Minor league extra-innings rule has helped shorten games

On the second day of the major league baseball season, the Chicago Cubs beat the Miami Marlins 2-1 in 17 innings. The teams combined to use 14 pitchers, and the game took 5 hours, 18 minutes to complete.

Minor league baseball has taken steps to make marathon games of that nature obsolete.

In March, the major and minor leagues combined to announce a new rule throughout the minors: Starting with the 10th inning, a runner would be stationed on second base to begin each inning. While controversial at the outset, the rule has been warmly received by many fans and club personnel. Amid widespread skepticism that it could ever translate to the big leagues, the positive response has exceeded the expectations of even its most ardent supporters.

"I don't know that it would ever happen at the big league level,'' said Sam Bernabe, president and general manager of the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa. "When we first got into it I thought, 'There's no way on earth they would ever do this.' But maybe it's something they can look at and study and get some sort of fan perspective. What do people think? 'Here's how it's working at the minor league level. Should we try it for a certain series of games?'

"That's purely my opinion. Obviously, it could never be used in a playoff or a World Series situation. But I guess at this point, I would never say never. From what I've seen, it has some merit from the fan reaction and a business standpoint. I think it has some legs.''

While the rule was used in the 2016 World Baseball Classic, commissioner Rob Manfred has consistently said he does not foresee it being applied beyond the developmental level.

"I don't see this is a rule that we are going to bring to Major League Baseball,'' Manfred said in a March 29 interview on ESPN's Golic and Wingo show. "Good experiment. One that is probably not major league-worthy.''

Manfred wasn't available for comment for this story.

The mechanics of the rule are simple. If, for example, a team's leadoff hitter makes the final out in the ninth inning, he takes second base and the No. 2 hitter in the lineup comes to the plate to begin the 10th. The prime objective was to reduce the strain on pitching staffs and eliminate the need to use position players as pitchers during marathon minor league games.

Statistics have shown the change is having its desired effect:

• Through July 1, only eight minor league games this season have lasted 12 innings or more. During the 2016 season, 183 games lasted that long. In 2017, 162 games went 12 innings or more.

• A total of 71 percent of extra-inning games have ended in the 10th inning this season. In 2017, 49 percent of games ended in the 10th.

• Minor league extra-inning games are ending 28 minutes later than the average nine-inning game. That's down from 45 minutes in 2016 and 43 minutes last season.

Denny Hocking, a former MLB utility man with the Minnesota Twins and two other clubs, manages the Seattle Mariners' Class A team in Clinton, Iowa. He was initially resistant to the change but has gradually warmed to it.

"It wasn't part of the game when I played, so I was very skeptical,'' Hocking said. "But it's been really good from my perspective. It's saved bullpens, and it speeds the game up and makes it more exciting. As a manager, it makes you strategize. If you're bringing in a pitcher in the 10th, you have to make sure it's someone who can field a bunt. Things of that nature.

"The fan reaction has been funny. If they haven't been to a game and seen it before, some fans freak out. They'll say, 'Why is a guy going out to second base? Let's just give them the game.' But as long as the PA guy makes an announcement to make sure the fans are informed, it's fine.''

Bernabe, who has worked for the Iowa Cubs for 35 years, said the rule has had a positive financial impact for clubs throughout the minor leagues.

"In the minors, extra innings aren't a good thing from a business standpoint,'' Bernabe said. "Your revenues are basically done, but your overhead [continues] to go up with the park being open, the lights on and people on the payroll. You might start the evening with 5,000 actual bodies in the ballpark, and if you have 500 bodies in the park after the 10th inning, I would be surprised.

"I think most every team in the business cuts off beer sales after the seventh inning. And by the time you get to the 12th inning, how many hot dogs can people eat? We're a family-oriented, family-based entertainment business, and families don't sit there for 3½ or 4 hours in an extra-inning game. They don't do it in a regular game.''

Buddy Bailey, manager of the Cubs' Class A affiliate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, has suggested some tweaks to the system. He thinks it's unfair for a pitcher to enter a game in the 10th with a runner on second base, allow a run on two ground ball outs and get tagged with a loss, and he would like the final statistics to reflect that circumstance. Bailey also said the rule should be amended so that a pitcher won't have to be the designated baserunner in the 10th if he makes the final out in the ninth.

Bailey said some players on the Myrtle Beach roster have told him they don't care for the change because "this ain't baseball.'' While he sees the benefits in the minors, he doubts MLB would ever consider adopting the rule.

"Down here in the minor leagues, it's more about development than winning or losing,'' Bailey said. "That's one thing. In the big leagues, where it's all about winning and moving on, that's another thing. I just don't see how it would work. I don't think it's going to happen.''