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Pace-of-play debate bleeding into extra innings for some reason

Major League Baseball considering altering extras in a way that once resulted in Todd Steverson being banned from an entire league

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Major League Baseball has a nasty habit of making its most ardent supporters openly argue about its flaws. With sports in its dead zone and baseball getting ready to provide scenes of warmth, the predominant story in the national baseball media is ... pace of play. Again.

It’s largely the same stuff — pitch clocks, hitters needing to stay in the box, fans sniping at the media for complaining about game length, fans sniping at other fans because they think the game’s action can be packaged tighter without losing their “real fan” status. It’s true that players are overdefensive about dilly-dallying that was never necessary before, but MLB eased restrictions after one year of success reversing the trend, so the solution to curb game bloat seems rather simple to me: Continue enforcing the existing rules.

(Besides, ever since the fanless game in Baltimore, I’m more inclined to believe that fans and the gameday production toward them alter players’ rhythms as much as anything else. That was a 8-2 game that needed only two hours and three minutes, partially because it was a blowout, but just as much because whoever cued up the walk-up music didn’t have to wait on applause, jumbotron replays or celebratory graphics and music. The upcoming hitter was accompanied to the plate by his song, but both he and the soundboard operator only had to wait for the prior play to stop.)

If that weren’t tiresome enough, Jeff Passan reports that Major League Baseball is set to experiment with abbreviating its extra innings in two rookie-ball leagues. While the method hasn’t been confirmed, Passan says the leading idea is to start all extra innings with a runner on second.

There are benefits to this idea, but Torre has to work on his presentation of the issue, because he undermined himself right off the bat.

“Let’s see what it looks like,” said Joe Torre, the longtime major league manager who’s now MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer and a strong proponent of the testing. “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time.

Here’s supposed Baseball Man Joe Torre sounding like one of those rumored creatures who never take their noses out of a spreadsheet. There isn’t a time when a position player pitching isn’t very fun. Sometimes it’s the only fun for games of certain lengths or scores. The only time it overstays its welcome is when it’s the second middle infielder of a nine-inning game when rosters are already expanded because Robin Ventura isn’t very good at his job but you know he’s probably coming back to finish out his contract even though all circumstances say he should be dismissed and the team’s stakes have never been higher, and why would they even risk putting such a fragile team in the hands of somebody who is overwhelmed by the task?

I forgot what we were talking about.

Oh yes, extra innings.

Anyway, abbreviating extra innings does have some merit in the minor leagues since development is far more important than wins and losses (and they’re already behind on overtime pay, anyway). Back in 2012, Todd Steverson was suspended from the California League for a year — while acting as an interim manager at Class-A Stockton — after calling for intentional balks in the 17th and 18th innings of a five-hour game in which position players were pitching. Steverson was a sympathetic figure at the time because he had good intentions, doing what he could to get 20-year-olds out of the game unscathed. Now, when reading the league’s statement accompanying the ban...

"The game ended properly with a base hit to score the winning run, but Mr. Steverson's decision to advance the opposing team's base runners into scoring position compromised the integrity of the game, which is paramount in this great game of ours.”

... it seems as though Todd Steverson was merely a man ahead of his time.

Emphasizing the development angle would’ve been a better place to start than saying it’s not fun when position players pitch, because that’s objectively false in the majors. Maybe it’s not fun for the manager, but even other baseball players are riveted by the spectacle. It’s one of the only reliable oases from the drudgery of a dragged-out game.

If developmental concerns aren’t essential, I don’t care for the idea as described because it threatens to jeopardize one of baseball’s best features: The end of its games mostly resemble the rest of it. Basketball’s final minutes are often marred by timeouts and free throws. The overtimes in both NFL and college are different, but each are divisive. The NHL is unmatched for late-game drama, especially in the playoffs, but it makes the regular season’s methods of settling games -- brief overtime, then shootout -- feel cheap. The same can be said for soccer with penalty kicks.

Starting the 10th inning with a runner on second seems like one of these cheap shortcuts, and my first inclination is that it’d make the home field even more advantageous than normal since extra innings would come with the exaggerated coin-toss luck built in. It’d also increase the number of intentional walks, which isn’t fun, even if MLB changes the rules so that pitchers don’t have to throw them.

I can perhaps see this serving a purpose starting in the 14th or 15th innings, if only because that’s when teams are on their last pitchers, and games usually don’t make it that far, anyway. Even then, though, it seems like Major League Baseball missed a few steps before considering this. If we’re talking about tightening up games while making it look like baseball, making relievers face at least two batters seems more in line with the game’s first six innings, as well as its first 100something years.