The date was April 5, 2018 and it was opening day in the Double-A Eastern League. That night, the Orioles’ Bowie Baysox affiliate and the visiting Harrisburg Senators became the first two teams in the minor leagues to experience a new rule.
Starting on the farm that year, when games progressed to extra innings, a runner would be placed at second base to start each half-inning. It was an attempt to end games sooner, with extra benefits of keeping teams from running out of pitchers and keeping position players off the mound.
But that night, the game didn’t end all that fast. Harrisburg scored once in the top of the 10th and so did Bowie in the bottom half. Harrisburg scored once in the top of the 11th and so did Bowie during its turn. And when Harrisburg scored four runs in the 13th, Bowie did answer. But three runs was one shy and Bowie lost 10-9. O’s lefty John Means, by the way, started that game and gave up three runs over five innings. Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Hays combined to go 2-for-13. The Baysox scored nine runs, but they still lost.
Now, in the 2020 major league season, we are expected to see a runner placed at second base to start the 10th inning and each half-inning in extra-inning games. Each team will bat with a runner in scoring position. The runner will be the batter that made the third out the previous inning, or a pinch-runner. If a run scores, it will be unearned for the pitcher, but he could still take the loss.
Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper tweeted some interesting stats this week that show this rule does work in terms of ending games sooner. In the two seasons before this rule on the farm, in 2016 and 2017, games were resolved in the first extra inning 45 percent of the time. But in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, that went up to 73 percent. We say, resolved in the first extra inning and not the 10th inning, because minor league doubleheaders are seven innings. So extra innings there begins in the eighth.
Cooper also tweeted that in 2016-17, there were 133 games that went 13 innings or more. In 2018-19, there were just five with the new rule in place. In games that went 11 innings or more, there were 800 in 2016-17 and 347 in 2018-19. The rule did shorten games.
Bowie play-by-play broadcaster Adam Pohl has worked plenty of games with this rule since he called that opening night game in 2018 between Bowie and Harrisburg.
“If you are the road team, you have to score one run in the top of the inning,” Pohl said. “It is so easy to get one run. If you get none, you are in dire straits. I believe a team once got no-hit in the minors, but won scoring in the last of the 10th. The visiting manager is making the biggest decision. Are they playing for one run or are they going to go for more? He has that decision to bunt or swing away.”
Pohl said there was no predominant strategy for the visiting team in the tie game to bunt and advance that runner to third with one out or not bunt. But if the visiting team didn’t score, he did see strategy play out.
“Just about every time, if the visiting team didn’t score, you would see a home team bunt,” Pohl said. “Then you move the infield in and you try to win it with a sac fly or in a variety of ways. Also, one thing you might see, because these games did end quickly, is a player not often taken out of the game, pinch-run for (at second base to start the half-inning). Usually you would not see a big bat back taken out of the lineup, but in this situation, often the game is going to be over with soon one way or the other.”
No doubt this rule, which has been used in international competitions like the World Baseball Classic, will not garner much favor among most baseball fans. It will look and feel very strange. Many traditionalists will complain. Pohl has seen it for two years and is not a big fan.
“I just enjoy baseball. It’s not terrible. It does serve its purpose - to end games,” he said. “You know, It can be exciting, I guess. But I’m kind of old-school. I really like baseball and this doesn’t really feel like baseball.”