Extra Inning Baseball Can be Brutal, but is Always Baseball, Always Beautiful
On Saturday July 15th, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played an extra inning baseball game that lasted 16 innings. It seemed like every pitcher had his best stuff and it was just an off night for the bats. Even Doug Fister, who gave up three runs in the top of the 16th that led to the Yankees’ 4-1 win, bailed out the Red Sox in the 14th inning by coming on with one out and two-men on and stranding the runners. For some though, the 16 innings of baseball was too much. Because the baseball gods are at once benevolent and cruel, the two teams played the next day to a 3-0 shutout… but had to due it twice thanks to a doubleheader (so that was 18 more innings on top of the 16 innings from the previous day). While the baseball gods decided the Yankees had played enough baseball in Boston, they were not done with the Red Sox.
Last night the Red Sox participated in yet another elongated extra inning game, this time prevailing 5-4 in 15 innings on a Hanley Ramirez solo blast. After the 16 inning affair on Saturday, many people were clamoring that something should be done about extra inning baseball. Without a doubt, now that the Red Sox have played 67 innings of baseball in five days, more people will grab their megaphones (or radio headsets) and bemoan the existence of extra inning baseball as it is currently played. In short, these people are idiots. It is not extra inning baseball that needs to change, but rather how teams play the game of baseball when it goes extra innings. And those that hope and pray for a rule change are revealing their ignorance about the pure beauty at the heart of baseball.
Do No Change A Single Thing About Extra Inning Baseball/Dear G-d Please No ITB
People that get upset about extra inning baseball are annoying and irrational. They want to change the actual rules of the game to produce more scoring, but their entire logic is skewed. For those that do not know, there is an idea floating around baseball that maybe MLB should adopt the ITB or “International Tie Breaker.” The international tie breaker rule comes from softball and is fairly simple but completely changes the complexion of the game.
The ITB is implemented when a softball game goes into extra innings. The team at the plate starts with a runner at second base and nobody out, thus giving a tremendous advantage to the hitting team. They usually take advantage of the scenario by sacrificing the runner over and getting two chances to drive them in, one of those the always important, “runner at third with less than two outs.” The idea behind this is simple; start with a runner at second base and nobody out and surely more scoring will result, and with more scoring that means fewer extra inning innings. Anybody though that has watched baseball in 2017 can see some glaring errors in the thought process.
Initially, let us just accept the actual ITB scenario and not worry about the general idea of why this is an affront to baseball. First off, putting a runner at second base and nobody out to produce more runs makes sense as a general rule, but not in 2017 baseball. Yes, having a runner at second with nobody out is better than having nobody on and nobody out, but it does not guarantee runs, especially not in 2017. The whole point of the ITB is for teams to take the safe route and try to bunt the runner over to third. In 2017 baseball, asking a professional player to try and lay down a sacrifice bunt and watching the resulting process is enough to cause 30% of Little League and high school coaches across the country to develop aneurysms. The average baseball game witnesses 0.19 sacrifice bunts per game. The average MLB player cannot bunt the baseball. If you have seen an average sacrifice attempt this year (probably not because they happen so infrequently in modern baseball) you have seen an act of sadism.
So will managers try to combat that by pinch-hitting for bench players that can actually bunt? Will each team have a designated bunter much like the long snapper in football? Will off-day pitchers become more valuable as they become relied upon to bunt better than the average positional player? These questions are endless, but one fact is not. It is far from a guarantee that a baseball player being asked to bunt will actually get the job done.
These are merely the questions about the batter before the first pitch is thrown. How about the guy at second base? In most forms of the ITB I have seen while broadcasting college softball, it is the player who made the final out in the previous inning that now starts at second. What if that player is slow? What if they are a bad base runner? Are you pinch running for them or do you leave them in the game? If he is a slow and/or bad baserunner, now the batter (who we have already agreed more than likely sucks at bunting) has to not only lay down the bunt, but has to get down an above average bunt to move the man over. All of this is to say, I believe that if you implement the ITB, you will not see any bunting; teams will just take it for granted they start with a man at second base and nobody out and play the game as they always do… by swinging for the fences.
Let us move the scenario forward. In the perfect ITB world, the batting team has now (miraculously) successfully bunted the man over. The batting team has a runner at third base with less than two outs. In traditional baseball, this guy should score more times than not. In 2017, that is not the case. With the rise and prevalence of strikeouts, simply putting the ball in play has become anything but routine. In 2010, the average strikeouts per 9 innings was 7.06, that number this year is 8.25. Moreover, the average bullpen has a guy that can hit 100 MPH and there are numerous relievers who have K/9 higher than 10. In other words, there is again, no guarantee the batter will even put the ball in play, much less do something productive. The statistics substantiate this. While bunting is at an all-time low, so too are sacrifice flies at 0.23 per fame. If this was the 1950s and you wanted to institute the ITB to say more runs will get scored, I would at least agree with your logic while disagreeing with your desire, but in today’s game everything about the argument is flawed.
Teams can still combat the runner at second base no force out available situation by intentionally walking the first batter of the inning. This gambit is especially useful if you are the away team and did not score in the top half of the frame. Now you have men at first and second and do not even have to tag out the runner heading to third on a possible bunt (plus, remember now MLB has eradicated the actual process of the intentional walk so there is no “pit in your stomach moment” as you plead for the pitcher to make the always hairy intentional walk pitches). Again, all of this is to say, those that want to increase scoring to shorten an extra inning baseball game are going about it the wrong way.
The Answer to Extra Inning Baseball Games is… Do Nothing
What is the right way you say? Let baseball be baseball. In the other “extra inning” or overtime scenarios in other sports, it is still the same sport. By utilizing the ITB rule, you change what baseball means. You did not do anything to get that runner to second, therefore you do not deserve to have him on second base. Even in hockey, the only other (North) American sport that literally changes its rules for regular season overtime, they still have not found the proper answer. Despite the excitement of 3-on-3, it is a bastardized version of the sport. Changing the way the sport is played is never the answer. Hockey used to have the answer and should go back to the old way; if you are tied after 65 minutes… it is a tie.
Two things make baseball a particularly unique sport. The most obviously glorious thing about baseball is that it is the only American sport without a time clock. Wanting to change the way extra inning baseball is played is a strong disclaimer that you really just do not like baseball. The lack of a clock is the purest thing in baseball and produces some of the most exciting moments. Some hate it the lack of a time constraint (like when they are watching the Red Sox play four hour game after four hour game), but there is something so pure knowing that the game will continue until one team bests the other, playing under the same rules in inning 16 as they were in inning No. 1.
The other thing that separates baseball from all the other sports is that the defense has the ball. The offense is literally always on the defensive. The pitcher (the defender) goes after the batter (the offensive player) and the batter cannot do anything until the pitcher puts the game in gear. While home runs and slugging are up across baseball, K/9 is the highest it has ever been, and sacrifice flies and sacrifice bunts have literally never been lower. Pitching has never been more explosive than it has been this year, and if the pitching is this dominant then the batting has to find ways to combat it. However, the only way teams and players have done that is by seemingly swinging harder. Using the ITB and putting a man at second base with nobody out will not help anything because it completely ignores the current iteration of baseball. If you want shorter extra inning games, relearn the fundamentals and rediscover how to manufacture runs. Until you do that, the games might go on forever, and as a long time fan of baseball… that is juuuuuuuuust fine.