Tomorrow in Arizona and on Monday in Florida, the last leagues to start their seasons will begin to mold the newest draftees and the latest international prospects to make it to the U.S. These newly-minted professionals will be dealing with a number of changes to their routine – wooden bats, lack of spectators, and the day-to-day grind that is the work of baseball. But they will also have to get used to a change in procedure. In MLB’s constant effort to speed up the game, the Arizona Rookie League and the Gulf Coast League will be two of the incubators to study proposed changes to extra-inning protocols.
The ARL and GCL, along with the Dominican Summer League, will be playing this season with a modified version of the extra-inning rules developed by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) in 2008. These rules, which have been utilized in the World Baseball Classic, state that after ten full innings, each team will begin the 11th inning (and any subsequent inning) with runners on first and second to begin the frame. Additionally, both teams are allowed to start their extra-inning batting order anywhere they would like in the 11th, with the two batters preceding the first hitter in the 11th in the original lineup being placed on the bases.
The rules for minor league baseball differ in three major ways from the IBAF.
- Only one runner will be placed on second base to begin the extra innings
- The extra-man rule will begin in the 10th inning, not the 11th
- The lineup cannot be modified as in the IBAF. In other words, the runner placed on the base to begin the 10th inning will be the batter who ended the previous inning (or a pinch-runner who will take over that lineup position).
As GCL’s manager of baseball and business operations Andy Shulz explained to BaseballAmerica in February, the complex leagues are a perfect place to experiment with these rules:
[…]When you think of the minor leagues, and especially the lower-level leagues, you’ve got young pitchers, pitchers that are developing and you get to 13, 14, 15 (innings), whatever it is, you start to get into extra innings and you’re worried about pitch counts, you’re worried about who’s going to pitch tomorrow, you’re worried about ‘Could somebody possibly get hurt?’
Thinking about it from that, about what it does for player development, I can see why (they’re considering the rule).
While the incubators in Arizona and Florida have yet to be turned on, the experiment has already begun in the Dominican Summer League. Can we discern anything from the small amount of data thus far?
In the first two weeks of the DSL season (from Saturday June 3 through Saturday June 17), the league played a total of 252 games, 23 – or 7.5% – going into extra innings. The very first day of the season saw the protocol go into effect, as the Nationals and Cardinals battled to a 4-4 tie after nine innings. However, neither team was able to take advantage of the extra runner in the 10th, while both were able to take advantage in the 11th (each scoring twice). The game finally ended in the 12th with the Nats again failing to take advantage of the extra runner and the Cardinals picking up the victory, singling in the runner from second with two outs.
Since that first day, however, games have mostly ended quickly. Of the additional 22 games, only three have gone beyond 10 innings, with a pair of games going 11 innings and an additional game going a dozen. Home teams have had a huge advantage with the rule, going 14-5 in games ending in the 10th and 3-1 in games that head into the 11th and 12th.
How does that compare to a league without the rule?
Last season in the Dominican Summer League, the league played 269 games over the same first two week period, with 26 (9.7%) going into extra-innings. The games, however, did tend to go longer. Only nine games ended after just 10 innings, with nine more finishing at 11, an additional six going to the 12th, and two serving up four extra-frames. The results were more random as well, with the home squad winning exactly half of the extra-inning battles as opposed to the 74% home win percentage over the same period in 2017.
Additionally, the data from the first 13 gamedays of the 2017 AAA season – aggregating the games from both the International and Pacific Coast Leagues – show that this experiment may be bringing unwanted results. In the 190 games played over the first 13 days, 19 games (10%) went into extras. Eight of the extra-inning games ended after just one extra frame – this includes one game scheduled for seven that ended in the eighth – seven more ended in the 11th, one went a dozen innings and three were played to 13. Home teams won five of the eight games ended after one additional inning, but only four of the 11 that went longer.
For players, victories and postseason honors are foremost in their minds, regardless of the level of play. For organizations though, team results are only important at the major league level; player development is the key in the minor leagues. With pitch counts being a major concern, especially at the lowest ends of the minor leagues, curbing the rate of extra-long extra-inning games is a high priority. And the early results indicate that the rule change is effective from that specific perspective.
However, a fair shot of winning ball games for both home and road teams is an important consideration if the rule is to continue to make its way up the MiLB ladder and eventually to come into play at the major league level. Early results on that accord seem far less promising.