Ruling on the rules: Should MLB keep seven-inning doubleheaders in future seasons?

This week, with most of a shortened season in the rearview mirror, Yahoo Sports is reviewing the temporary rule changes MLB put in place for 2020. The question is simple: Should they stick around permanently?

Up next: Doubleheaders have consisted of seven-inning games in 2020. Is that a change worth keeping?

Lose the seven-inning doubleheaders

By Zach Crizer

Baseball — in the widest definition of the word, the one that encompasses the subculture of people who care about and talk about the sport — has a self-flagellation problem. That’s why we are forced to discuss the idea that some portion of the games should be intentionally cut, by rule, from nine innings to seven innings.

There is a constant undercurrent of concern, of self-consciousness, over the perception that more people used to like the sport. That more people could be invested in the sport if only something were different, if one switch were flipped.

The current one up for consideration: Cutting literal innings out of games. Not only does this misunderstand the potential issue — pace of play, not length of games — just think about how it would sound in a sport that isn’t so hung up on its appeal to the unengaged, to the people not investing time, money and emotional energy.

“Hello, NFL fans. Announcement: Next season, Thursday night games will not have a fourth quarter, in service of people who currently do not care about the league.”

Lopping off 22.2 percent of some games to chase the attention of people who aren’t interested right now. That’s the pitch. It’s diminishing the experience for the audience that does dedicate itself to the game, all in a foolhardy attempt to attract more casual fans into the sport’s orbit.

[Ruling on the rules: The extra-innings rule]

Now, it can be argued that doubleheaders are a small enough portion of the schedule — in seasons not discombobulated by a pandemic — that the effect of the change would be small. Agreed! Which only underscores the reasons to skip this nonsensical tweak to the fundamental rules of the game.

There are three products that Major League Baseball sells to fans:

  • The experience of watching an individual game (or two) on any given day.

  • The experience of following a season.

  • The experience of following the sport across time and eras.

It might be the case that 14 innings of baseball in a single day is an easier hang than 18 innings, but the benefit to Product No. 1 on those days is not worth the detriment to Products No. 2 and No. 3. As any season — especially this 60-game season — illuminates to those paying attention, baseball is a game of small margins that accumulate over time. The difference between a juggernaut and a rebuilding club is often not apparent in the result of one game, or one series or even one month of play.

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Trevor Bauer delivers during the fourth inning of the second baseball game of a double header against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. The Pirates won 4-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Yes, doubleheaders are rarely scheduled, and by recent standards outside of 2020 wouldn’t alter the complexion of a team’s record all that much. (As someone is undoubtedly yelling, some games are shortened by rain. Of course, but no one can plan a roster based on rain arriving in the sixth inning.) Codifying seven-inning twin bills, however, cements a double standard and hints at an intention to use more of them. It creates advantages that spring from circumstance rather than intent.

The 2020 Cincinnati Reds, for instance, have a 4.77 bullpen ERA that ranks in the bottom third of MLB, and a 3.70 rotation ERA that ranks sixth. Trevor Bauer alone has thrown two shutouts in seven-inning games this season, without having to risk turning over his lead to a subpar relief corps. Their 9-3 record in games that are only 77.7 percent as long as the unit of a game that everyone planned for might win them a place in October.

Lowering the threshold for some wins, and altering the concept of what constitutes a game, throws a wrench into the races that provide the adrenaline to most of baseball’s schedule. It adds an unnecessary wrinkle to the comparative statistics and records that create the sport’s singular historic tapestry.

In 2020, it’s an understandable greasing of the skids to keep a difficult season on the rails. As a permanent, ongoing rule, it’s an abdication of the sport’s purpose. If MLB’s contention is that the season is not meant to be a rigorous attempt to identify the best teams, well, that’s an opinion. But without the panicky veneer of Growing The Game, it’s not one that anyone would dare say aloud.

Keep the seven-inning doubleheaders

By Hannah Keyser

Unlike some of the other experimental rule changes in baseball this season, I don’t know that we would have gotten a seven-inning doubleheader at the big league level without the specific storm of circumstances that is a short, dense season, a still-raging pandemic that forces semi-regular postponements of entire series, and the kind of infectious disease that makes gathering in one place for extended periods of time especially problematic.

And those games have proven to be delightfully breezy. Lopping off two innings feels like an overly blunt, crude solution to the ever-expanding length of games. But could it really be that simple to solve the waning attention span/waxing game time predicament that has become an existential threat to the game? Just … make the games shorter?

[Ruling on the rules: The universal DH]

I think the fallacy there would be in thinking that if some games are seven innings, they all have to be.

If there weren’t about a dozen other competing and more globally memorable epitaphs, the 2020 baseball season would be defined by the sheer number of doubleheaders played relative to the overall schedule. This year, teams will play a widely variable number of doubleheaders based on who suffered COVID-19 outbreaks and who they were scheduled to play at that time. Like a lot else about 2020, that’s pretty unfair. But now that we know baseball games can be seven innings long without Abner Doubleday rising from the dead, there’s an opportunity to deploy them strategically going forward.

There are, in the broadest sense, three groups of stakeholders whose opinions should influence baseball’s rules and potential rule changes — “should” is doing a lot of work in this sentence, unfortunately. The players, the owners, and the fans.

The seven-inning doubleheader has some clear benefits that I’ll get to, but perhaps even more crucially, it has few if any detriments to any of those stakeholders. If the existing option is to play 18 innings (at least) in a single day, players would certainly prefer to have twin bills scheduled to last only 14 innings. As long as they remain split from a ticket standpoint (which they shouldn’t but that’s a losing battle not worth fighting), owners are only losing out on a couple of innings of beer sales, and I’m sorry but that’s not compelling. For fans, back-to-back seven-inning games offer both all-day baseball and the chance to drop in for a full game that’s reliably under three hours.

It also doesn’t feel all that different within the game itself. This is tough to quantify, but take it from someone who has spent weeks asking managers around the sport if the strategy materially changes in a seven-inning game. If there was an interesting answer, you’d be reading that piece right now instead of this. For the most part, managers have shrugged and said it’s just two fewer innings, the game feels like it goes by faster because it does, you gotta make sure your relievers know to be ready sooner.

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright throwsduring the first inning of the first game of a baseball doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Harkening to a different age when starting pitchers were the main attraction and expected to last the whole game, Adam Wainwright tossed a complete game in a seven-inning doubleheader matchup vs. the Brewers. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

If you subscribe to the concern that each individual moment of regular season baseball does not, currently, have enough inherent stakes, shortening the game is one way to make each inning or at-bat literally matter more to the overall pursuit of a win. As an emergency measure, this favors some clubs more than others. If it was made permanent, it might affect overall roster construction. But ultimately, this shouldn’t appreciably change the on-field product from a viewer perspective.

So why bother doing it at all? Well, because seven-inning doubleheaders can be baked into a schedule as a way of accommodating more off days without sacrificing games or altering the span of the baseball calendar.

The baseball season is, I’m sorry to say, too long. It’s brutal on players’ bodies and the overarching narrative of a given year is probably determined by injuries more than we’d even like to accept. The grind is part of the game, but at a nearly daily clip it’s almost certainly hit the point of diminishing returns. If you want to see the best athletes consistently play at their peak ability, there needs to be a little more rest.

Right now, doubleheaders don’t help. They’re largely a last resort that drain teams of their depth. The relatively subtle shift to seven-inning doubleheaders allows for more flexibility around potential postponements and more intentional off days without the usual adverse effects.

Advocating for less baseball is inherently a bit of a bummer and any change in the rules creates the issue of comparing across eras. But total innings — when games can always go to extras or be curtailed by weather — are already more fungible team-to-team and year-to-year than total games. Seven-inning doubleheaders are appealing precisely because they’re minimally disruptive to the spirit of the sport.

If anything, there’s something sort of nostalgic about a game that lasts as long as the starting pitcher. I mean, have you seen the state of most bullpens this season?

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