Seven Innings? Seven Innings!

Imagine how much scoreboard space a seven-inning game would save. (via Andrew Malone)

Like so many other storied American institutions, our national pastime, we are told, is in crisis. Attendance is down; strikeouts are up; the average fan’s age is rising; the pace of play is slowing; marketable star power is drying up; the competitive spirit is dissipating; the league’s economic system is fracturing; and my fantasy team came in second. The list of worrisome signs stretches onward like a mid-July extra-inning marathon, and while there’s as much to love about baseball as ever, it’s indisputable that the sport has lost much of the cultural relevance and impact it enjoyed in its heyday.

This results in a variety of grievances about the State of the Game, which often stem from two contrasting viewpoints. Let’s think of it this way: In the first-base dugout, the Restorers wish to restore the game to its former glory, and in the third-base dugout, the Shepherds hope to shepherd it toward a new importance. The Restorers consume baseball today with a keen distaste for bat flips and a remarkable understanding of the Unwritten Rules. The Shepherds, in contrast, compile the most dramatic bat flips on Twitter and want to abolish those very same Unwritten Rules. These two sides both acutely feel the sport’s backward slide but fundamentally disagree about its root cause. Where the Restorers feel that changes have stripped baseball of what made it special, the Shepherds argue that baseball’s stubborn adherence to its past has compromised its present.

Though there is a certain poetry in letting a sport that is unbound by time die out like a star, gradually and at its own pace, once burning brightly and now fading from sight, there does seem to be a consensus that something should be done–some step taken to combat the seemingly inexorable decline. But the disconnect between the Restorers and the Shepherds seems to set up a zero-sum path forward. Any solution that pleases the Restorers will represent more of the same to the Shepherds, and vice versa.

Evidently, the league is also inclined to look for measures that counteract baseball’s declining popularity. In an effort to freshen up the game and ostensibly attract more (and younger) viewers, commissioner Rob Manfred has capped the number of mound visits, plans to implement a three-batter minimum for 2020, experimented with putting runners on second to start extra innings in the minors, and set up a laboratory of sorts in the Atlantic League to test out new ideas. (Not to mention using a different ball.) It’s hard to imagine any on-field rule change righting the ship for a league in which a free agent Dallas Keuchel wasn’t signed until June and many teams aren’t trying to win; it feels a bit like slapping a Band-Aid on a torn UCL. Yet MLB seems content to look between the lines for solutions to whatever ails baseball.

As long as that is the tack the league is taking, let’s forgo these minor tweaks to gameplay and consider something more dramatic. Let’s change baseball games to seven innings. Jim Kaat, who pitched in the big leagues from 1959 to 1983 and now works for MLB Network, made waves when he detailed this plan to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic last year. Given the tendency for former players to pine for the older versions of the game, Kaat’s radical proposal might surprise you. Interestingly, though, his plan is a forward-thinking one, but it is underpinned by his desire to return elements of the game to their former states. It’s a Restorer’s plan masquerading as a Shepherd’s one, and it has the potential to satisfy both sectors of baseball fandom by restoring some of what made baseball so compelling while ushering it into a new era.

It’s worth noting that MLB has implemented major rule changes before. The pitcher’s mound was famously lowered in 1969 to counteract the dominance of pitchers; the “save” was added to the official rules that same year and rewritten in 1974 and 1975; the designated hitter was first experimented with in 1973; and more recently, the playoff format was changed by the addition of an extra Wild Card team in 2012. Such rule changes can be used to counteract natural evolutions in gameplay and strategy that weaken the on-field product. Compared to other sports leagues, MLB’s rule changes have been downright conservative. The NBA, for example, implemented the shot clock in 1954 and the 3-point shot in 1979, both of which injected new life into the sport. While Kaat’s idea may seem unprecedented and even sound like blasphemy, such rule changes aren’t unheard of, and this one has its merits.

The average length of MLB games has steadily risen for decades now; games in 2019 lasted three hours and 10 minutes, 16 minutes longer than in 2010, and a 20% increase since 1980. Even though most pace-of-play initiatives target game speed as much as length, lopping two innings from the back end would have a greater impact than combining any number of small tweaks. Game length isn’t the sole—or even primary—culprit for the decreasing number of young fans, but shortening games couldn’t hurt. It would be easier for TV viewers to sit through entire games and easier for stadium-goers to take in the action from start to finish.

Adopting seven-inning games would not only reduce game length, but also heighten drama. That sense, so familiar to playoff baseball, that each out is precious and each at-bat is urgent would only be magnified. With only 21 outs to play with, a two-run second inning would feel more like capturing an opponent’s rook than their pawn. Each pitch, each at-bat, and each ball in play would carry increased importance that would further intensify and dramatize game, and in turn demand our attention.

This proposal isn’t just about appealing to fans, however. Seven-inning games actually align with modern player usage and what we’ve come to know about workload. Such a change could actually help to prevent injuries and combat aesthetically displeasing changes to the sport. Starters aren’t going as deep into games as they used to, and the middle and late innings have come to resemble a reliever merry-go-round to such an extent that MLB will eliminate the one-out reliever in 2020. It’s hard to fault teams for adopting these strategies, given what we know about the third-time-through-the-order penalty and the danger of running up pitch counts. But while these modern trends in pitcher usage are strategically sound and effective, they aren’t particularly fun to watch, and seven-inning games would get at that as well. They would restore the drama of the starting pitcher matchup, and renew the importance of a starter’s innings.

There are a number of reasons why this plan is unlikely to be implemented, but they shouldn’t end the conversation. Any adverse ripple effects from this change can be offset with other rule changes. For example, if pitchers adapt to fewer innings by throwing harder and going even more all-out, resulting in even more strikeouts, the league can lower the mound and end up with shorter games that also move quicker and feature more action.

Given the way seven-inning games would change pitcher usage, this change would also likely need to be coupled with a reduction in roster size, and pitching staffs in particular. Players and the Players’ Union would be unlikely to support any measure that results in the disappearance of several roster spots. But the league has its eye on expansion, and creating new teams could offset this roster reduction and keep the number of total MLB pitchers steady.

There’s also the heavy weight of history and tradition. Though often wielded by people with seemingly disingenuous intentions, the sport’s past and continuity is worth preserving and celebrating. But as many front offices are preaching, just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Seven innings actually preserves the integrity of gameplay more than some of the other, more gimmicky rule changes MLB is considering.

Even Shepherds appreciate the import of baseball’s history, which also includes countless records and statistics compiled over generations of players. That you can dust off a scorebook from the 19th century and it looks basically the same as the box scores in today’s paper is part of what makes baseball special. The first nine-inning game was played 162 years ago in 1857 (if you think 162 games takes a long time …). Before that, the winner was the first team to record 21 aces, so yeah, it’s been a while. Changing to seven innings would admittedly be a huge departure from that past, and would sever the link between today’s players and over a hundred years’ worth of counting stats.

But the strength of that link is overblown. We already account for era and league context in our evaluations of players. Players are faster and stronger today; managers deploy them differently; the ball has changed; the dimensions of the field have changed, too; the most prominent stats are rate stats and are increasingly league- and era-adjusted. Certain records might be unattainable with fewer innings to go around, but even with nine innings, today’s game is hardly the same as it was decades ago. Several home run records were broken this year due to the juiced ball—does that cheapen them? Will they ever be broken if MLB returns to the old ball? We would do the same sort of analysis and ask the same types of questions when comparing across eras with different numbers of innings.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Perhaps the greatest practical obstacle to making this happen, though, is fear of a reduction in revenue. Seven innings would mean fewer concessions sold and fewer commercial breaks, not to mention countless other unintended and unanticipated (and therefore risky) consequences. That cost could be offset in the long run by attracting a wider or more engaged fan base, but team owners are unlikely to take any chances when it comes to their bottom lines.

And therein lies the real issue. We can tinker with the rules of baseball all we want, but the drive for short-term profit has swallowed the drive for a healthy product (even at the expense of long-term profit, maddeningly) and only a reordering of league priorities can stem the tide. Gameplay, league economics, front-office strategy, changing demographics, exploitation of minor league and amateur players, and a host of other factors both on and off the field impact the overall health of the game. That health is eroding and it’s obvious that putting a runner on second to start the 10th inning is not a salve.

Changing games from nine to seven innings won’t solve all of baseball’s problems either. But as long as we are looking for solutions in the rule book, let’s make them count. Seven innings would heighten the intensity, restore starting pitching drama, shorten the game, better fit modern trends, limit player workload, and attract new fans. It could bridge the gap between the Restorers and the Shepherds. Seven innings won’t save baseball, but it’s still a good place to start.

Isaac Levy-Rubinett is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. His work has been published at The Ringer and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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4 years ago

Teams would still carry 8 relievers for some reason.

Dave T
4 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

If teams were allowed to do it – the author mentions unspecified reductions in roster size targeting number of pitchers – that “some reason” would be because it would work really well for 7-inning baseball. Even in the regular season, a team that assembled 5 or more above average relievers could somewhat regularly go for bullpen games that would be expected to be highly effective.

Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago

Aesthetically I’d like starters to cover more of the game, but teams wouldn’t play the fewer innings that way. They’d take it as opportunity to throw tandem starters for 3-4 innings apiece, or other bullpen gaming, unless that’s excluded by other changes. Which you can try by shrinking the roster as you say, but you could also try that today with 9 innings.

4 years ago

I’m for anything that will get us beyond the unbalanced schedules of the Divisional Era and the numbing sameness of playing certain teams 19 times a year. Shorten the schedule to 154. Drop the divisions and go full 15 team leagues. The top 4 finishers are in the post-season, while the next 8 teams take part in single-game wild cards (#5 plays #12, #6 plays #11, #7 plays #10, and #8 plays #9). These 4 wild card winners are matched up in Best of 5 series against the top 4. Many people will bristle at the thought of 12 teams drawing in, but 8 of them are in single-game eliminations, and 4 are gone right away. This keeps the bottom of the league interested in winning rather than just tanking (teams 13, 14, and 15 have some incentive to fight for that 12 spot), and it broadens public interest in the post-season.

4 years ago
Reply to  horacefury19

Taking this season’s records, that would mean that one-third of the teams making the post season would be sub-.500, including the 90-loss Angels. What kind of interest would that generate?

kick me in the GO NATSmember
4 years ago

God NO. Please no

4 years ago

As an aging Restorer, this would be the kiss goodbye for me. Ironically, I agree with the analysis that concludes this would indeed cute a lot of what ails baseball today. However, nine innings is sacrosanct.

A word about my dislike of the bat flip. It’s just so bush league. Act like you’ve done it before. But as distasteful as that is, what I really despise about some of today’s look-at-me players it’s the lack of hustle and self-regard they display that results in disgraceful behavior as exemplified by Ronald Acuna last week.

Watching tonight’s Yankees-Astros game… On display – the reason I love Aaron Judge. He creamed a ball that went for a homer to right-center and by the time the ball cleared the wall he was already rounding first. Because he runs out of the box on contact. He doesn’t stand there admiring the trajectory of the ball. He’s a true professional who plays with class and pride who puts the team first.

“Play loud?” Make me barf.

4 years ago
Reply to  sbf21

I enjoyed Freddie’s homer right after Acuna’s. Dropped his bat and trotted around the bases – like he’d done it before. Consummate professional. I hear you sbf, but as a restorer myself, the game needs help and among all the ‘gimmicks’ that have been put forward – I absolutely cringe at the runner on 2nd to start extra innings (Manfred is an idiot), shortening the game to 7 innings is the most rational thought I’ve seen that’s been put forward. It’s still playing the game though something would also have to be done about the number of pitchers on rosters.

4 years ago

When ticket prices are reduced by 22 percent, then I’ll consider this.

4 years ago

This is baseball’s version of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

4 years ago

Who’s going to break the news of seven inning baseball games and the limiting of pitching changes to the big money advertisers and the tv networks? Seven inning games would give the ad buyers 5-6 less commercial breaks per game. (That would be maybe 3 or 4 less times a game that I would have to listen to Zach tell me about his erectile dysfunction! zzzzzz…) Television dictates what happens, and doesn’t happen, in every major sport. This is the one and only reason why these changes will never occur. Increasing the fan base will come nowhere near replacing the revenue from lost television and if the reformers, or “Shepherds,” don’t know that then they need a basic lesson in economics and reality. Do you realize how much the price of tickets and merchandising would have to be increased for that to happen? Higher ticket prices for 2 less innings? Higher salaries for less innings and games played? Not a chance! I would argue that all of this would drive more existing fans away than it would attract new ones. Making people pay more for less is not an advisable business model.

As much as some people find the profit motive distasteful, it is reality and does provide us with all the good things that we have in life, including baseball.

Overall, the author of this article is well intended, but extremely naive. By the time he gets to the end of his piece, even he has reservations about the positive effects of these changes. If you are advocating such drastic changes to something then you better be a whole lot more confident that they will work. Remember, the sport of baseball belongs to all of us.