As a fan, I have reserved myself to the fact that 2020 has likely both temporarily and permanently changed the game of baseball. MLB’s financial situation, something I already have written about in this space, is currently in flux and plays as a perfect example of these changing times. Teams are not looking to spend this off-season like they have in the past. This became even more apparent this week when the Phillies announced they will not be pursuing the return of free agent catcher JT Realmuto due to an inability to bankroll a player of his caliber at this time.
The financial example is a great one to highlight in terms of an immediate change that is occurring in the game. While this season and off-season will leave their mark in the likely tenuous collective bargaining that is to come after the 2021 season, the magnitude of the financial limits on the game are likely to be recede over time. In short, this too shall pass.
However, 2020 wasn’t just about finances. Far from it, actually. Outside of the obvious shortening of the season, COVID-19 was also the impetus for a number of other rule changes throughout the MLB in this past year. The league claimed most of them to be in the name of safety and reducing strain on players for what was to be a whirlwind of a 60-game campaign. While that consideration does have some merit, one is left to wonder if all changes made in the name of safety are really going to be repealed once the league returns to regular operations during non-pandemic times. After all, opportunists will use periods of upheaval to their advantage and there has likely been no time since World War II that caused greater upheaval for the game than this past year. To his credit, commissioner Rob Manfred has suggested that all changes are likely to return to status quo in 2021. The commissioner did also suggest though that the extra innings rule that allows teams to start their offensive portion of the frame with a man on second base is the most likely rule to carry over into the upcoming season.
Most purists were loath to fathom that such a situation occur in Major League Baseball such as arbitrarily sticking a player on 2nd base in extra innings. However, most actual returns on the rule once it was implemented were surprisingly level-headed. This likely has a lot to do with the fact that while the rule is definitely arbitrary, it is also fair. Both teams get the benefit of the man on second. The rule also highlights something else that purists love: bringing strategy back into the game. Admittedly, strategy is something that is sorely missing in this era of offensives working walks and swinging for the fences. For instance, not only do you get sacrifice bunts with the new extra innings rule, but you get sacrifice bunts that actually make mathematical sense to perform. They are the exactly the type of bunts that the stat nerds always have to remember to classify as being acceptable before going on to denigrate the memory of a simpler time when sacrificing one’s at bat was always an honorable thing to do.
One complaint I have heard on forums and the like is that batting in the bottom half of the inning is likely a benefit under the new rules because you know how many runs you are required to score, but hasn’t that always been the case? Additionally, teams are at the mercy of whomever having made the last out of the previous inning being the man on second. That can lead to random inequality between teams depending on the caliber of baserunner being given the responsibility to score from second base, but I think I had a solution for that.
So, in the spirit of knowing that the runner on 2nd rule is likely here to stay I have come up with the following creative propositions to at least improve its existence. I hereby propose the following tweaks to the “man on second in extra innings” rule. The first one is optional but encouraged. The second one, while messy, I believe to be an absolute necessity.
Regular rosters are expanded from 26 players to 27. This will make the Player’s Union happy and will be somewhat inline with the expanded regular season rosters of 2020 (another rule change that occurred). However, you know how MLB toyed with both leagues having a designated hitter in 2020 and likely wants to bring the universal DH to life moving forward?
Well, one of the 27 men on the roster will now be named as a designated runner. The designated runner will be specified on the lineup card before the game to be the man that starts each inning on second base in extras. HOWEVER, if a manager so desires, he may burn his designated runner in order to pinch run in the 9th inning or earlier. In doing so, the player that the DR replaced will be able to re-enter the game after the DR’s time on the basepaths is over. HOWEVER (again) using the DR this way will mean that he will no longer be useable in extra innings (or again in regular innings) AND the opposing team now gets to choose who will be the man on second in extra innings for said manager’s team.
The arbitrary decision of having the man on 2nd be the last out of the previous inning is now replaced with a legitimate strategy and value decision for the managers to work through. That’s an improvement to me. If this part of the game is going to be arbitrary, then it should at least also be interesting.
In the instance I have created, a team must weigh if replacing their slow-footed catcher who leads off the 8th with a single during a tie ball game is worth replacing at the risk of losing one of your best baserunners as the man on second in extra innings, IF extra innings are to occur. If that’s not tough enough of a decision on its own then also remember that if electing to use the DR in the 8th backfires, it could mean that the previously mentioned slow-footed catcher is likely to be chosen by the opposing team as the man on second in any upcoming extra innings.
Ultimately, I could live without that specific rule change. I think it’s a lot of fun and could bring an extra element of strategy to the table, but its certainly not a requirement. However, in the name of providing an accurate representation to season standings, and how the man on second rule meddles with that representation, I think my other proposal is an absolute necessity.
NHL-style standings. That means league standings are no longer dictated by won-loss record but rather by points. Any win is worth 2 points. Any loss in extra innings is worth 1 point. A loss in a regular 9-inning game is worth no points.
The NHL’s overtime is very similar to the MLB’s extra innings in a way. They take their regular game of 5 on 5 hockey and alter it ever-so slightly in order to make scoring a little more likely. That way, in theory, deadlocks don’t persist as long and games can therefore have quicker outcomes. This is accomplished by removing two men from each side during overtime, which opens up the ice for offense and leads to additional excitement.
Naturally, this also changes the complexion of the game itself and entirely new strategy can be enacted. Games are ended on a different set of parameters than they would if the game was being played with all 5 men on the ice. This goes without even mentioning the additional bit of chaos that shootouts create when the 5-minute OT period isn’t decisive.
Putting a man on 2nd base is the baseball version of going to 3 on 3. It’s likely to create an outcome more quickly, but with a little bit of extra randomness thrown in because of the situation. For that reason, outcomes need to be weighted accordingly. The NHL’s move to soften the blow for a team that loses in overtime is incredibly right-minded as the circumstances under which that team lost aren’t the most representative of their ability as a full-fledged hockey team. The exact same should be done to help teams that lose in extra innings if MLB’s is to keep the runner on 2nd rule.
Admittedly, this would mean revamping the standings and educating the fanbase on that revamping, but I don’t think that will be hard to implement. If this feels like a lot of work when you consider that extra innings only occur in about 8% of MLB games, then I would respond by saying that the same could be said about the initial change to put a man on second. Ultimately, I think if you want to protect the integrity of the standings then acknowledging the erratic nature of putting a man on second in extras is an absolute need. We already acknowledge it by not having this special overtime rule persist in the playoffs, which oddly enough is the exact same way that the NHL behaves for their own special overtime rules.
In a world where more and more teams just make the playoffs anyway, maybe this is a fool’s errand. But if rules can be put in place that both modernize the game and highlight its traditional strong points regarding strategy and seasonal integrity, then they should be pursued.