Traditional SEC baseball fans are in an uproar over a new rule being implemented for the 2023 season. In the spirit of speeding up game play, teams ahead by 10 runs after 7 innings will be declared the winner via mercy rule. This regulation was already in place for the SEC Tournament, but will now be in effect for conference series games this spring.
Old-school baseball fans pretty much poo poo any modifications to the game’s long-standing rules and this one is no different. In their eyes, baseball games are meant to be decided over nine innings, regardless of score and the highly unlikely prospects of a team coming back down 10 or more runs with only six outs to create a rally for the ages.
Yes, there have been some epic comebacks by teams seemingly left for dead. Arkansas, for instance, scored 11 runs in the ninth inning to beat South Carolina back in 1998. But these cases are indeed rare. Especially in conference games where the better pitching is available.
An interesting side note for the 9-inning purists: before the Razorbacks jumped to the SEC, a conference weekend series in the old Southwest Conference included a 7- and 9-inning doubleheader on Saturday. (I played on the last two SWC Arkansas baseball teams and the first two SEC teams and was actually the 7-inning game starter for the 1991 season.)
SEC Baseball Fans Split on Mercy Rule
The new rule seems to have support from the casual fan as many have voiced a lack of interest in sitting through meaningless innings, especially in the colder weather of early spring. Whether their team is up or down 10 runs, they are ready to move onto something else.
Then there is the crowd that feels shortening the game prevents the non-starters and younger players from getting some valuable experience. That’s kinda true, but not critical. That is what midweek games and intrasquads are for and yes, once the non-conference games start to dwindle, most of the bigger schools with adequate pitching depth will scrimmage during the season.
I’m not sold if an at-bat in an out-of-hand game does much positive or negative for a player. But I’m not totally discounting a player having a plate appearance or quality inning on the mound that lights a spark or helps them turn the corner toward more playing time. That has and will happen.
Are those minimally successful outings worth playing 9 to 12 extra outs only to see the win-loss result still be the same as it was at the end of the 7th?
How it May Impact Strategy
University of Arkansas skipper Dave Van Horn recently addressed the new rule in his first press conference of the spring semester and sees both sides of the coin. If he’s in the lead, the Hogs will step on the gas to score as many as possible to save some pitching. Saving pitching also comes into play if you’re on the wrong side of the 10-run deficit, but don’t expect the Hogs to just lay down in the 7th inning any time soon.
You may see younger arms or older guys buried on the conference roster in those upside-down blowouts, which any coach would do, but the offense will still fire away to see if they can get back in the game. Especially if he can chew up the other team’s bullpen.
At the same time, teams may start using one of their better relievers to nail down a 7th inning to ensure the game ends early. Will that impact another game in the series given a team gets to see his stuff or does his pitch count escalate, making him less effective or useful in the rest of the series? That will be interesting to see play out in 2023.
Impact on Arkansas Baseball
I actually see it from another angle and can point to some recent examples specifically involving the Razorbacks where a blowout that would have been called after the 7th inning may have changed the course of the series.
As a former Razorback, I’ve been in the dugout for some of those blowouts. Both on the good side and the bad. If you think the last few innings can drag for a fan, think about it from the players’ perspective. Fans have the option to leave, but players have to stick it out. Of course that was before the luxury clubhouse amenities of the current day Hogs. Being stuck at the ballpark with the ability to retreat to the Hunt Center for a little warm up or snack would’ve been nice.
Those out-of-hand games can be beyond brutal to sit through.
More important is the way the growth curve of in-game momentum can taper off. In blowouts, the incredible momentum that built such a big lead is often lost as teams go through the motions, so to speak, for those last handful of outs. Losing that edge often impacts the winning team the following day.
Baseball isn’t like hoops or football, where there are days between the blowout and the next game. In an SEC conference series, you better show up locked and loaded every day, regardless of what happened the day before – or you can find yourself swept in a heartbeat or losing a series where you were in the driver’s seat after Friday night.
So many times in baseball, a team gets blown out on a Friday night but comes back and wins Game 2 and 3 to take the series. I can think of two from not so long ago involving the Razorbacks. Both occurred in the incredible 2021 season that ended so heartbreakingly short of Omaha.
Few need to be reminded of the Fayetteville Super Regional where the Hogs pummeled North Carolina State 21-2 on Friday night, then ended up losing two one-run ball games (and only scoring seven runs combined in the next two games) to lose the series and end the season shy of the College World Series.
On the flip side was the SEC opener that year, when the Hogs got throttled 16-1 by Alabama at Baum-Walker Stadium. But Arkansas struck back with a Roll Tide football-like beat down, winning the next two games by scores of 9-1 and 2-1 to take the series. That drubbing Friday night to a lightly respected Bama baseball squad then flipping the tables to win the series may have been the catalyst for the Hogs’ run to the SEC title in 2021.
Benefits of the Mercy Rule
Baseball is a momentum sport. Those that follow it have heard coaches or players mention we just needed one big hit to break through, and then the whole lineup got hot. Keeping a mental edge is also very important in baseball because of the sheer volume of games played, but also the slower nature of how baseball games are played. Grinding through a 60-some odd game schedule while attending class, studying, practicing, etc. can cause some real wear and tear mentally on a player.
For a player to maintain momentum and mental focus, he needs to rest and refresh. Not sit at the ballpark watching the final six outs of a run-rule game.
But in actuality, that up by 10 after 7 mercy rule should only come into effect a couple of times a season. Coaches have had that option in non-conference games for quite some time and it comes into play more often as teams are simply overmatched and don’t have much pitching depth. Anyone that watches Razorback baseball intently has seen some pitchers that can’t break glass face the Hogs in games that were out of reach. That doesn’t do the Razorback hitters any good, especially when the following game is against a SEC-caliber Friday night ace.
For the Arkansas baseball fans that don’t like it, all 14 SEC baseball coaches voted in favor of the rule.
The Other Rule Change in the SEC Baseball
There wasn’t as much of a consensus on the option to start an inning with a runner on second base in extra innings. That isn’t real baseball and that kind of time saving should be saved for 12-year-old travel ball tournaments. The coaches have to mutually agree on that being in effect before the game is played and I will be surprised if anyone goes that route. Even on a Sunday when pitching gets thin, even for SEC schools.
Baseball at every level is looking for ways to make the game more efficient and fan friendly. Some have a place in big-time college baseball, some don’t. I believe the up 10 after 7 mercy rule is a good one and will likely improve the quality of baseball played during a weekend series beyond the blowout. Coaches will especially appreciate that rule on a Sunday getaway game that gets out of hand.
Starting a runner on second in extra innings, the international tiebreaker rule, should remain in the kids’ game. In a nip-and-tuck game that has as much as an SEC conference series game riding on it, a game decided under that scenario would just feel weird and somewhat cheap. The runner on second rule has been an option in SEC play on Sundays as travel may be an issue as well as both teams having bullpens on fumes. No coach with a pitching advantage is ever going to agree to shortening the game.
Let’s hope the Hogs are on the right side of those mercy rules more times than not and Van Horn sticks to his statement that the international tiebreaker rule will never be used as long as he is in charge of Arkansas baseball.
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