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The Negating Effects Of First-Half-Inning Run Scoring On Competitive Integrity And Entertainment Fidelity

Manager Rocco Baldelli of the Minnesota Twins relieves Sonny Gray #54 in the fifth inning against the Houston Astros during Game Three of the Division Series at Target Field on October 10, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
David Berding/Getty Images

The material foundations of MLB's two-year-old playoff format are being rocked. Scholars of the game are now raising several important philosophical questions about the format's competitive integrity: Is it even worth winning 100 games in the regular season if it means you only get a bye week, thus allowing you to rest and reset your pitching rotation for the divisional series? Of course it's been a known fact for years now that home-field advantage does not matter that much in baseball, but are we now relearning that fact? Could it be that, due to luck or opponent quality, regular season wins are not directly proportional to the overall quality of a team, and in fact a team that won fewer games in the regular season can match the talent to a team that won more? Or does the existence of a wild card series grant little rat teams that barely scrounged their way into the playoffs the unfair advantage of having too many good vibes?

This is the discursive landscape in which this blog intervenes. Unlike previous scholarship that fixates on altering the postseason format to better reward regular season success, I suggest a more modest proposal. One that, despite its simplicity—or, perhaps, because of it—is capable of addressing not only the entertainment product of the playoffs, which is the primary goal of the proposal, but also their competitive integrity. This solution is easy to understand for even the casual bandwagon fan: It's time for MLB to ban scoring runs in the top of the first inning.

It has become clear over the past few days that the current rate of first-half-inning run scoring is untenable in the current playoff environment. An egregious case occurred just yesterday, when the visiting Houston Astros racked up four runs in the first inning against Sonny Gray. It was only 3:20 p.m. in the time zones of both participating teams. All of the fans who were at work and the hypothetical bloggers who tuned in minutes late because they lost track of time had already missed four runs of action. That the Twins only scored one run total is even more damning—the game was already decided before many people remembered or were able to watch. By wiping the slate, you would not only remove the Astros' first-inning runs but also their momentum; there's no telling how many runs the Twins would've scored if only José Abreu hadn't hit that home run, and how much closer—and thus, more entertaining—of a game it could've been.

While the Astros-Twins game serves as a clear example of a mangled entertainment product, competitive integrity remains a fuzzier issue. The Astros were the higher-seeded team, having won 90 games to the Twins' mere 87—by that measure, they should win the series. On the other hand, the Twins were playing at home, and yet, despite having an enthusiastic home crowd even with the awkward start time, they still lost. Applying simple statistical arithmetic, however, we realize that the single competitive integrity asset (higher-seeded team winning) cancels out with the single competitive integrity loss (home team losing), and can dub the first-half-inning run scoring as having a net zero impact on competitive integrity.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers' series against the Arizona Diamondbacks provides a case study of a clear competitive integrity catastrophe due to first-half-inning run scoring. In this case, the Arizona Diamondbacks were both the worse team in the regular season with 16 fewer wins, and were also the visiting team in the first two games of the series. Yet they, like the Astros last night, effectively won both games by the end of the first inning, scoring six first-inning runs against Clayton Kershaw and Emmet Sheehan and three first-inning runs against Bobby Miller, while the Dodgers could only muster up two runs in each game across nine.

Once again, the first-half-inning action dominated the end result, lowering the tension of the remaining eight innings of the game; once again, the better regular-season team was on the losing side. With one game of neutral impact on competitive integrity, but two games of negative impact on competitive integrity, and both games decreasing overall entertainment quality, it is obvious: It is time to call a moratorium on first-half-inning run scoring.

There are, of course, questions that arise, as there would be following any radical paradigm shift. How will MLB enforce such a ban? Will the visiting team still be allowed to play the first inning, or will the top of the line-up start at the top of the second inning? If the visiting team is allowed to play the first inning and scores runs that are then nullified, should those runs be restored if the home team's offense exceeds that number? The methodology of my analysis also fails to account for other events that occurred in the losses laid out in the above case studies, such as pitchers either failing to execute a normally dominant pitch or hitters sitting on such a pitch, the existence of Yordan Álvarez, and the fact that the losing team and a home crowd that never really fell silent could still create moments of tension even with a sharp score disparity.

But the beauty of scholarship is that it is naturally iterative, only awaiting the next piece of research in the field. Questions that are raised, particularly age-old ones on how to bridge the gap between theory and praxis, need not be answered in the same piece of work. And the beauty of MLB is that, empirically speaking, not all questions must be answered before policy is implemented.

To Robert Manfred: Implementation of the policy proposed herein would constitute a meaningful first step, but more research is needed. I am willing to surrender my intellectual property in exchange for more funding, either in the form of a grant or generous donation. Please, my department is dying. Thank you.

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