Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The new baseball rule for extra innings

When the 2020 baseball season finally starts (i.e., if the pandemic doesn't stop it), there will be a new rule at the major league level, under which, for extra innings, each team will start with a runner at second base. The idea is to make scoring more likely, hence shortening the games that burn out teams' pitching staffs while also asking too much of the fans. (I certainly can't follow Mets' night games for very long, if at all.)

I'm not inherently against the new rule either on tradition grounds or because it's so arbitrary. To me, it's an empirical question of how it affects the fan experience of following the games. But in that regard, I wonder if it will backfire. We'll see.

One possibly interesting strategic element follows from the fact that the runner who starts out on second base is the one who made the last out in the previous inning. (Or his lineup replacement.) Suppose the Mets had a speedy outfielder batting in the ninth, with two outs, no one on base, and Wilson Ramos on deck. Would the other team consider walking the outfielder to pitch to Ramos, just so he could make the last out? He is said to be the slowest runner in baseball, so the idea would be to handicap the Mets if the game went to extra innings, unless they were willing to sub him out.

But on to the big problem. What worries me about the rule is that it might lead to boring one-run strategies. That is, have the extra inning's first batter bunt the free baserunner over to third, with the next one bunting him home. That would be little fun to watch if it happened too frequently. And when it did succeed, there would be two outs and no one on base, limiting further scoring and excitement.

Suppose the visiting team fails to score in the top of the inning, or scores exactly one run.  That would put a huge premium on one-run strategies in the bottom of the inning, such as bunt-bunt with the runner on second.

But if you think about it recursively, then in the top of the inning the visiting manager is going to be anticipating what the home manager might do in the bottom of the inning. Scoring zero runs in the top, as a consequence of seeking to maximize expected runs but falling short, leaves one open to the home team manager's getting the relatively easy run, in the bottom of the inning, by following the boring strategy.

To put it differently, a visiting manager with a runner on second base and no outs becomes more likely to follow a one-run strategy once he knows that the home manager will also start out with a runner on second base.

Again, it's an empirical question whether the new rule will backfire in this way. Good idea to try it out in a 60-game season, so it can be discarded or tweaked if it malfunctions.

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