By Jon Weisman
Every now and then, your brain takes you to some weird places.
Most of the time, mine thinks about baseball … which can also lead you to some weird places.
For a few years now, I’ve nursed this feeling that sometime in the distant future, Major League Baseball games would be reduced from nine to seven innings. I don’t really think this will ever happen, but there’s a logic to it.
It’s in part because pace-of-play rule changes are fighting an uphill battle against baseball’s evolutionary elongation. (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday compared the challenge of eliminating the issue to “dandelions in your front lawn.”)
A double inning-ectomy would lop a good 40 minutes or so off the average game, taking them back into the sub-2:30 range that seems to have been the sport’s sweet spot. This would be particularly handy in the postseason, helping more fans see a fantastic finish before midnight.
To be sure, not everyone’s in a hurry to leave the ballpark — certainly not my friendly colleagues here at Dodger Stadium trying to sell food, drink and merchandise — which is probably reason enough to end this conversation.
But the best reason for the seven-inning game is that it’s just getting harder and harder to cobble together the pitching to get 27 outs or more each game.
In my lifetime, we’ve gone from 10-man pitching staffs to 13. (A few days ago, the Dodgers needed 14 for a night.) Having eight relievers on staff was questionable as recently as … well, I want to say this year. But it’s the norm for the 2016 Dodgers and several other teams. And with no increase in the kind of arms who can throw seven innings on a regular basis, there’s little reason to see the trend reversing.
The problem is, while baseball teams have been able to reduce benches up to now — honestly, I’m having trouble remembering or even imagining what ballclubs in the 10-pitcher era did, with seven position players killing time in the dugout each game — we’re reaching the limit. Although teams are emphasizing multi-purpose reserves, it’s asking a lot to back up eight positions, especially the skill positions of catcher, shortstop and center field, with the number of players you could count on Three-Fingers Brown’s right hand.
Obviously, one solution is for MLB to expand active rosters to 26 players. That’s an idea that’s been percolating for some time now, though the drumbeat isn’t very loud.
Short of that, something else MLB might consider would be to adapt the seven-day disabled list currently available in the minor leagues. There are already precursors to this, such as the bereavement and paternity-leave lists. To reduce gamesmanship, you could limit the number of players that could be on the seven-day DL at one time. Sure, shenanigans might remain, but the good — allowing you to rotate tired pitchers off the active roster without subjecting them to overwork or disappearing them for 10 days in the minors — would probably outweigh the bad.
Separate but related, there’s the issue of roster expansion to as many as 40 active players in September. This seems to really rankle some people, who don’t understand why MLB games are played under a different set of rules in the season’s final month. I’ve never understood the griping: Conditions in baseball change all the time (weather, ballparks), and as long as the two teams are subject to the same ground rules, what’s the problem? However, MLB could certainly tweak the rules so that you have 25 to 30 eligible players for any given game from the pool of 40, with the remainder sidelined that day.
Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking about the seven-inning game. Essentially, the innings you’d be eliminating are not the eighth and ninth, but the sixth and seventh — that bridge between starting pitching and late-inning relief that has become increasingly hard to maintain.
The clear risk is turning pitching into a game of nearly complete specialization, with starting pitchers conditioned to go even fewer innings. Teams might still think it best to carry 11 or 12 pitchers, and basically use a new one nearly every inning, or for every batter. Shorter games at the big-league level are ripe for the law of unintended consequences.
At the same time, shorter games don’t take away the ability for pitchers like Clayton Kershaw to dominate. If anything, it increases. Suddenly, a pitcher like Kenta Maeda becomes one that can carry a team through nearly an entire game, rather than two-thirds of it on an average day. As radical as the change would be, baseball might actually resemble its roots in that respect.
And while relief specialization might reduce scoring, the ability to counter with more pinch-hitters in a game would help re-balance the scales. Right now, we have huge bullpen platoons battling the thinnest of position-player reserves.
Ultimately, reducing MLB games by two innings has the potential to yield tremendous long-term health effects for pitchers, and that might be the most important factor of all.
Seven-inning games aren’t the most radical idea. You’ll not only see them throughout baseball’s amateur levels, they even exist in the pros. Minor-league doubleheaders are usually made up of seven-inning affairs, “to complete the games in a timely manner while offering a good value for fans and accommodating the teams’ travel plans,” as is written at MiLB.com.
I won’t even attempt to answer what happens to the seventh-inning stretch. Do you move it to the fifth inning, or does it stay where it is, less of a prelude to a game’s final act than the bell signaling its climactic scene? Or, as Dodger team historian Mark Langill put it, “You might not care if it ever comes back.”
Anyway, just something to spin your head around while waiting for the games to start again.