Baseball is a sport often rooted in tradition. But while many of the rules have been in place for more than a century, there have been recent changes as well, including the National League adding a designated hitter, and an automatic runner on second base to begin extra innings.
More changes could be on the horizon, and Major League Baseball is using lower levels of baseball to experiment.
One such league is the MLB Draft League, a collegiate summer baseball league created in 2021, in which draft-eligible prospects showcase their skills leading up to the draft. Forty-seven prospects from the Draft League were chosen in the 2022 MLB draft, including former Ramapo high school pitcher KC Hunt, who plays for the Trenton Thunder and was selected in the 12th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
MLB has used the Draft League’s 2022 season to examine a radical rule change: sudden-death extra innings.
When a game is tied after nine innings, the teams play one final half-inning. A runner starts on first base for the hitting team, and if that team scores a run, it wins the game. If no run scores, the team in the field wins the game.
Prior to the game, the home team chooses whether it will hit or play the field in that half-inning.
More than halfway through the season, players and coaches on the Thunder have mixed feelings about the rule.
Protecting pitcher health
The main reason the sudden-death rule was implemented was to protect pitcher health and arm safety. In a league focused on developing players for the MLB Draft, players and coaches don’t want pitchers to have to overthrow during a long extra-inning game.
Thunder manager Jeff Manto, a former Major Leaguer who played six games for the Yankees in 1999, believes the new rule accomplishes this goal.
“Yes without question,” Manto said. “I can’t imagine going into the 15th, 16th inning and looking for pitching.”
By implementing the sudden-death rule, pitchers and managers have a better idea of who will pitch each game, considering it can’t go longer than one extra half-inning. This allows teams to better schedule out every appearance their pitchers will make.
Hit or field?
Managers have to choose before the game whether they would hit or field in extra innings, creating an extra layer of strategy since they won’t know how many pitchers each team has left.
Manto said he usually makes his decision based on pregame pitcher availability. If he has extra pitching one game, he will decide to field. If he is short on pitching, he will hit.
When all things are equal, he usually leans to fielding.
“There’s so much good pitching in this league and pitching is always ahead of the hitters,” Manto said.
While there can be extra pressure in the sudden-death inning, players try to treat it like a normal inning.
“I would definitely try to approach it as just a regular inning, just go out there and give it all you got,” Thunder pitcher Malcolm Gilchrist said.
However, fielding pressure is a reason why Manto might decide to hit.
“It’s basically trying to just put the ball in play and let the other team make a mistake,” he said.
The Thunder have played three sudden-death games this year, winning two of them. They have hit in all three games, but have been the road team in all three, meaning the home team decided to field.
While the sudden-death inning brings excitement and energy to MLB Draft League games, there are questions as to whether the rule has a future in higher levels of baseball.
“I think the rule is good for this level of baseball and for the Draft League and for other college summer leagues,” Gilchrist said.
Ultimately, he believes that in leagues where development is more important wins and losses, the new rule could have a positive effect. But at levels where game results matter more, it may be challenging to sell the idea that one half-inning decides a game.
Despite this hurdle, Manto thinks this rule has a future in professional baseball.
“I think it’s gonna happen, I really do,” he said. “I think it’s quick. It’s safe. I think the fans will react to it.”