Over the past several seasons, Major League Baseball has made an effort to shorten the game. While the league has instituted a three-batter minimum for pitching changes and will experiment with more rule changes in the minor leagues this season, the biggest controversy has come from their change in the rules for extra innings.
Before last season, MLB decided to place a runner on second base beginning in the 10th inning. The change had been tested in the minor leagues and has shortened the length of regular-season games.
But the Minnesota Twins would probably like to change that rule further. Of their four losses this season, three of them have come in extra innings. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re performing poorly at the end of those games or that the rule is broken, but the way the Twins have lost those games shows the rule needs to be tweaked.
Depth was a key factor when they built their roster. The Twins already had Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey on the back end of their bullpen. They added former closers Alexander Colomé and Hansel Robles to pitch high-leverage innings at the end of the game. While this is helpful at the end of a nine-inning game, it should be a bonus in extra innings — but it may not be.
The Twins loss to the Detroit Tigers on April 6 was a prime example. With a runner on second base, the Tigers didn’t need to go deep into their bullpen to close out the game. If they couldn’t keep the run on second from scoring, they’d have the same opportunity to score in the bottom of the 10th, which put them at an advantage.
As Justin Morneau said on a recent Twins broadcast, it also creates a different scenario for managers at the end of the game. Knowing it’s unlikely the game will get to an 11th inning, they can be aggressive and empty their bullpen. This creates more pitching changes at the end of the game and slows everything down, contradicting the rule’s purpose.
The influence of the new rule extends beyond the pitcher’s mound. In the Twins’ loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on April 1, they faced Josh Hader late. Trying to generate offense off one of the top relievers in baseball should make it a challenge to get the tying run across the plate. But with the runner on second, the Twins didn’t need to collect a hit against Hader to pressure the Brewers or even win the game.
This scenario presented itself against the Tigers a couple of days later. Facing Hansel Robles, Jeimer Candelario grounded out to advance Harold Castro to third. After Robles struck out Wilson Ramos, the Twins decided to intentionally walk Robbie Grossman after falling behind 2-0. With two men on without a base hit or a walk, noted Twins killer Akil Baddoo collected the walk-off single to secure the victory.
The same situation happened to the Twins in Saturday’s loss to the Seattle Mariners. With Taylor Trammell on second base, Taylor Rogers allowed a bunt single to Braden Bishop to advance Trammel to third. After J.P. Crawford grounded out, Mitch Haniger hit a sacrifice fly to score Trammell before Rogers ended the inning with a ground out.
In both instances, the Twins lost the game allowing just one hit in the inning. While the same thing could have happened if the Tigers or Mariners led off their half of the inning with a home run, it results in a victory that doesn’t determine the true winner.
This also puts relievers in a tough spot. Baseball determines many players’ pay on a season-to-season basis, so a reliever coming into an extra-inning game could hamper his own arbitration case. This could cost them money at the end of the season because it gives teams an excuse not to spend money on another arm.
It’s almost like MLB should add a stat for extra-inning losses in the same way the NHL accounts for overtime losses in its standings. At its core, MLB’s extra-inning rule is the same principle as the NHL’s three-on-three overtime, which shortens the game and increases the opportunity for a game-winning score.
Baseball is unlikely to implement hockey’s rules, which also can be confusing and controversial. Instead, to determine a true winner, MLB could consider putting the runner on first base. Or they could wait to implement the rule in the 11th or 12th inning. That way, teams don’t bank on emptying their bullpen to extend the game and are rewarded for their depth. It also achieves the goal of avoiding a 17-inning marathon that has managers scrambling for a solution.
This will be considered when MLB and the players association negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement. While the rule could be changed entering the 2022 season, the Twins’ best option is to adapt their own strategy to turn some of their extra-inning losses into wins.