"The runner on second,” White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer said last week, “I'm not a fan of at all.”
It’s not difficult to see why.
The White Sox took Major League Baseball’s new extra-inning rule for a test drive during Monday’s intrasquad game at Guaranteed Rate Field, and it’s not great.
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I’m no old-school baseball purist. Games are too long, and the league isn’t wrong to try to figure out a way to speed them up. In this case, it’s an attempt to get the game to finish up rather than speed up. And innovation, especially in this most unusual of seasons, should not be turned away.
But I’m not sure this one is a winner. In fact, it’s going to make a loser out of a lot of pitchers, hence their displeasure.
Here’s how we saw it play out Monday.
The White Sox started an inning by trotting Danny Mendick out to second base. Luis Basabe was supposed to bunt him over to third base, what he and many others would be asked to do in the same situation during the regular season. Basabe couldn’t get the bunt down, striking out while trying, but the White Sox made believe that it worked, moving Mendick to third with one out. It allowed for the infield and the pitcher, Jimmy Cordero, to practice for the real thing.
Nick Madrigal was up next and pretty much did what he was supposed to, smoking a line drive. But a drawn-in Leury García made a great play at second base, snagging the liner and keeping Mendick from scoring. The White Sox practiced some more, making a high-stakes pitching change by bringing in Steve Cishek, someone who likely will find himself trying to wriggle out of such a situation come the regular season. Cishek gave up a floater of a base hit to Nicky Delmonico, and the run scored.
Now, soft contact turning a game on its head is nothing new for baseball, and it’s just bad luck pitchers have to deal with. But the point is that through no fault of the pitcher — not even bad luck — it resulted in a run.
And that’s where it’s easy to finding a decent sized flaw in this new extra-inning setup. By starting all extra innings with a runner on second base, the pitcher is in an immediate jam. This is the idea, of course, to increase the chance of a tie-breaking run scoring and the game coming to a quicker conclusion. But nothing had to happen to get to that point.
Let’s say a low-scoring game spins into extras. Congratulations, pitchers, on keeping the opposing offenses in check. Your reward is a runner in scoring position. Get out of it.
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It’s an interesting challenge, and the upside of this rule — outside of the game not lasting five hours, obviously — is increased drama. The situation suddenly becomes as tense as can be, and every move a manager makes to try to keep that run off the board becomes a high pressure one. In a season where players are already preparing for every game to matter in a 60-game sprint to the playoffs, one game in the standings could wind up a huge deal.
But while late-game skippering is fun to watch, will it be as fun without the build-up? It’s one thing if a leadoff man comes through and doubles to start the 10th, putting pressure on the pitcher and the defense. It’s another thing when he’s there at second base and the pitcher — nor the base runner — did anything but show up.
“is there a difference between being here for three and a half hours versus four hours for a game?” Bummer said. “That's for someone else to make a decision that's a whole lot smarter than I am. But I'm not necessarily a fan of that. I think that's when you start messing with the integrity of the game.”
Even the guy who has to do the strategizing isn’t looking forward to it.
“That’s something I’m sure everyone is excited about trying. I’ll be honest, I’m not,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said last month. “I’ll just lay it out there. I’m glad everyone is going to enjoy something new. ‘We want to tie in some excitement.’ I’m more of a traditionalist.
“I would have rather just had — my own opinion is, and I put this out there years ago, and I’ll get myself in trouble — just play an 11-inning game and figure out some way of creating a point system. If you’re tied after that, you use a mechanism that gives you the ability to create something that gives you some form of differentiating yourself from other clubs that end up having the same type of record or whatnot. Then we just play the game and it ends when it ends.”
Bringing this rule in for the 2020 season makes sense from a health-and-safety standpoint. Playing in the middle of the pandemic, the idea is to keep players in close proximity to one another for as little time as possible. Extra innings can drag a game on forever, and that’s not what you want in these circumstances.
But this has been in the works longer than the pandemic’s been around, with the rule used in the minor leagues last year. It’s one of the proposals to shrink game times that have been stretched out by more pitching changes and more selective hitters. The days of Mark Buehrle breezing through a game and getting everyone home for a late dinner are history. So the league is taking matters into its own hands.
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Some things will work. Some things won’t. Some won’t make a difference. No drastic changes seemed to come from the restrictions on the number of mound visits. Nobody seems to pay much attention to the between-inning countdown clocks in every ballpark. We’ll see what effect the three-batter minimum, another new one for 2020, has on the parade of pitching changes. My prediction? It will lead to a bevy of two-out pitching changes.
But none of those new ideas take the pitching and the hitting out of the players’ hands like the new extra-inning rule does. Changes to baseball are just fine, as long as you’re still playing baseball. In this instance, you’re literally removing the pitcher-vs.-hitter essence of things by skipping ahead to the runner in scoring position.
A saving grace? Maybe this won’t be too much of a brave new world for relief pitchers, who tend to be called on to strand runners on a fairly regular basis.
“Relievers, they train for that situation, guys come in with bases loaded, nobody out. So it's just kind of treating it like that,” White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito said Monday. “You're coming in to do your job, execute pitches, get out of the situation. I think if you worry too much about that runner being there, that's when you can get into trouble. I trust that our guys know how to handle that.”
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