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Let’s talk about tie games in MLB

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... and why having them as an actual result is a really bad idea.

Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

This year, presuming we have a season, extra-inning games will begin with a runner on second base.

No one really likes this rule, but I understand why it’s used in the minor leagues and why MLB wants to use it this year. With the compressed, short schedule, not wanting to have to delay travel and not wanting players to hang around each other longer than necessary in a pandemic, I get it.

As I wrote earlier this week, though:

After this year, kill this rule with fire.

At least for big-league games. The reasons it’s used in the minors — presuming we even have minor leagues anymore — I completely understand.

But doing this has raised the topic of extra-inning games in general and how MLB could “fix” them.

Personally, I don’t think they need “fixing.”

Let’s look at some numbers.

From 2000-19, a 20-season span (I used this to have a large dataset), there were 4,130 extra-inning games. That’s about 8.5 percent of all games. So for those of you who would like to see tie games after nine innings, that’s a fairly large set of games in which there’s no winner or loser.

Yes, I am aware other sports have tie games. That is absolutely not a reason to have them in baseball. Sports are one of the few things in life where there is a definitive winner or loser. To attend or watch a sports event that ends in a tie? To me, that defeats the purpose of having the competition in the first place.

“But Al,” you’ll say. “Baseball did have tie games, for many decades.”

That’s absolutely correct. And there were generally two specific reasons for that: Weather or darkness, both things out of control of the players on the field, or the owners of the teams. And when there was a tie under those circumstances? Well, the statistics compiled in the game were kept; the game did “count,” after a fashion. But it was not considered a “tie game” in the standings. The 1908 Cubs, for example, had four tie games, including one very famous contest that eventually decided the pennant. But no one ever listed the 1908 Cubs’ record as “99-55-4.” That’s because all the tie games were replayed in their entirety, until a team won or lost. Yes, it’s true that some games were suspended in baseball’s early days (a complete list of those is here), but generally that was for local curfews or by pre-arrangement between the teams so they could catch a train to the next city. Quaint, I know.

To give you an example that you can relate to, look at the 1965 Cubs, who played 164 games because they had two ties, one on Opening Day, the other the second game of a doubleheader May 31, both called due to darkness at Wrigley Field. The concept of suspending a game due to darkness at Wrigley did not exist until 1969. Both those games were replayed in their entirety. Billy Williams and Ron Santo became two of only six players in MLB history to play 164 or more regular-season games, and two of those (Maury Wills and Jose Pagan) did so only because there was a three-game playoff for the National League pennant in 1962.

To circle back to the original point here, I don’t think having tie games after nine innings is a good idea. Baseball has existed for a century and a half not having tie games as part of regular-season standings and I don’t want it to start now.

So maybe you’re okay with 10-inning games, or a bit longer, but would like to see games longer than 12 innings declared ties.

Looking at the same dataset (2000-19), we find the number of 13+ inning games is dramatically lower than the number of games that go 10 or more innings. In that 20-season span there have been 655 games of 13 innings or longer. That’s an average of 32.75 such games per season, or about 1.1 per team. Put another way, it’s 1.3 percent of all games. That is a vanishingly small number. Trying to do something to change the way these sorts of games end is a solution in search of a problem.

If you are concerned about the effects of long extra-inning games on a pitching staff, I suggest this rule change: Allow any team that has a game of 13 or more innings to add one reliever to the staff for its next game without a corresponding roster move. Since, on average, teams have only one or maybe two such events a year, that shouldn’t be an issue from a competitive standpoint, and it would help any such team mitigate bullpen fatigue.

During a discussion here a while back, 20+ inning games were mentioned as though they were some great scourge to baseball that should be wiped off the face of the Earth. (No, that wasn’t the exact wording of the comment, but that’s what I took from it.)

20+ inning games are exceptionally rare. In all of major-league history there have been 44 games of 20 innings or longer. (That’s limited to the baseball-reference era, since 1904, but that’s a pretty large sample size, 116 seasons)

Forty-four in 116 seasons. That’s one every 3.75 seasons across all MLB teams. There have been five of these games since 1993, over the last 26 seasons. That’s eight ten-thousandths of one percent (0.00008 percent). Five, coincidentally, is also the number of games in Cubs franchise history (again, since 1904) that have lasted 20+ innings. Here are those five games — one since 1930, none since 1982.

Further, many games like this become legendary, fans talk about them, they give MLB positive publicity, something the sport could really use these days. One of the most famous games ever is the longest by innings in MLB history, a 26-inning game between Brooklyn and Boston in 1920. I suppose now is the time I should tell you, if you don’t know — that game ended in a 1-1 tie — and, of course, was later replayed in its entirety.

The bottom line for me is: Extra-inning games aren’t a problem. I certainly wouldn’t want to see as many as 8.5 percent of all games (in a normal MLB season that could be as many as 14 games per team) wind up tied. And when you get to games that are longer, 13+ innings, the number drops so precipitously (to 1.3 percent) that this isn’t an issue either. Lastly, when you get to 20+ innings, those games are so rare that they can become instant classics.

So I get what MLB is doing, this year only, if we have a season. Beyond that — don’t mess with extra-inning games, with the bullpen staffing exception noted above, and especially don’t let them wind up as ties. I like things the way they are.

Poll

Here’s what I would do with extra-inning games...

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Leave everything the way it is — play as long as it takes for a team to win
    (104 votes)
  • 2%
    Declare tie games after nine innings
    (4 votes)
  • 18%
    Declare tie games after 12 innings
    (28 votes)
  • 3%
    Use the runner-on-second idea after nine innings
    (6 votes)
  • 6%
    Use the runner-on-second idea after 12 innings
    (10 votes)
  • 1%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (2 votes)
154 votes total Vote Now