The Contentious Life of the Ghost Runner: Controversial Extra-Innings Rule Back for 2022
Sixty-five years ago this week, the defending World Champion New York Yankees beat the Washington Senators 2-1 on an Opening Day walk-off hit. The hero that day was third baseman Andy Carey, who came up with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and fouled off six pitches before hitting a single to deep left, knocking in Yogi Berra. “When the big moment came,” read the next morning’s New York Times, “it arrived with customary dramatic and noisy effect.”
On Friday, the Yankees recorded their first Opening Day walk-off in 65 years since. It came on a lead-off single. With “ghost runner” Isiah Kiner-Falefa leading off second, Josh Donaldson smacked the third pitch of the 11th inning into center field to end the game.
It was a moment with no shortage of “dramatic and noisy effect,” particularly for Donaldson, coming through as he did in his first game as a Yankee. But one thing it certainly wasn’t was customary. For most long-time baseball fans, seeing the automatic runner take his base in extra innings will never not be strange.
The “ghost runner” rule first went into effect for the truncated 2020 season, stuck around for ’21, and MLB’s players and owners recently agreed to bring it back for 2022. It was intended to cut down on marathon extra-inning games, and there’s no denying its success in that regard. Between 2018 and ’19, a total of 76 games went beyond the 12th inning; since the rule was implemented, there have been five. The only game to go 14 frames or more in the past two years came in August of last year, when the Dodgers outlasted the Padres in the 16th.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the rule has had little-to-no effect on overall game length. Average game time in 2021 was three hours and 11 minutes – longest in recorded history, narrowly edging out the 2019 record. The average number of pitchers used per game has increased every year since 2013.
Still, one obvious advantage to the rule is a lowered risk of arm fatigue for those pitchers asked to cover long innings in relief. Not to mention, putting a runner in scoring position from the get-go generates instant intrigue for fans. Even if a degree of suspense is lost without any build-up to the moment, the result is action, and that’s a net positive for the sport.
However, the rule has its fair share of downsides as well. Analytical-minded fans object that it’s caused an increase in sacrifice bunts. Purists label it as gimmicky. Somewhere in the middle are the delirious baseball junkies, mourning the loss of those 18-inning wars of attrition that inevitably end with someone’s third-string catcher walking it off on a position player pitching.
Perhaps more consequently, evidence suggests that the nascent rule may actually be lending an advantage to road teams. Research by a group of Twitter users last year found that the road team won roughly 54% of all extra-inning games in 2020 and ’21, up from 49% in the previous four years. It’s a small sample size, but their theory suggests home teams may be adversely affected by the pressure of scoring in extra-inning situations when the road team has already been gifted a “freebie.”
Regardless, the rule is here for now – and barring some unforeseen developments, it’s likely here to stay. That means more drama, more griping, and yes, more walk-offs. The only question is, are we ready to accept that trade-off?