clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The extra-inning free runner isn’t going anywhere


MLB: SEP 20 Diamondbacks at Dodgers Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Manfred Man will stick around for a while, as Major League Baseball’s joint competition committee voted Monday to make the free runner in extra innings permanent going forward in the regular season, per Jesse Rogers at ESPN, keeping in place the rule that’s been in place the last three seasons.

Starting each extra inning with a runner on second base began during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and was restored in each of the last two years, “in an effort to preserve player health and safety during the condensed schedule,” in MLB’s words.

“It’s not real baseball,” Clayton Kershaw said after an extra-inning game in 2020. “But it’s fine for this year, and I hope we never do it again.”

Unfortunately for Kershaw, the rule persists, even with the first “normal” full MLB schedule in four years.

Whatever we may think about the rule strategically or aesthetically, in one sense the free runner in extra innings has delivered on its main promise, by shortening extra-inning games.

Extra-inning game lengths, 2018-22

Year Games over by 1 extra over by 2 extra over by 3 extra over by 4 extra 5+ extra innings
Year Games over by 1 extra over by 2 extra over by 3 extra over by 4 extra 5+ extra innings
2018 216 100 (46.3%) 144 (66.7%) 177 (81.9%) 197 (91.2%) 19 (8.8%)
2019 208 91 (43.8%) 149 (71.6%) 171 (82.2%) 185 (88.9%) 23 (11.1%)
2020 72 51 (70.8%) 66 (91.7%) 70 (97.2%) 72 (100%) 0
2021 223 160 (71.7%) 206 (92.4%) 220 (98.7%) 222 (99.6%) 1 (0.4%)
2022 216 156 (72.2%) 199 (92.1%) 210 (97.2%) 215 (99.5%) 1 (0.5%)
Included 11 extra-inning games from doubleheaders in 2020-21, when such regulation games lasted only seven innings.

The table above is labeled as such to account for the added weirdness of seven-inning doubleheader games in 2020-21, which provided just over two handfuls of extra-inning games that might not otherwise look like it on first glance. Ten of the 11 extra-inning doubleheader games in those two seasons lasted eight innings, which for our classification purposes means one extra inning, the equivalent of 10 innings for a nine-inning game.

Put more simply, in 2018 and 2019, when there was no free runner, extra-inning games were over by 11 innings 69 percent of the time. From 2020-22, with the free runner, extra-inning games were over by the second extra frame 92 percent of the time.

In 2018-19, ten percent of extra-inning games lasted longer than 13 innings. In the last three seasons, only two such games happened. The longest was the Dodgers16-inning win in San Diego on August 25 (and into August 26), 2021.

After that game manager Dave Roberts said, “Obviously we’re not going to take batting practice tomorrow. We’ll see how many guys feel good enough to play tomorrow.”

That gets to the heart of the rule, that exceedingly long games are overly taxing to teams, especially on the pitching side, with roster moves often needed in the days after to refresh the bullpen. During that 16-inning game in 2021, the Dodgers were carrying nine active relievers and used them all. Then they called up a 10th pitcher for the bullpen the next day. Is legislation needed to remove the consequences for such a rare occurrence?

In the before times, super long games weren’t all that prevalent. In 2018-19 combined, just 76 total games that lasted longer than 12 innings. Two teams played in each of those games, which makes for 152 total team games, or five per team over the course of a season. Is once every five-plus weeks or so enough to need a rule that effectively prevents such a thing?

Well, at least the extra-inning rule will only be for the regular season. The postseason is free of such shenanigans.