On July 24, Angels’ designated hitter Shohei Ohtani struck out to end the top of the ninth inning of a tie game against the Oakland Athletics. When the A’s couldn’t put a run on the board, Ohtani was directed to grab his helmet and head to second, making him the first player to start the extra innings on base following a new rule implemented this year. Make sure to remember that for bar trivia, if we ever get to do that again.
And how did that go? Well, let’s ask the man involved:
Ohtani’s reaction when reminded he’s starting the inning on second base ? pic.twitter.com/LUarOXmqUa
— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) July 25, 2020
If you’re automatically skeptical of everything that commissioner Rob Manfred’s office has done to change baseball or just don’t want to see the sport change at all — a combination of groups that probably covers a majority of baseball fans — this rule might be uncomfortable. Baseball has evolved somewhat over the past 174 years — we use gloves now, for example — but more than a few fans feel like Manfred has asked the sport to grow an extra leg overnight.
I wanted to join them. But it took diving into just a handful of games to know that I couldn’t. And I’m ready to admit that.
What does the new rule get right?
If the purported reason for making this change was making extra-inning games shorter, the MLB had good reason to think it would work. For the last two years, Minor League Baseball has been testing this change, and the results have been significant.
If you’re wondering what it’s like to begin extra innings w/ a runner on 2nd base, it’s been going on in @MiLB the last 2 years.
The results (via @MiLB_PR):
When a game goes to extras, it ends in…
• 1 extra inning: 73% of the time
• 1 or 2 extra innings: 93% of the time pic.twitter.com/9njtjMidty
— Mike Monaco (@MikeMonaco_) June 23, 2020
I’m not personally bothered by games feeling like they’ll never end. One of my favorite baseball memories as a kid was Game 4 of the 2005 Braves-Astros NLDS series, an 18-inning masterpiece capped off by three innings of Roger Clemens in relief. In lots of ways, this game marks everything that some traditionalists are fighting to keep alive. The Astros were in the National League! Braves starter Tim Hudson collected two hits, including a double, in his four plate appearances! The same fan caught both the walk-off home run and a grand slam in the eighth!
This is clearly one of the most extreme examples I can find, but I bring it up because I believe that this kind of high-pressure baseball can be compelling without anything happening. One of the main reasons I’ve had doubts about changes to the game is because I believe they’ve aimed to eliminate reasons to tune out but haven’t given fans a new reason to tune in.
But looking back, it’s hard to ignore that nobody scored for 17 consecutive half-innings after Brad Ausmus went deep with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Keeping games like this around — even just a few innings like this — is catering to fans who watch baseball because they believe it matters. But in a 162-game season, very rarely can we watch a game and see that one inning, even one at-bat, will matter. Banking on that as the reason why fans will tune in isn’t enough. The changes to baseball that seek to quicken the game don’t fix this problem — maybe we’ll see more nasty pitches or more home runs in a given time slot, but all told, not much tangibly changes if Cubs-Cardinals is 15 minutes shorter. After all, the NFL managed to draw huge audiences despite including commercials breaks both before and after kickoffs.
And that’s why I believe that the success of the extra-inning rule is, fundamentally, an accident. But what they did was create a new reason to watch.
Through Aug. 4, there have been 13 extra-inning games and a total of 19 innings of baseball with runners starting on second. In those games, teams have scored at least one run in their half-inning 55% of the time, and in 10 out of the 13 games, the 10th has ended with at least one run on the board. Teams have scored 1.89 runs per extra inning, and even that total is somewhat lower than it could be because the home team just needs to outscore the away team.
In other words, the MLB accidentally stumbled upon the baseball equivalent of college football’s overtime rule. No, it’s not traditional baseball. But it fixes something that can be seen as an issue — that baseball can feel like it will never end — by pushing us toward an ending in a way that makes managers want to push their chips in. There’s no reason to hold on to a closer in wait of a lead that might never come, and there’s no reason to keep someone slow on base just to make sure they get to hit again.
I absolutely loathe that I’m typing this, but the result is a moment designed to produce highlights. And if that’s what it takes to expose casual fans to the best players in the game, I’m all for it.
How are teams handling it?
All that said, so much of the power in these moments rests in the hands of managers, many of whom weren’t hired for their competence with the X’s and O’s in tough moments. I’d like to think that baseball is run by people less stubborn than football coaches (I’m not going to get too far into how bad football coaches are at applying simple statistics, but please watch Jon Bois make fun of punting).
That said, the power of conventional wisdom can’t be denied, and we’re in the process of seeing it develop. So it’s worth checking in on what’s starting to happen.
1. They’re trying to bunt
There’s a whole lot of good literature about why bunting has died in recent years. If you check out Baseball Prospectus’ data on run expectancy, you can see that having a runner on second with one out (the result of a sac bunt) is generally less a less valuable position than a runner on first with none out. The same goes for bunting a runner over from second.
|First & Second
|First & Third
|Second & Third
So, even a successful sacrifice bunt decreases the number of runs you’d expect to score. But in extras, it’s not always about scoring the maximum number of runs. In a tied game, the home team just has to score one, bunting can make a whole lot of sense if it increases the odds of that happening. What matters more, then, is what these charts tell us about the implied probability of a runner scoring from each base in each situation.
Don’t take this as a green light to bunt every time. I can’t directly calculate how good of an idea swinging away is — there are far too many possibilities — but I can say that a sac bunt is a good idea if you believe there’s greater than a 78.3% chance you’ll advance the runner on second, even assuming that the runner will be out. As is literally always the case in baseball, you can keep asking questions and find more factors to consider, but I won’t go too much farther. If you can lay down a bunt and advance the runner, it probably helps your odds of winning.
So far, the home team has entered their half-inning needing just one run to win eight times, including both the Astros and the Cubs getting two chances in the same game. We’ve seen three players try to bunt with no outs in that time:
- Pirates speedster Jarrod Dyson bunted foul twice before striking out looking against the Brewers on July 27.
- Orioles catcher Pedro Severino successfully bunted Bryan Holaday over against the Rays on Aug. 1. Pat Valaika singled Holaday in with two outs.
- On Aug. 2, Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner showed bunt to the Pirates after Ian Happ walked, pulling in the third baseman José Osuna so far that Steven Souza Jr. stole third. Hoerner struck out later in that at-bat.
That’s not to say that bunting is only for home teams trying to close out the game. Kansas City beat Cleveland after Erick Mejia pulled off a sac bunt to advance Brett Phillips and then Greg Holland struck out the side, including stopping Cesar Hernandez from bunting.
We also saw this particularly beautiful bunt from Tim Lopes while his Mariners trailed the A’s:
I’m not sold that bunting is the best way forward, but I do expect teams to mix it in regularly enough to keep opposing defenses honest, especially on the first pitch of an at-bat. For players capable of making solid contact anywhere other than directly to third base, that might be more effective at advancing the runner.
2. They’re walking the leadoff* man
* but not always the leadoff man
The most notable example has to be Kyle Tucker, who received the honor of being the first player to be intentionally walked to lead off an inning since Barry Bonds in 2007.
The idea is pretty simple: In the bottom inning of a tie game, the extra runner on first probably won’t affect the score. Creating a double-play chance, then, might actually increase the chances of getting out of the inning without the runner score. That was clearly the idea behind walking Tucker. Four others have also been IBB’d, and on at least a few other occasions, players have been walked after being offered nothing but garbage above the plate in hopes of inducing a pop-up.
These walks haven’t always been the first batter, either. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled off that tactic on July 29, going after a slumping Jose Altuve before intentionally walking Alex Bregman. Michael Brantley then grounded into a double play to end the inning. Anthony Rendon and Cody Bellinger have received the same treatment, but only Astros hitters have hit into triple plays so far.
That’s not to see it always works. Jose Martinez drew a leadoff walk against the Blue Jays on July 26, but with his Rays being down one, that actually put the winning run on base. A Kevin Kiermaier triple iced the game shortly thereafter.
Of all the strategies that teams will pull out, I most expect this one to become the norm. Considering how much just one out changes the chances of a runner scoring, teams don’t even have to turn the double play to benefit from potentially having an easier throw to second to make. Whether they walk the leadoff man or wait to try to walk a more dangerous hitter coming up second in the order might be the real question.
Should this change be here to stay?
What, you want more of an explanation?
You don’t have to think that baseball is boring to want this change to stick. There are so, so many reasons to watch to begin with — just ask our friends who write for a section on this site called “We Love Baseball.” Whether you’re here to cheer on your city, beat your friends at fantasy, watch guys whiff badly or watch baseball get demolished, none of that gets goes away just because games are more likely to come to a dramatic and strategic ending. If anything, this opens the door for teams to prepare for and execute more interesting tactical moves.
I’m certainly not asking those of you who want to second guess the league about its decisions to shorten games in other ways. But if your only concern is your belief that Manfred has a secret agenda to make baseball terrible, relax for now. They didn’t pull it off.