I love baseball. But even I must admit that sometimes baseball is too slow.
Last year, the average Major League Baseball game took 3 hours and 5 minutes — almost 10 minutes longer than the (already very long) 2:56 average of the 2015 season. In trying to address the game's snail's pace, Minor League Baseball (a.k.a. MLB's Petri dish for terrible ideas) announced new rules and procedures last week. While many were perfectly reasonable, if not overdue (there is no reason to allow mound visits for the obvious purpose of buying time for relief pitchers to warm up), there was one change people universally agreed was extremely, exceptionally terrible: the extra innings rule.
"At all levels of Minor League Baseball, extra innings will begin with a runner on second base," the organization explained in 17 blasphemous words.
"This, folks, is a horrible idea," responded Sporting News. Former first baseman Keith Hernandez suggested he would "pack [his] bags and head to the Himalayas" if it is implemented in the Major Leagues. "THIS BETTER NOT EVER MAKE THE MAJORS OR I WILL FLIP THE F--K OUT!" warned one ready-to-snap fan. After presumably breathing deeply and counting to 10 many times, The Athletic's Emma Span soberly intoned that "having had a day to calmly reflect on it … I really, really hate it."
MLB.com's Joe Posnanski made a valiant effort to play devil's advocate. "People do not want to stay for extra-inning games," he said in his lukewarm endorsement of the galling plan to start the top of the 10th with a runner on second. "Oh, sure, there are plenty of diehards who will stay to the very end, but that's just not how most people seem to feel."
Posnanski isn't wrong exactly. Overly long games really do depress fandom. I spent many a night last season wondering when the darn game would be over so I could finally go to bed. (I know with absolute certainty that as soon as I give up and turn off the TV, there will be a six-run comeback in the 11th inning.)
But extra innings aren't the real culprit for why baseball games have gotten so horrendously long. Last season, a mere 7.6 percent of games went into extra frames. This "solution" barely nibbles at the edges of the problem. The real culprits, as Grant Brisbee writes for SB Nation, are the lag time between pitches, needless player "lollygagging," and too many athletes wasting time "doing absolutely nothing of note."
Naturally if a game goes to extra innings, it will be longer. There will be even more lollygagging! So the impulse to get the whole shebang over with makes sense. Starting runners on second, though, does not significantly help this: Both teams have an equal opportunity to score (probably through an actually legitimately boring formula of bunt + sacrifice fly). Sarcastic alternatives have been suggested: Why not just do a homerun derby in extra innings, a kind of baseball version of penalty shootouts? Better yet, Span suggested from the 10th inning on, "all fielders have to hop around in sacks."
It's funny, but it also hits at an important point: Starting a runner on second is in many ways an equally awkward implementation to the sport of baseball. In an analysis of the new rule and how it will officially be registered, Emma Baccellieri points out for Deadspin that it doesn't even fit "into baseball's most fundamental structures — the rulebook, the scorecard."
This new rule is an assault on everything that makes baseball baseball. And remember, dead time is the affliction, not extra innings.
Thankfully, there are straightforward ideas to cure us all of this disease without killing the patient.
"Given that 1) I like baseball, and 2) I possess a limited amount of time to engage in watching baseball, this postulate naturally follows: I want to maximize the amount of quality baseball pleasure I can fit into that limited time," writes Robert Arthur, reasonably enough, for Baseball Prospectus. He suggests a pitch clock, an idea that has received a preposterous amount of pushback from fans and players who scream themselves hoarse about the fact that THERE ARE NO CLOCKS IN BASEBALL. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has illustrated time and time again that he believes baseball is a very boring sport, at least has something correct when he responds that the right to play without a pitch clock has to be earned.
Change is never easy. And baseball people in particular are not especially open-minded, clinging white-knuckled to tradition. We're proud of baseball's long history, and naturally like good, clean rules: three strikes and you're out.
We all need to recognize that the game needs to move more quickly. But there are ways to achieve this goal without wrecking the beautiful languor that makes baseball so wonderful in the first place. So please, let's put to rest the notion that baseball ought to be an extremely exciting game every single second. You are watching a baseball game, after all. What are you expecting? Players running helter-skelter across the field at every given moment? Watch soccer. And leave baseball alone.