the end, MLB could be doing more harm than good.