A runner on second?! Three outside-the-box answers to baseball's extra-innings issue

Due up: Bryce Harper, Bryce Harper and Bryce Harper! As MLB experiments with pace of play, there are more intriguing ways to add spice to bonus baseball than simply starting innings with a runner on second base. John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This story was originally published on Feb. 17.

Last year, the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs -- an independent minor league in Northern California -- adopted a rule to force extra-inning games to resolution: Each half-inning would begin with baserunners on first and second base. Indeed, games ended much more quickly. The league's general managers, who pay most of their staff hourly, were happy.

Everybody else? "The players and fans hated it," said Theo Fightmaster, GM of the Sonoma Stompers, who went 8-1 in extra innings. "Even with all our success, it was easily the most hated thing we've ever introduced into the league."

You probably keep hearing that MLB is "experimenting" with a similar rule, one that would put a runner on second base to start each half-inning after a certain point in the game. The World Baseball Classic uses a version of this rule, the low-minors Gulf Coast and Arizona leagues did in 2017 and the All-Star Game and spring training games might this year. But "experiment" is the wrong word. They know "what it looks like." They're just trying to get us used to it; then, when we are, they'll implement it. They're not really experimenting at all.

They should. Putting aside the premise of the problem -- that 18-inning games are bad and we should prevent them -- the runner-on-second-with-nobody-out fix is just about the most boring idea to end games you could think of. As Baseball Prospectus' Matt Trueblood put it this week, this situation leads to "programmed decision-making. In last year's WBC, every instance of games going long enough to trigger runners being placed immediately saw some version of this sequence: sacrifice bunt, intentional walk. It's going to make for a lot of uninteresting extra-inning baseball, which is the very worst kind."

The Stompers bunted every time except once, Fightmaster said; the exception came when the league's reigning MVP was first up. (He struck out, and the Stompers lost; they never tried that again.) And, in the majors, we can see that in such naturally occurring incidents -- runner on second, nobody out, extra innings -- the next batter either walks or attempts a bunt about half the time. A fair number of the remaining outcomes are the sacrifice bunt's dull cousin: the groundout to the right side that moves the runner over.

If the goal is to end baseball games faster, fine, it works well enough. But if the goal is to end baseball games faster and make the sport more exciting/memorable/interesting, it's a disaster. Think of all the interesting ways to end a baseball game that aren't sacrifice bunts followed by sacrifice flies. Think of all the interesting ways you might play out an inning that don't involve intentionally walking a lousy hitter to set up a possible double play. Think of how disappointing it is that baseball's solution to "boring" baseball is to create a sacrifice-bunt-and-walk derby in the 11th.

If they're going to take time to experiment, they should experiment until they find something better. Such as:

1. Reset the lineup every inning; nay, reset it every batter

Starting in the 11th, the manager would be allowed to ignore the batting order and send up anybody who is available -- so, nobody who is on base (no ghost-runners) and nobody who has been removed the game, but anybody else.

Would it "work"? It wouldn't end games as fast as putting a runner on second base would, but it would definitely boost offense. We know, for example, that the one time managers get to set their due-up lineup however they want -- in the first inning -- teams score more runs than in any other inning. Now consider being allowed to send up not just your 1-2-3 hitters, but, say, Bryce Harper, and if he strikes out you'd get to send up, say, Bryce Harper.

Would it be interesting? Every sport is more interesting when the best player is on the screen and has the ball. You don't leave your seat to get a hot dog when the middle of the lineup is coming up, and this would make every inning that inning. Beyond that, imagine the matchups: Aroldis Chapman, in the 11th inning, facing Mike Trout three times! Potentially 10 minutes of Chapman against Trout, or Kimbrel against Judge, or Jansen against Votto. It would open up an entirely new narrative dimension for baseball, forcing ace relief pitchers to get more creative, physically testing the endurance of the best hitters and turning star-on-star matchups into three-act theater.

Would it keep and/or encourage variety? Sure. The paths to scoring one (or more) runs would still be as varied as they are now. You wouldn't have one way you'd expect the game to end, as you do in the runner-on-second construct. The manager would have to manage his best hitters' fatigue, and he might have totally different "lineups" based on what the first batter of the inning does or who is warming up in the bullpen or whether the game is tied or (in the bottom of the inning) he's down by a run or more. It would add more intrigue and strategy, not less. This should be a minimum requirement of any "fix" to extra innings: more intrigue and strategy, not less.

Is it an affront to baseball tradition? I'm not sure how I'd feel about seeing a batter go 11-for-28 in the box score until I see it. It sounds amazing, but maybe I'd cringe at it in real life, and there's certainly an argument that giving the very best hitters a few dozen bonus plate appearances each year would distort all the usual offensive records and benchmarks. And, yes, it definitely violates one of the unique aspects of baseball -- that a batter's turn comes up not when it's most convenient or strategically useful, but only when the irrepressible tick-tock of the batting lineup gets back around to him.

2. Don't start with a runner on second. Start with the bases loaded

Starting in the 11th, it's exactly the same as MLB's proposed change but with more runners. All the runners. Put an extra guy halfway between second and third if you want. Four runners!

Would it "work"? Oh, yeah. With the bases loaded and nobody out, a bit more than two runs are expected to score, on average, and at least one run will score almost 90 percent of the time. (With just a runner on second, it's 1.1 runs on average and at least one run scoring 60 percent of the time.) The chances of a game going scoreless for even one inning under these rules is about 1 in 50, and even that would be the most exciting thing imaginable.

Would it be interesting and/or exciting? There would be no margin for error from the moment the inning started, and almost no lead that a visiting team builds in the top half of the inning would look safe until the moment the inning ended. While I was thinking about this scenario a few minutes ago, wondering what it would be like, I noticed that I had started biting my nails down, just from the mere hypothetical. It'd be incredibly exciting.*

Would it keep and/or encourage variety? Sure. There'd be no obvious "strategy" with the bases loaded -- it's not even obvious whether a team should play for one run, two runs or five runs, considering its opponent will also soon get the bases loaded and nobody out. Over the past two years, visiting teams have had the bases loaded and nobody out in extra innings 17 times, and here's how many runs they've scored: 1, 3, 4, 3, 1, 1, 5, 0, 2, 7, 1, 1, 4, 1, 1, 1, 4.

Again, we see that in this scenario, there's no one, predictable way for the game to end. That's 17 exciting half-innings, all exciting in their very own way. And in 15 of those 17 games, the tying run would immediately be at the plate in the bottom half of the inning, and in more than half of those games the home team would come from behind and win. I'm biting my nails again.

Would it be an affront to baseball tradition? Yes. Very much so. You can't put runners on base who haven't done anything to earn it. And you can't charge a pitcher with allowing a run when he hasn't allowed anybody on. It's sacrilege. (Same as MLB's idea is.)

3. One pitch at-bats

Starting in the 11th, every batter starts with a 3-2 count.

Would it "work"? If the goal is to increase the pace of games, then by definition it would. If the goal is simply to make games end, well, good news there, too: Full counts are hitter's counts. Batters had a .462 on-base percentage on such counts last year and were about as offensively valuable in the aggregate as Buster Posey is normally. Turn your whole lineup into Buster Poseys.

Would it be interesting/exciting? That's a great question. Full counts are all kind of exciting, but maybe they feel that way only because we've been dragged along for four minutes and want to see the payoff. It's quite possible the ratio of time spent walking to the batter's box to time spent in actual action would be too high in this scenario. But it'd be tense -- no waste pitches, no batters taking until they get to two strikes, no stepping out between pitches, no margin for error on either side.

More importantly, though, is that it makes it plausible that games could continue to go 15, 16, 17, 18 or more innings without putting players' health or fans' sleep at serious risk. A reliever could pitch five innings on 20 pitches. And five innings might take only 20 minutes. This is a solution that acknowledges the very real downsides of a 20-inning game without ignoring people who live for 20-inning games.

Would it keep/encourage variety? I think so? This one calls for experimentation most of all, because it would potentially change a lot. There'd be no stolen bases and yet runners going on almost every pitch; there'd be no bunting, because there are two strikes; there'd be very little defense played. But it would certainly add intrigue and strategy to pitching decisions. You might even save your best reliever for this spot or bring out your ace starter to pitch in relief, knowing it's the best return on his effort that you'll ever get. Maybe you end up with Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner matching three-pitch innings one night, and maybe you look up and it's the 50th inning.

Would it be an affront to baseball tradition? Arguably not. Baseball wasn't born with three strikes and four balls; it got there by trial and error after decades of play. Call this just one more adjustment in baseball's history of tinkering. (But, yeah, sure it would be.)

The truth probably is that MLB's decision-makers are trying, whether they realize it or not, to pick a solution that won't change baseball too much; they're trying to avoid the affronts. They're delusional. The change, from its premise, is already radical. It introduces continuity errors and adopts rules that have no spiritual precedent anywhere in the sport. More than anything, it robs us of natural conclusions to each game's unpredictable story, and it does so for no reason other than a few times a year, things get a little bit inconvenient. This is a huge change. There's no way to slip this past us. They're banking on us getting used to it and accepting it, which we probably will. We always do. But if we always do, might as well try something good instead of something bad.

*Relatively speaking. Extremely long baseball games are actually the most exciting thing.