As a general rule, sports should be leery about “tweaking” their rules. This is especially true with tweaks that change the essence of the game. Here are a few ground rules that I would apply to any competitive situation:
1) Rules should be the same at all times. For example, if Julian Edelman had made his miraculous catch a few seconds later, the Falcons would not have had to burn a timeout in order to challenge the call because it would have been reviewed automatically in the last two minutes. If the Falcons had retained this timeout for their last drive, they would not have had to spike the ball when they did, and things might have gone differently. This is not the kind of lucky break that should turn the outcome of a game. The same principle applies to the NBA enforcing intentional foul rules differently in the last two minutes. It’s just wrong.
2) Rules should not skew statistics in weird ways. One of the objections to the overtime rule in college football is that quarterbacks can end up with an ungodly number of touchdown passes in a game, even if they did not play all that well. The current overtime rules in the NHL have created a situation in which virtually everyone is over .500. I may get used to that in another ten years or so, but it seems odd.
3) There should be some logical basis for how rules are implemented. “We thought it would be more exciting” is not a logical basis for a rule change. To have some extra points come from the two yard line and some from the fifteen is simply stupid. The designated hitter fails this criteria, but it has been in place for so long that pitchers being lousy hitters is practically an evolutionary fact, like golfers wearing hideous pants, so it may be too late to change it.
The idea for baseball to begin extra innings fails on all of these counts. The violation of rule one is self-evident. Rule two is a bit more subtle, but would you want to be the pitcher who comes in and takes a hit to his ERA for giving up a sacrifice bunt and a fly ball? By the current rules of how earned run average is calculated, a pitcher is not charged when he allows an inherited run to score, but what if he inherits that runner from the rule book? Do we treat that like an empty net goal and not charge it to anyone? What if the first hitter tries to sacrifice and the runner gets thrown out at third, but then that guy scores from first? Does his run get charged to someone? I know that in the era of sabermetrics we are not supposed to care about old school stats like ERA and RBIs, but most of us still do.
Here’s another question: who is the runner? Do you use the same guy over and over, or a new guy every inning? Most teams only have a couple of guys on the bench, and in a close game some of them would have been used to pinch hit before extra innings, so nobody would be set up to do this. They could just give the leadoff hitter every inning an intentional walk and a balk, but does that count as a plate appearance? How does it impact his on base percentage? Maybe we can do this in a way that keeps all the stats looking sensible, but I’m not seeing it.
Baseball has been talking incessantly about improving the pace of play, but this is not where the problem lies. Every pitch matters in an extra inning game, and fans will gladly sit for an extra hour to see a great game finish. Where baseball loses us is when a 6-2 game goes three and a half hours because the manager who was up by four runs changed pitchers three times in the eighth inning, and when a 1-2-3 inning takes twenty minutes because the hitters step out after every pitch and as soon as they get set to hit the catcher calls time to go ask the pitcher if he wants to see a movie after the game. Fix those issues, and nobody will care if a game goes fifteen innings a couple of times a year. It bears mentioning that the craziest game in major league history, the 10-9 win by the Pirates over the Yankees in game seven of the 1960 World Series, took two hours and 36 minutes, so it is possible to play a baseball game with some degree of alacrity if those involved are motivated to do so.
Joe Torre, baseball’s rules czar, did bring up a valid point about long games. With bullpens composed predominantly of one inning specialists, any game longer than twelve innings decimates a bullpen to such an extent that even the team that wins a marathon game is usually worse off because that tired bullpen costs them a game later that week. Most teams deal with this situation by having about four men shuttling back and forth from Triple A all season; if they wear two of them out in a long game, they simply bring up the other two. In any case, this is a real concern, both from a competitive aspect and from the standpoint of pitchers’ health, because it seems these days that any time a pitcher is asked to do something outside of his comfort zone he ends up on the disabled list.
On balance, though, the magnitude of this problem is not great enough to justify a “tweak” this substantial. Maybe it brings more excitement to the game, but more exciting doesn’t always translate to better. If it did Rollerball would be a real thing.