MLB’s new extra-innings rule is here and — surprise! — it’s glorious

It became clear a couple of years ago that Major League Baseball and its commissioner, Rob Manfred, were working toward an inevitable introduction of weird extra-innings rules, and in this space we were pretty harsh to it. “The runner-on-second-with-nobody-out fix is just about the most boring idea to end games you could think of,” we wrote.

It took only five games, covering six extra innings, to see how wrong I was. The new rules, introduced temporarily for this anomalous season, work. Rather than force routinized late-game strategies, putting a runner on second base to start each half-inning has created more variety. The most exciting baseball played this week has come in those six innings, which — in a mere two hours of total baseball! — included:

A walk-off grand slam.

A rare 3-5 fielder’s choice to cut down a go-ahead run.

A rookie doubling home a run on the first pitch of his big league career.

This:

Just one sacrifice bunt.

One strikeout in the attempting of a sacrifice bunt.

A go-ahead runner caught stealing third — and that call then being overturned.

Home run champ Pete Alonso batting as the tying run, down by three runs.

A pickle involving Shohei Ohtani as the possible go-ahead run.

Two wild pitches that moved the winning run to third base (and two game-saving blocks on impossible-to-block pitches).

Two hit batsmen.

Eight batters hitting with the infield in.

This defensive alignment:

A 12-pitch walk.

Multiple close plays at the plate.

And baseball’s ultimate improbability: A walk-off triple.

There were scoreless innings, one-run innings, a two-run inning, a three-run inning and a four-run inning. All of that in just five games and 46 plate appearances, 70% of which featured the tying or go-ahead run in scoring position. This variety was not what I expected. When a version of this rule was implemented in the World Baseball Classic, and when similar rules were put in place in independent leagues, that runner on second triggered a routine of boring, preprogrammed strategies. As we wrote:

And, in the majors, we can see that in such naturally occurring incidents — runner on second, nobody out, extra innings — the next batter either walks or attempts a bunt about half the time. A fair number of the remaining outcomes are the sacrifice bunt’s dull cousin: the groundout to the right side that moves the runner over.

If the goal is to end baseball games faster, fine, it works well enough. But if the goal is to end baseball games faster and make the sport more exciting/memorable/interesting, it’s a disaster. Think of all the interesting ways to end a baseball game that aren’t sacrifice bunts followed by sacrifice flies. Think of how disappointing it is that baseball’s solution to “boring” baseball is to create a sacrifice-bunt-and-walk derby in the [10th].

Think of all of those interesting ways. And then realize that, in five games, we saw a bunch of them. Those preprogrammed outcomes simply haven’t happened.

Game 1: The Angels didn’t bunt in the top of the 10th. Their leadoff hitter swatted one to first base, which led to an aggressive defensive play to cut down the lead runner. The Angels then loaded the bases with a hit and a walk, but didn’t score. The A’s, starting with the winning run on second, also didn’t bunt the runner over. Eventually, a wild pitch moved the runner to third, and after the A’s loaded the bases, Matt Olson homered.

Game 2: The Braves didn’t bunt in the top of the 10th. Instead, a single drove in the go-ahead run and they added two more runs on top of that. The Mets, needing three, had no choice but to play for a big inning in the bottom half — so they didn’t bunt. They managed to get Alonso up as the tying run, and he was hit by a pitch to load the bases. The Mets couldn’t win it.

Game 3: The Royals did bunt, successfully, and then got the run home on a sacrifice fly. Cleveland, needing to tie, didn’t bunt, and Bradley Zimmer was hit by a pitch to put the winning runners on first and second with none out. Cleveland had the heart of its order up: Cesar Hernandez — who attempted one bunt, then abandoned it — then Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. All three struck out.

Game 4: The Blue Jays didn’t bunt, but after a popup for the first out failed to advance the runner, he stole third base. (He was called out and left the field; the call was overturned and he returned.) He scored on a sacrifice fly, on a very shallow fly ball — the softest-hit sacrifice fly in the majors this year — by beating a weak throw home. The Rays, needing to tie, didn’t bunt in the bottom of the 10th. Instead, Jose Martinez worked a nine-pitch walk to reach as the possible winning run and Kevin Kiermaier tripled home both runs for the walk-off.

Game 5: The Brewers didn’t bunt, didn’t advance the runner on the first out, but he did advance on a wild pitch. With the infield in, Justin Smoak struck out, and the Brewers didn’t score. The Pirates attempted to bunt in the bottom of the inning, but Jarrod Dyson couldn’t get it down. Neither team scored and the game went to the 11th, as approximately one-fourth of extra-inning games are expected to. The Brewers then didn’t bunt in the 11th and got a leadoff double to drive in the go-ahead run. The Pirates, with their best hitter up, didn’t bunt in the bottom of the inning. Josh Bell got the runner to third with a groundout. The infield came in; the next two Pirates struck out.

Baseball has 24 of what we call the base-out states: bases empty with none out, bases empty with one out, runner on first with none out, and so on, all the way to bases loaded and two outs. If the extra-innings scenario were to set off a predictable routine, we’d expect to see the same base-out states repeated over and over: A runner on second with nobody out would be followed by a runner on third with one out (sac bunt), and then the bases empty with one or two outs (sac fly). There would be a little variety based on how well the offense executed that sequence, but the outcomes of the game would be funneled into a few predetermined paths.

That is not what has happened. In just five games, in just six innings, we already saw 19 of the 24 base-out states in action:

In part, the variety reflects different teams’ attitudes. The Royals bunted, which seems in character. The A’s didn’t bunt, which seems in character. But once these scenarios moved from abstractions to real life, it became immediately evident how much variety the situations themselves produce. The Angels had the bottom of their order up; the A’s had the heart of their order up. That makes a huge difference. The Blue Jays had a pinch runner on second; the Rays had a catcher running on second. The Mets faced a relief pitcher who struck out 13 batters per nine innings last year; the Braves faced a relief pitcher who struck out 6 1/2 per nine. In their 10th inning, the Pirates had a leadoff hitter with 38 career sacrifices and 21 career homers; in the 11th, they had a leadoff hitter with no career sacrifices, who hit 37 homers last year.

The bottom line is that a bunt is neither automatic nor indefensible. There will be some bunts, a ton of non-bunts, and a genuine discussion to be had about it every time.

In all, this setup doesn’t suppress strategic variety — it increases it. And the extra-innings strategizing doesn’t begin only once the extra innings have begun. The Brewers started the 10th inning with slow-running catcher Omar Narvaez as their runner on second base. Narvaez was in that spot because he had made the final out of the ninth, an out he made because he had been called upon to pinch hit. Was that decision worth it? The Brewers got the better hitter in the ninth, but the worse baserunner in the 10th — and, because Narvaez was their last catcher, he was the one player in the lineup they couldn’t replace with a pinch runner. So managers now have to think about who is making the final out of the ninth.

Taken further: Narvaez probably was summoned as a pinch hitter because the Brewers knew with confidence the game — despite being tied — would end very soon. Teams historically have been loath to replace their starting catcher if they don’t need to, because they don’t want an injury to the replacement to leave them without a catcher — and they don’t know how long an extra-inning game will go. Maybe one inning, maybe 10. Now they know: not 10. The benches and bullpens can empty much earlier, because the end is about to come fast.

Indeed, the strategizing for these games begins before the games themselves begin, when rosters are constructed. Even when rosters shrink from 30 to 26, teams might still conclude that the chance of extra innings justifies a full-time pinch runner who can really make a difference from second base. These five games brought four pinch runners, and with better pinch-running options would likely have brought more. Teams know the game is about to end. They know they can pinch run for just about any player in the lineup, even a superstar, since it’s unlikely that the player’s spot will come up again. And, knowing that the threat of a 13-, 16- or 20-inning game no longer hangs over them, teams might sacrifice a little bit of redundant depth (long reliever, for instance) for the tactical advantages of difference-making speed. Then again, they might not.

These two hours of baseball were varied, entertaining, constantly tense and ripe for debate and second-guessing. And Wednesday night produced two new extra-inning games, each a classic in its own style: The Nationals loaded the bases with nobody out in the 10th, then struck out for the first and second outs, before breaking through to score four runs. Then the Astros and Dodgers traded zeros, then ones, then zeros again, swinging away the entire time, until the Dodgers finally won in the 13th inning on a two-run home run.

There are still two reasons one might hate these changes: They eliminate the slim possibility of the truly memorable baseball marathon, where a pitcher is playing first base in the 21st inning or your kids are waking up to find you still watching in the 37th. And they’re different. They change a sport you already liked a lot. I’ve subscribed to each of these positions in the past.

But I have to admit: It was fun watching these games end. Last year, early in the season, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks played extra innings and it took more than six hours to finish the game. I missed that ending. If you didn’t, then you have one on me. But there are a lot more people who missed it than who saw it. In the old world, I probably wouldn’t have even stayed up to watch the Brewers and the Pirates go to the 11th this week, knowing I probably wouldn’t make it to the ending anyway. But under these new rules, there’s an implicit guarantee that you’ll be rewarded if you give them another 20, maybe 40, mayyyybe 60 more minutes. And, sure enough, 20 minutes later — after seeing Eric Sogard swing away and lash a go-ahead double into the left-field corner; after seeing Christian Yelich strike out with runners at the corners and one out; after seeing Bell bat as the possible winning run; after seeing David Phelps strike out Erik Gonzalez with the tying run on third and one out; after hearing broadcasters discuss the remote possibility of that runner on third trying to steal home; after seeing the final out — I was.

Read More