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OC Register: Hoornstra: MLB’s worst new rule is already a familiar one


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If you’ve ever brought someone to their first baseball game as an adult, you might be able to relate to the experience of seeing a game for the first time with fresh eyes. Maybe you were once an adult watching a live game for the first time.

When you know what to look for, a baseball game looks very different. The more you watch, the more you learn. This is true of every sport, though baseball offers the broadest spectrum of entry points. You never know what will turn a novice into a fan for life, but we all started somewhere.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, in light of MLB’s decision to permanently institute the rule mandating an automatic runner on second base in extra-innings games. It’s the perfect rule to explain the difference between a novice, the person who might or might not watch one game all season, and someone who is invested from the time pitchers and catchers report until the final out of the World Series.

Converting a novice into a hardcore fan is hardly a science, but it’s the sort of mandate that leads to an off-season like this one, when the sport we knew a year ago will be very different from the one about to begin play in Arizona and Florida. Consider all the changes:

  • A pitch timer: the batter and pitcher will be restricted to 15 seconds between pitches when no runners are on base, and 20 seconds with runners on.
  • Limited pickoff attempts/timeouts: pitchers can step off the mound only twice in a single plate appearance, while hitters can only call timeout once.
  • Bigger bases: First base, second base and third base all grew by three inches, to an 18-inch square, slightly reducing the distance between every base.
  • Defensive restrictions: Two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base, with two feet on the infield dirt, whenever the pitcher is on the rubber.

Ostensibly, MLB isn’t worried the new rules will persuade hardcore fans to watch something else in their spare time. If anything, the bullet-point rules above are an attempt to move the game closer to its original incarnation, with a faster pace and more balls in play. I’m eager to see if the new rules work, cautiously optimistic that they’ll work for the better.

The automatic runner on second base is not new. It was introduced at the major-league level in 2020, after a brief trial period in the minor leagues. At first it made sense for logistical reasons.

MLB was brazenly attempting to squeeze a 60-game regular season between the months of July and September 2020 with almost no time to travel between games. A spate of team-wide COVID-19 outbreaks made it nearly impossible to complete the schedule on time as it was. It made sense to take extra precautions to keep every game as short as possible.

The automatic-runner rule was reprised in 2021, when it was still unclear whether the available COVID-19 vaccines would be efficacious enough to stage a 162-game season under normal travel conditions. That made sense. It did not make sense to reprise the rule in 2022, but it came roaring back like a “Sharknado” sequel.

Clubhouse-wide COVID-19 outbreaks were rarely an issue last season. Doubleheader games are no longer seven-inning affairs. Yet the automatic runner on second base is now permanent. Why?

Players have had time to weigh in on this, and some have affirmed the rule’s benefits ― or rather, its benefit: The games are shorter. Everyone can make it home on time. Twenty-nine games lasted 15 innings or longer in 2019, the last season before the automatic runner rule. There was one 15-inning game in 2022. Regardless of how you feel about it, the rule achieves its intended result.

Funny thing about active players: most of them are rules-agnostic as a means of self-preservation. Only four were included on the competition committee that had direct input into adopting the automatic runner rule; everyone else must simply play by the rules they are given. Why protest a rule when your mental energy is better spent elsewhere?

The same is not true for team owners, for whom every game-shortening rule is a soothing salve. Think about it: the longer the game, the longer a stadium’s full electrical output is pumping, the higher the bill. At some point, most concession stands are closed, so no money is recouped from food and beverage sales. Gameday staff who are eligible for overtime pay are more likely to incur overtime pay as the game drags past the ninth inning. The automatic runner is a rule made for owners, all of whom can afford to pay the aforementioned expenses, but surely would rather not.

What about fans? I routinely get emails and direct messages from people with feelings about the automatic runner. If the vast majority of them were in charge of Major League Baseball, the rule would have been eliminated by now. Their most popular arguments:

  • MLB had never used a different set of rules for innings 1 through 9, and everything thereafter, in its history. Why start now (at least, now that the pandemic has calmed)?
  • The game-ending walk-off hit, formerly a novel excitement, now becomes so easy to achieve that it is routine.
  • Marathon extra-innings games, even more of a novelty, are effectively eliminated ― turning baseball into a less unique version of itself.

I’ll see those arguments and raise one more: extra-inning statistics are meaningless now. Runs batted in, runs, pitcher wins and losses, and blown saves are all easier to achieve under the automatic-runner rule. Yet by the end of the season, the extra-inning statistics are indistinguishable from the others on a player’s ledger, a cleverly homogenized blend of apples and oranges.

How we got here, I think, is indicative of the differing expectations of hardcore fans and casual fans. Sure, all of them would like to make it home on time. But the hardcore fan has already calibrated the length of a 162-game season. He or she understands that even if today’s game drags on past midnight, tomorrow’s probably won’t. They’re invested for the long haul regardless of what happens today.

The casual fan doesn’t have the luxury of perspective. They want to be entertained tonight, preferably before tonight becomes tomorrow. The novelty of a marathon game is lost because this might be the only baseball game they’ve ever invested in. As far as the first-time attendee knows, every game is destined for extra innings.

Players, owners, new fans and old fans should all have a seat at the table when it comes to the rules of the game. The automatic runner on second base is perhaps the most divisive rule among the interested parties. I’m not sure who decided the status quo needed changing, but I’ll mourn the novelties baseball will lose ― probably by reminding my own children around the start of the 10th inning.

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