February 9, 2017
Slaying the Extra-Innings Dragon
By now, we should know not to freak out over some of the things that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says. There isn’t a pitch clock. He hasn’t banned shifts. Calm down. Deep, cleansing breath. And another. Inhale slowly, exhale slowly. Feel better now? Good.
OMG THEY’RE GOING TO PUT A RUNNER ON SECOND BASE AT THE START OF EXTRA INNINGS!!
Well, OK, it’s only in the rookie-ball Gulf Coast League and Arizona League this summer. And it’s only an experiment. And the force behind it appears to be chief baseball officer Joe Torre, not Manfred. But let’s freak out, by all means!
A person might ask, “How big of a problem is this?”
I’m going to answer this two ways. First, the easy/snarky answer. Torre said, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time.”
While reasonable people can disagree about the inherent fun-ness of watching a utility infielder pitch, let’s consider the second of Torre’s sentences. While conceding that an 18-inning game does, in fact, take time, how frequent are they?
Well, here’s a graph showing the frequency of 18-inning (or longer) games since 1998, when the addition of the Rays and Diamondbacks gave us 30 teams.
Yep. Two games per season in each of the past five seasons. Sorry, patrons of the July 1 Cleveland at Toronto game (in which two utility infielders, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, pitched) and the July 17 Pirates at Nationals game (boo, none), your suffering doesn’t make for an epidemic.
But yeah, I’m being a jerk, picking on Torre for throwing out that 18-inning phrase. Let’s look at extra-inning games in general: How often do they occur and how many innings do they entail?
Since 1998, an average of 8.5 percent of all games have gone into extra innings. In 2016, only 7.6 percent did, tying it with 2005 for the lowest in the 30-team era. And since 1998, there have been an average of 446 total extra innings played per season. In 2016, there were 426. Since 1998, there have been only four seasons with fewer than 425. All told, baseball is coming off a season with the fewest extra-inning games and fewest extra innings in general in years.
Granted, that doesn’t negate Torre’s argument, since he didn’t base it on a rising tide of extra-inning games. But it’s odd, isn’t it, to be talking about this when games lasting more than nine innings are at a nadir?