Should MLB Consider Shortening Games to 8 Innings?

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2017

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04:  Joc Pederson #31 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks up at the scoreboard during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on opening day at PETCO Park on April 4, 2016 in San Diego, California. The Dodgers won 15-0.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Generally, people are afraid of change. In baseball, a sport more connected to its history and traditions than any other, the feeling is magnified.

So the idea of eliminating the ninth inning will inevitably ruffle many feathers. In confession, I have those same mixed feelings.

But there is an argument to be made for shortening the length of a big league baseball game.

Let's make it, and see if we can come out on the other side with a new perspective.

First, the latest news: In its ongoing quest to increase the pace of play, MLB is mulling a new rule wherein a runner would be automatically placed at second base at the start of extra innings.

In fact, MLB is doing more than mulling. It's planning to test the notion at the lower minor league levels, per Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan.

"Let's see what it looks like," said chief baseball officer Joe Torre, per Passan. "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."

On the entertainment value of position players pitching, I respectfully disagree, and submit Wade Boggs' knuckleball as Exhibit A.

The key word in Torre's statement, though, is "time." Baseball games are too damn long. That's the thesis, and there's evidence to support it.

Joe Torre, former New York Yankees manager and a high-ranking officer in the MLB hierarchy, is interested in tweaking extra-inning rules.
Joe Torre, former New York Yankees manager and a high-ranking officer in the MLB hierarchy, is interested in tweaking extra-inning rules.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In 2014, the average time of an MLB game was three hours and seven minutes, as Jesse Spector reported at Dealbreaker.com. In 2015, with a heightened emphasis on hurrying up already, it was shaved to an even three hours.

Last season, it rose back to three hours and four minutes.

"I don't think there's a magic bullet that is going to come one year to be the solution to pace of play," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told reporters. "It's going to be an ongoing effort to make sure our game moves along in a way that is most attractive to our fans."

Tinkering with pitch clocks and asking hitters to keep a foot in the batter's box isn't going to nudge the game under the three-hour mark.

To accomplish that, more drastic measures are required.

The runner-on-second-in-extra-innings thing sounds extreme, but it might not save as much time as proponents hope, as Spector outlined:

Why even think about mucking around with the framework of the sport when only 185 out of 2,428 major league games in 2016 even went to extra innings? Keep in mind that 73 of those 185 games were decided in 10 innings, with only 63 needing 12 or more frames. Not to mention, the longest games tend to go viral on social media, creating talking points and good buzz for baseball among that young audience the sport so craves.

We'll get back to the young-audience, these-kids-today aspect momentarily. For now, Spector's point looms: Paring down extra-inning games wouldn't meaningfully alter the length of games in general.

Neither would changing the intentional walk rule, another idea that's been floated by MLB's brain trust and proposed to the MLB Players' Association, per ESPN.com's Jayson Stark.

"The change in the intentional-walk rule would end the longstanding practice of requiring the pitcher to toss four soft pitches outside the strike zone," explained Stark. "Instead, a team could just signify it wants to issue an intentional walk, and the hitter would be sent directly to first base."

That would eliminate the possibility of an intentional ball going for a wild pitch or a hitter swinging at one and connecting, as New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez did last season, netting a sac fly for his troubles.

Here's the biggest issue, though: There were 932 intentional walks issued in the majors in 2016. That's an average of about 31 per team. Figure an intentional walk takes a minute, and you're talking about saving around a half hour per team, per year.

Yeah.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has consistently pushed the pace-of-play agenda.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has consistently pushed the pace-of-play agenda.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

OK, this has been a twisting windup toward the eight-inning-game pitch. MLB matchups are ponderous affairs, and none of the proposed "solutions" will do much to correct that.

Except, of course, shortening the games themselves. Lop an inning off and you're taking away a ninth of the running time. 

It sounds simple. In a way, it is.

In another way, it would upend the sport, and not merely from a practical, day-to-day standpoint.

Imagine the record books. Taking away an inning would render all the single-season counting-stat milestones moot. On the other hand, some will argue, the steroid era already did that.

In July, David Lennon of Newsday reported the idea of shortening the season from 162 games back to 154 had "gained momentum."

It wasn't included as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. The fact that it was on the table says a lot.

That eight-game difference accounts for 72 innings. It's not the same as the 162 innings that could be lost if an eight-inning game were implemented, but it's impactful.

Plus, the highest hurdle to a 154-game schedule is lost revenue from ticket sales and TV broadcasts. Keeping the season at 162 games while truncating each contest could be the ideal compromise.

It'd save pitchers' arms, ease hitters' legs and make games breezier.

Heck, in 2014, an unnamed executive proposed a seven-inning game to ESPN.com's Buster Olney.

"Nobody would have the guts to do it," Olney recalled saying.

"We need to change with the times," the executive replied.

Between mound visits, pitching changes and other delays, the average MLB game is over three hours long.
Between mound visits, pitching changes and other delays, the average MLB game is over three hours long.Elsa/Getty Images

There's that word again, "time." Too much time, the time we're living in, time to adjust, get with the times.

So we return to the short-attention-span generation raised on Snapchat and Instagram. They can't hang with three-plus hours of mound visits, pitching swaps and batters reflexively adjusting their arm guards. That's the narrative, anyway.

Probably it's true. Baseball will likely never again be America's pastime. Those days are gone, relegated to the sepia-toned dustbin of history.

Football, basketball, UFC—all have an edge in the flashy, instant-gratification department. 

Baseball should continue to market its stars and let them have fun. Unwritten rules regarding bat flips and displays of emotion should go the way of the horse and buggy.

Hurrying batters and pitchers while limiting mound visits, replay reviews and other non-entertaining interludes also make sense.

As for reworking the foundation of the sport? That's a bridge too far.

A baseball game takes at least 27 outs to complete. It has a roundness, a poetry, a consistency that makes intrinsic sense. Picture an eight-inning perfect game. We'd all be waiting for the final three outs.

Now we're back to the original question in the headline. My answer, as I predicted, is "no." Not because I'm a knee-jerk purist who thinks baseball shouldn't evolve. It has, it will and it must.

At the risk of hyperbole, however, some things are sacred. And those things shouldn't be subjugated to anything, including time.