In the last few weeks I have heard a number of ways Major League Baseball could adjust the schedule to get as many games in as possible this year. Two schedule changes that seem almost definite are increased double headers and less rest days. With the added toll that will take on players the commissioner’s office is likely exploring how these changes would affect injuries and ways to mitigate that risk. One option I have had proposed to me is the elimination of extra innings. Extra innings are taxing on a team’s bull pen and force managers to use relievers with less than optimal rest. This certainly increases injury risk and could be even more dangerous with more games played in a smaller window of time.
This post will explore how eliminating extra innings would have changed outcomes over the last five seasons and how much of an impact that has on players and teams. In order for this idea to be viable it must not have a significant effect on the final standings and should show some promise for reducing relief pitcher usage.
Effect on Individual Games
One factor in evaluating the viability of this proposal is to see how many games would be affected and how much. The plots below show the number of games shortened and innings removed from each of the last five regular seasons. The average number of games shortened was 201 and the average number of innings removed in a season was 446.
These numbers show the impact on individual games is fairly minimal. 201 games is just over 8% of the 2430 played in a normal regular season. If you divide the extra inning evenly among the 30 teams and assume every inning has both teams on defense that saves each team about 30 innings of pitching during the year. A regular reliever throws about 65 innings in a season so you’re saving half a reliever ‘s worth of work. This doesn’t fully capture the effect those 30 innings have on injury risk because it doesn’t consider the loss of rest days, but I don’t think 30 innings is an extraordinary amount. How much this change would decrease workload requires analysis outside the scope of this project.
Effect on Standings and the Playoffs
Teams and fans could stomach shortened games, but I doubt shifting the divisional standings and playoffs would be received well. The image below shows the 2019 final standings and scrolling right on the image will show how the standings would have changed with ties added to the equation. In my analysis winning percentage was calculated using a tie as half of a win.
In 2019 there were two changes in divisional rankings and two changes to playoff seeding but all ten teams to start the playoffs were the same. The table below shows a summary of the post season changes in each season. This analysis shows that eliminating extra innings does have an impact on standings and playoff teams/seeds. Every season except 2015 had a pair of teams or more swap seeds and 2015-2017 had one team replaced each year. However, no team that made their League Championship or the World Series were eliminated, although the path to get there may have changed.
I also took a look at which teams were helped and hurt the most by this change. The results are shown in the tables below.
Poor teams tend to be helped by the change the most and only the 2017 Red Sox made the top five list of teams hurt by the change that made the playoffs. (They dropped from AL East champions to the top Wild Card slot.)
Eliminating extra innings does impact regular season standings and those changes will likely have playoff implications in the early rounds.
This initial assessment of eliminating extra innings seems to indicate it may not be the best way to alleviate the impact of a condensed regular season. In the past five seasons the benefit of reduced innings for relief pitchers is not nearly as large as the impact on the standings. Extra double headers and less rest could swing this comparison closer to even, but much more research would be needed to know for sure. A more reasonable and easily implemented change would be to expand rosters to the full 40 players so long games wouldn’t wreak so much havoc on a bull pen.
Another argument in favor of this proposal is that it would shorten games. This argument is valid as a normal inning takes about 20 minutes and we all know extra innings don’t move with the same speed as a normal inning. Additionally, managers would change their approach in the 9th inning in consideration of a tie which could create extra action and excitement at the end of games. My opinion is that this would create a more pleasant fan experience but not everyone would agree. Improved fan experience combined with additional injury risk research could create enough justification for the idea and extra innings to be eliminated until the playoffs, but I do not expect the league to consider such a radical change even in these circumstances.