March 29, 2021

MLB's Extra-Inning Baserunner Gimmick Saved About 75 Seconds Per Game In 2020

Here's a hot take: It was a horrible decision for Major League Baseball to trash 150 years of how baseball games are played to shorten the average game by merely 75 seconds.

2019 to 2020: The average time of an extra-inning game shrunk from an all-time high of 3:10 to 3:06, but the average time of a nine-inning game increased from 3:05 to 3:07 (the highest in the sport's history).

Society For American Baseball Research
Baseball Records Committee, Spring 2021
Trent McCotter, Editor

In the Summer* and Fall** 2020 newsletters, with the help of Pete Palmer and Al Yellon, we predicted the effects of MLB's supposedly temporary rule of starting extra-inning games with a runner on second base, for the purposes of ending games sooner. It was unclear whether this was designed to (1) make such games more exciting, (2) reduce the time players spent on-field and thus conceivably reduce the chances of catching COVID, or (3) both.

Using historical data of extra-inning rates, we predicted that about 75 games would go to extra innings in 2020. Thanks to research by Jim Wohlenhaus, who catalogued all the extra-inning games in 2020, we can confirm that our prediction turned out to be right on target – 75 games in 2020 went into extras.

Further breaking it down confirms how close real life was to our prediction, which was based on a combination of how many games went X innings historically and how often one team would outscore the other if both began an inning with a runner on 2nd base and nobody out:

Games Going Exactly X Innings    Real-Life    Prediction
          10 inn                     53           50
          11 inn                     17           15
          12 inn                      4            4
          13 inn                      1            1
          14 inn                      0           <1

Under both the old and new rules, the 10th inning would be played no matter what, so there were only 28 "extra-extra" innings in 2020 (i.e., the 11th or later). The expected total under the old rule would have been about 84 such "extra-extra" innings. So we saved about 56 innings of play with the new rule. That is very close to our predicted total of 58 saved innings.

This confirms our prediction that in the end, this new rule saved only about (on average) 75 seconds of time on the field in each game, given the average time of an inning. Other disagree, but as for me, I'd rather give up 75 seconds, get rid of the gimmicky rule, and revert to the one that was good enough for the first 150 seasons. But MLB has announced it intends to keep the new rule despite its minimal time savings.

Note: MLB also started doing 7-inning doubleheaders in 2020, so for any of those that went into extra innings, the 8th inning is treated as the 10th inning (and so on) for purposes of the stats above.

* Summer 2020

Without a doubt, the most bizarre new gimmick for the 2020 season is that extra innings begin with a runner on second base, ostensibly designed to save time in extra-inning games, apparently under the theory that fans will gladly pay attention for 9 innings but then suddenly demand that the game be ended – by any means necessary – as soon as the 10th inning begins.

This new change will have several noticeable effects on record keeping. For example, this baserunner somehow got on base despite his team having never even batted, meaning it is now possible for a team to have more runs scored than baserunners – a logical impossibility under the rules used for the last 150-plus years of baseball. . . .

It seems the likely outcome of this rule will be either: (1) the batting team will attempt to bunt the runner to third, then hit a sacrifice fly or punch a single over the infield; or (2) the fielding team will walk the first batter to put runners on 1st and 2nd, then attempt to get a ground-into-double-play.

In other words, if the goal were to generate excitement, the rule will fail to deliver. If the goal were to end games quickly, the Commissioner might as well have said that any game that goes past 12 innings will be a tie.

And longtime member Pete Palmer reports that the new rule will actually not end up saving that much time anyway. . . . 

There will be about 900 games played this year, with an estimated 150 of them going to extra innings, based on past experience. Under the old rules, about 78 of those games would make it to the 11th inning; under the new rule, about 38 will do so. Under the old rules, about 41 of the 900 games would make it to the 12th inning; under the new rule, about 9 will do so. And so on . . .

Add it all up, and the new rule will be expected to save about 110 innings over the course of the entire shortened season. By comparison to the 8,100 regulation innings played (1st through 9th for 900 games), the savings in terms of time is ultimately rather negligible (1.4% of the regulation-inning total).

Given that the average of all games is a little over 3 hours, this new rule will save, on average for the entire season, about 2.5 minutes per game . . . 

** Fall 2020

In the Summer issue, we discussed the 2020 gimmick whereby extra innings would begin with a runner on second base, ostensibly designed to save time in extra-inning games. We estimated that about 150 games would enter extra innings this season, and the new rule would save about 110 total extra innings – working out to about 2.5 minutes saved per game on average.

Committee member Al Yellon noticed that this estimate was actually far too generous. Because of a calculation error in the newsletter, there would actually be only about 75 games that would go into extra innings (not 150), meaning the new rule would save about 55 extra innings over the course of the shortened season. Given the average time of an inning, that amounts to about 75 seconds saved per game.


FenFan said...

This further exemplifies my disdain for some of these rule changes that MLB imposes that are designed to "speed up the game." It's not quite but along the same vein of the automatic intentional walk, which at most would save about 30 seconds of game time. Okay, sounds great, but then I did a quick pull of data from BB-Ref and showed that, on average, teams used this strategy once every three games. Let me repeat that: once every three games. Not much return on investment.

of course, there is PLENTY of evidence that shows using Statcast technology to call balls and strikes real time would speed up the game AND improve "the integrity of the game," but NO, we're still trying to understand its impact. The blind leading the blind...

Anonymous said...

Want to shorten the games and give starting pitching a shot in its aching arm? Make a rule that any starting pitcher who gets to the 7th inning only has to get 2 outs in the 7th and each succeeding inning. I'm sure baseball purists would hate this, but it's a simple change that could have far-ranging implications. As far as I can see, all the implications are good.

Let the snorting and harrumphing begin.

allan said...