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The Minor League extra-innings rule change is a failure

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Or it isn’t. I’m still not sure what it was supposed to accomplish. I just know it makes for bad baseball and that I hate it.

Melqui Rodriguez/South Bend Cubs

This spring, with little prior fanfare, Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball made a joint announcement that minor league games would have all extra innings start with a runner on second base. The supposed purpose of this was to shorten games and provide a winner quickly.

When the change was announced, I wrote an article on the changes and said that I’d be willing to give the new rules a chance. But I added that I hoped that if the rules change turned out to be a failure, that both organizations would acknowledge that and change the rule.

After watching almost two months of minor league baseball, I’m here to tell you that the extra-inning rule is a failure.

What MLB thinks of the rule so far isn’t clear, in part because they didn’t make clear what the goal of the rules change was. In the announcement, Minor League President Pat O’Connor said:

We believe these changes to extra innings will enhance the fans’ enjoyment of the game and will become something that the fans will look forward to on nights where the game is tied late in the contest. Player safety has been an area of growing concern for our partners at the Major League Baseball level, and the impact that lengthy extra innings games has on pitchers, position players and an entire organization was something that needed to be addressed.

So there are two points there. One is that minor league fans will like the rules change. The other is that long games increase the chances of injured players.

Let me start by saying that MLB and MiLB were right to try something to address the problem of extra innings. As I wrote back in March, there are few things more pointless than a 15-inning minor league game. First of all, and I’ve said this many times, no one really cares who wins a minor league game. By that, I’m not saying that the fans don’t want the home team to win and I’m not saying that the players and managers aren’t giving 100% on the field. But what I am saying is that for the fans, winning comes a distant second to affordable family fun. For the players, winning comes a distant second to becoming a better ballplayer and making it to the major leagues. For the organizations, winning is a distant second to producing major league talent.

If you want an example of this, check out September 1 when the rosters expand. Teams will call up minor league players and I’ve yet to hear a minor leaguer say “Can you wait until after Labor Day to promote me? Iowa is fighting for a playoff spot.” This is true even in seasons that the Cubs lose 100 games.

Another example of this can be found in South Bend Cubs pitcher Jose Albertos. Albertos was a top Cubs prospect coming into this season, but he seems to have developed “Steve Blass disease” this year and has walked 32 batters in 13 innings. If South Bend were trying to win, Albertos would never see the mound, Yet South Bend kept bringing him into games every fourth or fifth day and seeing what happened, until they finally sent him back to Extended Spring Training yesterday. Yet they didn’t remove him from the team to help South Bend win ballgames. They did it in hopes that he could work on things in Arizona and start throwing strikes.

If you attend minor league ballgames, you know that the fans start to leave around the seventh inning, no matter what the score is. Usually, it’s because the kids have an upcoming bedtime. Or it’s because a young couple on a date has somewhere else to go. In any case, if you’ve attended a minor league game in extra innings, you know that anywhere between 75% to 90% of the fans have already left by the 10th inning. This pokes a hole in the notion that they need to do it for the enjoyment of the fans. Those that are left for extras are usually kids (or young adults) without bedtimes who want to catch a foul ball or hardcore baseball fans (like myself) for whom this new extra-inning rule is an abomination in the first place.

The one exception to this would be Friday Fireworks nights, but that’s a different issue.

Do fans like this new rule? I’m going to say 90% of them are unaware of it.

So that leaves the “injury” explanation. For this, I agree that Minor League Baseball needs to do something to end long extra-inning games. That famous 33-inning game from 1981 is something that we still talk about, but I’m willing to accept that we’ll never see that again in order to preserve the health of minor league pitchers.

But is this new rule really shortening games? I went back and looked a few minor league schedules from 2017 from teams that had an easily-available media guide posted on-line. How many games of 12 innings or over did they play?

The Corpus Christi Hooks played 12 extra-inning games in 2017. Three went 12 innings or more and none went more than 13.

The Mississippi Braves also played 12 extra-inning games in 2017. Four went 12 innings or more and none went more than 13.

The Nashville Sounds played 10 extra-inning games in 2017. Two went 12 innings and one went 13.

The New Orleans Baby Cakes played 11 extra-inning games in 2017. Two went 12 innings and one went 13 (although the 13-inning game was unfortunately on Opening Night).

So this wasn’t a big problem. Yes, if I searched every minor league team’s 2017 schedule, I’m sure that I’d find some 15- and 16-inning games. Those games suck for everyone involved. As I wrote above, I’m all in favor of ending those.

But do the new rules fix this problem? I’ve concluded that it doesn’t. The game that convinced me of that was this 12-inning matchup between South Bend and Lake County on May 16. Now a 12-inning game normally isn’t that bad, but this was game one of a doubleheader! That meant that it was a scheduled seven-inning game and they played five extra-innings in this game, making it the equivalent of a 14-inning game.

The game progressed like this: Neither team scored in the eighth inning. Both teams scored one run each in the ninth and tenth. Neither team scored in the 11th and finally, South Bend scored twice in the top of the 12th and kept the Captains from scoring in the bottom of the inning, although they did have two on with two outs and a double would have tied the game up again and sent it to the 13th.

All of this would be excusable if it was exciting baseball. It wasn’t. Unless the team leads off the inning with a middle-of-the order hitter, a bunt was automatic to lead off the inning. There were four sacrifice bunts in extra innings and one failed sacrifice. There was only one intentional walk, but I’ve seen other extra-inning games with three or four intentional walks in just both ends of one extra inning. (At least they don’t have to throw the four pitches anymore.)

Extra innings in the minors this season can be summed up as follows: sacrifice bunt. One or two intentional walks. A sacrifice fly or RBI groundout. That’s not exciting baseball for the fans. That’s boring as heck. And as evidenced by the May 16 game, it’s not exactly shortening ballgames.

There is a simple solution to the problem of long minor-league games. If a game is still tied after 11 innings, it goes into the books as a tie. People say there are no ties in baseball, but that’s just not true. Ties have a long tradition in baseball as any game that was still tied when it was too dark to continue play went into the books as a tie and was replayed at a later date. When lights came to stadiums in the late-30s and ‘40s, the need for ties went away. A special rule was adopted for Wrigley Field where games were suspended by darkness instead of being considered ties.

People don’t realize this because newsprint space was very valuable. Since tie games were replayed (if possible. It wasn’t always), newspapers simply removed them from the printed standings to save space. So people look back at the old papers and say “Look! No ties in baseball!” But what they are actually seeing is a financial decision by the newspaper industry. Other than awarding a win or a loss, all the stats from those “tie games” counted in a player’s end-of-the-season numbers.

Minor league baseball wouldn’t need to replay ties. They already don’t replay games that are rained out and the two teams don’t meet again. They do this even if one team makes the playoffs by a half-game. The ties could be treated no differently than a game cancelled by rain, except that the in-game stats still count.

Another advantage to just calling a game a tie after 11 is the aforementioned Fireworks Nights, or any other postgame activities. Now when a child asks their mother “When are the fireworks going to start?”, she can just say “After the 11th inning or before if someone scores” and not “When one team wins and I’m not sure we can stay that long. Sorry.”

I’m not a baseball luddite. When a pitch clock was announced for the minor leagues, I was initially against it but I said I’d give it a chance. I did give it a chance and it’s a good addition to the game. It speeds things up and when done right, it is not intrusive. The players adjusted and few automatic strikes or balls get called. I’ve yet to see one in person and I’ve only seen two or three on video.

So to sum up, this rule change was made to make things more fun for fans and to shorten games. On the first point, I don’t have access to any fan surveys, but I’d be shocked if more than 20% of fans gave it any thought. I’d say that the fans that have are likely overwhelmingly against it.

Is it shortening games? Apparently not. Now instead two or three innings of three-up, three-down baseball before someone hits a home run, we’re getting bunts and intentional walks and the games aren’t actually any shorter. Someone with more time and money than I have can go through every minor league extra-inning game from 2017 and 2018 and see if there has been any change in the time, the length or numbers of pitches thrown. I’d be surprised if this rule has made a statistically significant difference and I wouldn’t be shocked if it has actually lengthened games.

So it was fine that MLB and MiLB experimented with this rule change. That’s what the minor leagues are for. But I hope that they realize that the solution they have on the table now is a failure and that they go back to the drawing board, and I hope that they do this for the 2019 season.