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Do We Really Need To Fix Extra Innings?

The Indians and the Twins played sixteen innings last night. I know that only because I live on the West Coast; anyone on the East Coast was probably asleep long before the game ended. Like most extra-inning games, not much was happening, which gave the ESPN broadcasters plenty of opportunity to discuss the idea being floated to begin every extra inning with a man on second base.

The arguments in favor of doing something to avoid such marathons are compelling. The Indians used every available reliever, then they used starter Josh Tomlin for one inning and part of another, in which he gave up the deciding run. Luckily, they have today off, but in most circumstances, they would have a game today and be forced to figure out which of their tired arms is available if a reliever is needed.

Beyond that, it’s just dull. I had a book to read, and an iPad beside me so I could keep track of the NBA and NHL playoff games. That helped to distract me for several hours from the fact that nothing was happening in the baseball game. There was tension in the fact that each team changed pitchers every inning or two, which made it inevitable that some pitcher would have lousy stuff and get drilled, but within each inning, once it was established that the particular pitcher was less inept than the hitters he was facing, I could go back to my diversions.

I’m a numbers geek, and one thing that is cool about statistics is that for most of them there is a symmetry. For every winning pitcher, there is a losing pitcher. For every completed pass on a quarterback’s stat sheet, there is someone with a reception on his stat sheet. For every RBI, a runner has circled the bases. Except now, maybe not.

I love the way that overtime is done in college football. It is so much more exciting than the NFL, and it is set up so that each team has pretty much an equal shot at winning. But the stats in those overtimes begin to take on an Arena League feeling, and if a game goes long enough somebody can break a record, and when a geek like me looks at the record book in thirty years those touchdowns will look the same as if they were scored under normal circumstances.

Even with the distortions of the steroid era and the proliferation of advanced analytical stats, raw numbers still matter in baseball, more than in any other sport, because of the cultural value that the sport places on its history. Who gets charged with a run when no pitcher put the winning run on base? Who is the losing pitcher? The guy who starts the tenth inning with a man in scoring position? These and other issues can be resolved, but that resolution would represent a distortion in how we look at statistics.

Beyond that, there would be logistical issues to contend with. Many teams have only three men on the bench, and one of those guys is a backup catcher, which not only means he has to be kept available in case the starting catcher gets hurt, it also means he’s probably the last guy you’d want trying to score from second on a base hit in extra innings. That means there’s probably two guys available to be the designated pinch runner that starts the tenth inning on second base, assuming that neither of them has been used as a pinch hitter earlier in the game. If he fails to score, the other guy has to be available to start the eleventh inning. If the game goes longer than that, what happens? Use pitchers?

All of these things can be figured out, but it obviously won’t happen without some tweaking of the way rosters are set up. Do they allow a 26th man, only to be used for extra-inning pinch running, and let him re-enter the game as often as necessary? That’s really the only feasible solution that doesn’t involve a major rule change or major roster expansion. Which leaves one question: Is Usain Bolt busy? If, as the stat-heads say, an extra win is worth about eight million dollars, how much would it be worth to have a guy on your bench who could score from second on a bunt, even if he only did it once or twice a season?

Nobody really objects to a game going ten or eleven innings. Generally, those games have some tense moments in the ninth inning, and that tension carries over and creates an expectation that there will be some excitement in the ensuing innings. It’s when the games go beyond that point that you begin to realize, not only that nothing is happening, but that it could go on like this indefinitely. Those are also the games when pitching staffs get burnt out to the extent that it impacts subsequent games. But between 2012 and 2017, there were 381 major league games that went beyond eleven innings. That’s 63 per season, about two per team. Of those 381 games, only 116 went beyond the thirteenth inning. So, when trying to address this “problem,” we should take care that the distortion we inflict upon the game is proportional to the extent of the problem.

As you can probably tell, I haven’t thought all of this out yet, but chances are that the people who make decisions haven’t either, because no matter how many permutations they factor into their solution, there will be one that they don’t consider, and that will be the one that arises in the twelfth inning someday. Because that’s how baseball works.

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