The rule that a runner will start on second base in extra-innings during the regular season is different from the upcoming rules changes in two ways: (1) it was already in place for 2022, and (2) it is not locked into place for 2023.
Unlike the pitch clock, the shift restrictions, and the larger bases, the free runner rule was not voted on by the competition committee as part of the coming changes for 2023. Instead, the free runner rule has actually always been a vestige of the pandemic season – first implemented in 2020 as a way to shorten games and reduce exposure risks and injury risks, extended into 2021 for similar reasons, and then justified again in 2022, at least partly, because the lockout meant Spring Training was compressed for pitchers.
In other words, even though the rule has been around for three seasons now, it has never actually been made a permanent part of the game. It’s been a one-off each season.
Will that change ahead of 2023? Well, it’s TBD, but Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to think there will be a reason to keep it in place.
“Both fans and players like it. The clubs like it. Seems like it has legs to me,” Manfred told the AP this week.
Formally, extending the rule requires another approval process between the league and the Players Association, and that would come closer to Spring Training. But if Manfred is right that the players generally like it, then we might see a permanent rule change on the way. And it’s not hard to imagine that a majority of players DO like it, even some who might see it as unfortunately gimmicky. There aren’t too many players who want to be sucked into a 17-inning marathon game that taxes the body, risks more injury, and wrecks a bullpen.
As for fans, well, I can only speak anecdotally – for myself and for the feedback I’ve seen. I *hated* the proposal when it was first made (it actually preceded the pandemic as something MLB wanted to experiment with in the minor leagues). It just felt so artificial, and I was convinced we would just see so many games that started with a sac bunt. Nobody wants that.
… but I was wrong. I was wrong about all the sac bunts (it just doesn’t really play out like that very often in reality), and I was wrong about how it would feel to watch the games. I wound up being a sucker for the immediate drama of having a runner in scoring position right away. The pressure on the reliever to pitch around it, and the possibility that a mere single in the bottom of the 10th could end it.
So, I am in favor of the rule becoming a permanent staple of the regular season. I’ve been fine with it being excluded from the postseason, though, because – even if it’s exciting – the concerns about marathon games are somewhat tempered, given the way pitching staffs are used (and the season is about to end for them anyway).