Baseball might finally, if the coronavirus doesn’t get the last laugh, be back. Amid the deluge of new roster rules, health protocols and scheduling intricacies that are taking shape ahead of the upcoming season, a big change to extra innings is looming.
For 2020, MLB will implement a rule typically reserved for the minor leagues, in which each half-inning after the ninth will begin with a runner automatically placed on second base. With a 60-game slate stacked on a three-week spring training, the league wants to avoid long, drawn-out contests that shorten turnaround time and sap roster depth.
Designed to limit game length by hastening scoring, the new extra innings rule will no doubt upset purists, and even rankle fans who simply resent additional tinkering during a season that already feels half-baked. (Or around 37% baked, if we want to be picky about the number of games.)
But there is some consolation for Yankees fans. The strengths of these Bombers, who finished 7-4 in 11 extra inning games in 2019, might align nicely with the circumstances the new rule will impose.
For one, their bullpen’s effectiveness is an advantage, and it extends to their performance with inherited men on base — the situation relievers will face when coming in to start extra innings with a runner at second.
Last season, the Yankees’ bullpen tied for the third-lowest percentage of inherited runners allowed to score, at 28%. Aroldis Chapman, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Zack Britton, and David Hale all logged rates below the league average, giving Aaron Boone plenty of options to get the job done.
The relief corps’ efforts could be aided by Gary Sanchez, despite his reputation as a shaky backstop. Sanchez’s successes and failures behind the plate have been documented exhaustively. But his growing strengths as a defender — improved blocking and a strong arm — should provide some deterrent against opposing runners itching to advance. Last season, his number of passed balls declined from 18 to seven, and his wild pitches conceded fell from 45 to 30. All this despite catching more innings.
Unfortunately, it appears he sacrificed some of his framing ability to keep the ball in front of him. But if he can successfully adopt catching coach Tanner Swanson’s new crouch behind the plate, he might get the best of both worlds.
Sanchez’s caught stealing rate also dipped to 23% last year, down from 30% in 2018 and 40% in 2017. Hopefully, the changes he’s implementing with Swanson will help him return to his earlier form.
Offensively, the Yankees’ relentless lineup should do plenty of damage with a man starting on second. In 2019 they hit a league-best .294 with runners in scoring position. And if they need to manufacture a run, the roster has enough solid baserunning to make a dangerous extra innings switch, even if they aren’t the fleetest team top to bottom.
Tyler Wade and Brett Gardner both have elite speed. According to Baseball Savant, Wade led the team last season with a sprint speed of 29.1 ft/sec, which placed him in the 93rd percentile across the league. Gardner was nipping at his heels at 28.9 ft/sec, in the 91st percentile.
Mike Tauchman, while not quite as fast as those guys, has proven himself to be a smart, productive baserunner. Tauchman ranked third on the Yankees, behind Gardner and Wade, in BsR, a catch-all baserunning metric from FanGraphs.
The threat on the basepaths offered by that trio, backed by a deep lineup, an improved defensive catcher and an elite pen, can help the Yankees leverage the new extra innings rule to exert immediate pressure if and when the tenth arrives.
Considering there will be a shortened schedule, picking up a few additional wins in extras could make a meaningful difference in a divisional race. The standings are typically still crowded 60 games into the season — the best teams just haven’t had enough time to establish separation.
In what promises to be a chaotic season, adapting to fresh tactical wrinkles faster than opponents do will be vital. So while the automatic runner might not be traditional baseball, it can still equate to a winning edge in the Bronx.