Ruling on the rules: Should MLB keep the runner-on-second rule in extra innings?

Hannah Keyser and Mike Oz
·10 mins read

This week, with most of a shortened season in the rearview mirror, Yahoo Sports is reviewing the temporary rule changes MLB put in place for 2020. The question is simple: Should they stick around permanently?

First up, debating whether the runner-on-second rule in extra innings deserves to stay for future seasons.

Lose the runner-on-second rule

By Hannah Keyser

As someone who was loudly and adamantly opposed to the runner-on-second rule in its earliest iteration as a proposal for the World Baseball Classic, the most interesting thing I could say — having seen it in action in Major League games this year — is that I was wrong. In a season that mostly sucks, there’s been a small trend of baseball writers and thinkers surprising themselves by delighting in what it actually looks like to start extra innings with a runner on second base.

The results have not been predictable or repetitive, like I feared. And they are efficient, like MLB intended. The declining ability of big leaguers to bunt has meant that swinging for the fences hasn’t been completely replaced by barely swinging at all. When players do bunt, it’s unexpected and interestingly imperfect. It’s not all sacrifice flies, either.

In other words: Radically shaking up the rules for a centuries-old sport, it turns out, results in a different kind of action.

The thing is, I just don’t see why that’s proof that this particular rule should stick around.

I understand there was a pressing need to prevent outrageously long games in this especially dense season, and the runner on second has succeeded there. Crucially, and I assume not just conveniently, it also fits in with a larger league initiative to speed up games overall. Athletes (and reporters) would prefer that games never stretch long enough to necessitate retweeting the Joe Buck sun-getting-bigger meme tweet.

But, frankly, the rare marathon game that creates wonky stat lines, inspires impromptu online viewing parties and necessitates players playing out of position is part of the baseball fandom experience.

Still, from a public service perspective — and since I’ve been tasked with considering whether the rule should remain in place for future seasons that will hopefully (hopefully!!!!!) not be played under the specter of a pandemic — the aggregate is more important than the extreme.

This year, no game has gone longer than 13 innings, and the average game time is down three minutes from 3:10 in 2019 to 3:07 in 2020. That’s the runner-on-second rule and, even moreso, the introduction of seven-inning doubleheaders in action. But the average length of a nine-inning game has never been higher. Decades of creeping dead time has resulted in the average nine-inning contest lasting a record-setting 3:08 this year. (You can see how heavily the seven inning doubleheaders factor in: The average nine-inning game is longer than the average game time this year.)

What does this have to do with the 10th inning and beyond? Well, as anyone reading a debate about the merits of rule changes probably already knows, the problem with game length is actually a problem with pace of play. Baseball doesn’t need to be shorter so much as it needs to be faster, more action-packed with a wider variety of plays.

D-backs catcher Daulton Varsho tries to tag Dodgers outfielder A.J. Pollock in the 10th inning. It's not clear whether the runner-on-second rule creates more action or simply brings the conclusion faster. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
D-backs catcher Daulton Varsho tries to tag Dodgers outfielder A.J. Pollock in the 10th inning. It's not clear whether the runner-on-second rule creates more action or simply brings the conclusion faster. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The sort-of-sudden-death end of a necessarily close game was already more intense and more strategic than the bulk of baseball. Maybe it was still too slow, and this rule does speed up the conclusion. It also means that when balls are put in play, the result is more dramatic and less routine.

It does not, however, mean that balls are put in play more often.

Baseball’s boredom problem is partially the result of pitching changes and batters stepping out of the box. But it’s also the result of the rise of the three true outcomes. Watching most players on the field just wait around for a guy to go back to the dugout or to first or even to round the bases isn’t an optimal entertainment product. This is a problem that needs solving and so far — in an admittedly small sample size — the runner-on-second rule has done nothing to address that.

In innings one through nine this year, 36 percent of plate appearances have ended in a walk, home run, or strikeout. In the 10th or after, the rate of three outcomes is even higher — 38 percent, and the difference is coming from a particularly high rate of intentional walks. Sure those are quick, but they are literally at-bats without any action at all.

The anecdotal evidence of enhanced excitement in extra innings this year is probably largely a combo of novelty and inefficiency. Teams haven’t had time to optimize the variability out of it. But just give them a few more seasons and they will.

Look, the simplest argument against starting extra innings with an unearned runner already at second base is that it’s a dramatic break with tradition. It creates a rift in the statistical record and generally musses up the existing baseball logic. Baseball should evolve, it needs to evolve. Consistency for conservatism’s sake is a death knell for a sport that’s slipping in popularity.

But the threshold for radical change should be why and not just why not. If a rule isn’t good enough for the postseason (which will not feature the runner on second in extra innings), I don’t want it in my regular season games. And if it undermines the integrity of the sport in the third inning, I don’t want it in the 13th.

The tepid embrace of the runner-on-second rule this year is proof that people can stomach radical change to the sport, perhaps even better than they would predict. That’s a really good and promising sign. Now it’s time to figure out something that actually works for the entire game.

Keep the runner-on-second rule

By Mike Oz

One of baseball’s greatest enemies is tradition.

Baseball feels like it must adhere to decades of tradition because people used to call it America’s Pastime. Those days are over — the rest of the sports world has passed baseball by, and a great game is left trying to convince a short-attention-spanned audience to love it. And tradition ain’t it.

This allegiance to tradition is why we have the unwritten rules and people shaking their finger about “playing the game the right way” and why people act like bat flips are the worst thing to ever happen in sports. This allegiance to tradition is why baseball fans have a meltdown whenever there’s a new rule floated to make the game quicker or to liven it up.

It’s also why, in an age where nobody can agree on anything, people resoundingly agreed that they hated baseball’s new extra-innings rule.

Well, sometimes tradition needs to get out of the way and enjoy a bat flip or a 10th inning that looks a little different than when Willie Mays played.

Sure, the new extra-innings rule — which starts a runner at second base in the 10th inning and after — isn’t what your grandpa told you about when you sat on his couch and watched your first baseball game. It’s not romantic like that.

But you know what? It is practical. And you know what else? It solves one of baseball’s biggest problems. Other sports can change on a whim and it’s not an earth-shattering development for fans. The other major sports — which, let’s face it, have far more action — were smart enough to realize that fans don’t even want to see them drag on, so they have different overtime rules.

Baseball tries to avoid 17-inning games and people are acting like someone killed their dog. You don’t like 17-inning games. And if you say so, you’re lying.

A Dodgers fan yawns during the 17th inning of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
A Dodgers fan yawns during the 17th inning of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Here’s why I like the new extra innings rule and think baseball should keep it beyond 2020:

  • Baseball greatly needs some “final two minutes” type of novelty, something that’s going to make you turn on a game even when you don’t care about the two teams involved. Seeing if either team can get a man on base in the 10th inning isn’t exactly a reason to hit the Bat Signal. Starting each half-inning with a runner on second base and the pressure immediately on both teams certainly is. This scenario attracts the casual sports fan — which is what baseball desperately needs.

  • It’s great for short attention spans. This is another thing that baseball is battling — not just in sports, but in every single thing that competes for someone’s attention. We are not a society that waits four hours for the payoff. We want excitement, victory and defeat, and we want it now. You start with a runner on second base, the drama is already cranked up five notches.

  • I believe wholeheartedly that baseball is at its best in the postseason. If MLB can bottle up the tension of the playoffs and give it to us all summer, there would be more baseball fans. This is the closest thing out there. In October, you feel the importance of every pitch. In the 10th inning, with a runner in scoring position, you do too.

There’s plenty of upside for the players too: More rest, not wearing out your bullpen, not running the risk of someone getting hurt in the 12th inning of a relatively meaningless July game.

People who hate the rule will argue that teams can luck their way into a win, which is true. This does make it a lot easier for a team to wander into a win. But getting a walk-off single off a backup catcher forced into pitching in the 15th isn’t some hallowed sports achievement.

And what’s really the downside here? Familiarity? Tradition? We’re changing the game again? Get over it.

So while plenty of people — from players to fans — are probably waiting for 2020 and this extra-innings trial balloon to end, I’ll happily say I’m not looking forward to the days of 14-inning games and position players pitching and baseball dragging into tomorrow.

Sorry, but trying to keep your eyes open during the 14th inning when your favorite team doesn’t have any hitters left on its bench isn’t a tradition we have to keep. In the modern world, finding a way to make new people tune in to baseball games — even if it’s just for an exciting, tense, extra-innings decision — is more important than keeping tradition intact.

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