Major League Baseball’s proposed 60-game season is tentatively set to start in less than a month, but it’s certainly more than simply a shortened version of the marathon we’ve grown accustomed to over the last century. Beyond the reduced number of games, there are aspects of the season that, in many ways, will make it quite an extraordinary experience necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National League will have the Designated Hitter for the first time, which should actually benefit the Mets; there will be no fans in the stands; rosters start at 30 players, then reduce to 26 a month into the season; and expanded playoffs may or may not still be in play as the league and the players hammer out the final details.
Perhaps the most puzzling and seemingly unnecessary new addition, tested during the 2017 World Baseball Classic and now a staple of minor league ball, is the rule that places a runner on second base at the start of every extra inning. The assumed impetus for the implementation of this rule is a desire to prevent exceedingly long games to reduce player and personnel exposure to potential infection. In theory this might make sense, but Jon Tayler at FanGraphs has essentially debunked this notion.
Still, a free runner in scoring position certainly presents teams with ample opportunity to score the winning or go-ahead run with no effort on their part. It may lead to some potentially interesting managerial decisions, but more likely than not we fans will be subjected to players flailing in their attempts to recapture the lost art of bunting.
The question is: does this benefit the Mets at all? Specifically, are the Mets a team built to take advantage of this situation should they find themselves playing extra frames in 2020? The first thing to note when answering that question is that we obviously can’t predict the future, and the statistics we do note are entirely descriptive in nature.
With that in mind, the obvious place to start is how the team performed with RISP in 2019. Their OPS of .799 with RISP last season placed them at 12th in baseball. Not too bad, right? Not so fast. Exactly half of the top ten teams in OPS with RISP made the playoffs, while the other half did not. In fact, some of the teams in the top ten (Pirates, Rockies) were quite bad last year. Simple stats like this have flaws, such as a lack of context and small sample sizes, but they do give us a bit of a peek at how a team generally performed within certain parameters.
“Run expectancy based on the 24 base-out states” (RE24) is an interesting, context-based metric for determining the number of runs a player or team scored (or allowed) relative to the expected number of runs in a given situation. Essentially, RE24 represents the number of runs scored (batters) or allowed (pitchers) when compared to the average number of runs expected based on base runners and number of outs. This formula includes a team’s ability to knock a runner in from second base with one or two outs, which is the context in which extra-inning games will be played this season. This is further reduced to the number of extra wins these RE24 values were worth (or REW). The key takeaway is that Mets batters were 7th in the MLB at 7.29 wins better than average based on REW in 2019.
Obviously the other team will get the free runner in extra innings as well, and this is where improvement in the Mets’ bullpen is going to be incredibly vital (though we knew that already). The bullpen’s 2019 REW of -4.99 was the 5th worst in baseball, which goes most of the way in explaining the team’s overall performance and their 7-9 record during extra-inning games in particular.
A dozen or so extra-inning games during a 162-game season would do relatively little to alter a team’s ultimate playoff hopes, of course. When the season is more than halved, however, every win a team can scrape together takes on that much more importance. The introduction of the new extra-inning rule adds a wrinkle that may have a dramatic effect on this season’s postseason picture, and managers will need to be thoughtful in how they choose to exploit and counter it when the decision inevitability comes knocking. The new rule won’t likely be the craziest or least predictable aspect of baseball’s experimental 2020 season, but it’ll be full of the tension that the MLB is likely hoping will ease the backlash that’s sure to come when the first team loses to a bunt and a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning.