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Exploring extra innings

A comprehensive look at the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th...

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

It’s time for free baseball, as they say.

Extra innings can mean different things to different fans. For some, it’s a chance to enjoy more baseball. These fans paid for nine innings of entertainment, and are getting the rest for free. Others, however, view it as an endless display of apathy toward victory and conclusions that can go on — literally — forever.

Baseball is the sport without a clock, and some of the game’s most memorable and craziest games are those that go on for hours, inning totals climbing higher and higher.

Just three years ago, my family and I were spending some time at our family friend’s house. They invited us over to watch Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS between the Nationals and Giants. We arrived before the start, watched as Drew Storen blew a 1-0 lead with two outs in the ninth and stayed through 10 or 11 innings. At this point, it was around 10 PM. We had to go home, but we listened to the game on the radio in the car and arrived back at our house around the 14th inning. When Brandon Belt belted a leadoff homer in the top of the 18th, we had watched another four innings at home, and a game with a start time of 5:30 PM lasted until almost 12 AM.

Although my family was rooting for the Nationals, games like these are the ones that you never forget. I will admit: not all games go 18 innings. But after recalling this experience this week, I decided to take a deeper look into extra innings and answer some questions that I’ve always had.

What’s the normal number of extra innings?

A few days ago, I was having a discussion with my mom. She told me that she felt extra innings never end. I disagreed. I argued that most extra inning games didn’t go long, and I was willing to bet her that more than 50 percent ended after 10.

Perhaps another lesson in this article is to never disagree with your mother because, as it turns out, she was right.

Since 2012, there have been 1,200 extra inning games. How many of these games went 10 innings, you ask? Just 524, or 43.7 percent. But, 981 of the 1,200 games — or 81.8 percent — end by the 12th. It’s very rare that you see a game go 15 innings or longer, as there have only been 58 such games in the last 5 ½ years, or about 4.8 percent of total extra inning affairs. Here’s the entire breakdown.

Baseball Reference Play Index

Why is this important? Because with rumors that the league is considering putting runners on second base starting in extras, we must remember the context. So few games actually go beyond 12 innings; is it really that big of a deal for 5 percent of the already-small number of extra-inning games go ultra-long? To compare, NFL overtime is an extra 15-minute period. If the teams run out the entire clock (which is rare, I’ll admit), overtime lasts about 45 minutes when commercial time is included. A tenth inning might take 20 minutes, and going through twelve might take another 60. It’s not really that big of a deal to warrant making such a rash change to the game.

How long are extra inning games?

Did you really think that I was going to leave you with a time estimate for extra inning games? Of course you didn’t.

It wouldn’t be fair to group in all of the extra inning games and say, this is how long an extra inning game normally takes. The 10-inning games didn’t take nearly as long as the 20-inning marathon played between the Marlins and Mets in 2013 (which took 6 hours and 25 minutes), so we have to break this one down by number of innings played.

The length of MLB games, by inning

Inning Average Time Average Time Added
Inning Average Time Average Time Added
9 innings* 2 hours, 59 mins -
10 innings 3 hours, 28 mins 29 mins
11 innings 3 hours, 49 mins 50 mins
12 innings 4 hours, 11 mins 1 hour, 12 mins
13 innings 4 hours, 29 mins 1 hour, 30 mins
14 innings 4 hours, 53 mins 1 hour, 54 mins
15 innings 5 hours, 7 mins 2 hours, 8 mins
16 innings 5 hours, 27 mins 2 hours, 28 mins
17 innings 5 hours, 38 mins 2 hours, 39 mins
18 innings 6 hours, 4 mins 3 hours, 5 mins
19 innings 6 hours, 28 mins 3 hours, 29 mins
20 innings** 6 hours, 25 mins 3 hours, 26 mins
*The figure for 9 inning games is the median for the 2012 to 2017 timeframe; **The 20-inning figure is based upon one datapoint

My estimate was off, but not by a lot. I estimated that a 12-inning game should be about 60 minutes longer than the average 9-inning game, but it looks to be about 72 minutes longer. I figure that each inning should take around 20 minutes to complete, but if you look, most take longer. Some extra innings — like the average 15th inning, for example — do take less than 20 minutes, but when 80 percent of a league’s extra inning games end by the 12th inning, you have to focus on those first three innings to really get a sense for what extras usually mean.

Those three innings are taking an average of 24 minutes to complete, which is a lot. The 10th inning is by far the worst, taking almost a half hour. This must be why some fans — like my mom — don’t like extra innings. When just one inning might take that long, on top of an already increasingly lengthy game, there can be a turnoff to fans.

Interestingly enough, the three shortest extra inning games all had a final score of 1-0. The Brewers and White Sox played a brisk 10-inning affair on June 22, 2012 that took 2 hours and 22 minutes. Rickie Weeks drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th, giving the Brewers the first and only lead of the game. The contest, which was started by Chris Sale and Zack Greinke, featured a total of three pitching changes and none in the middle of an inning. That’s efficiency.

A 7-hour, 6-minute game between the Diamondbacks and Phillies falls on the other end of the spectrum. It was August 24, 2013, and the 18-inning affair saw a total of 19 runs and 18 pitching changes (!!!!!!!!). It didn’t help that Philadelphia’s starter, Ethan Martin, got just two outs in the first inning. Casper Wells (!!!) and John McDonald (!!!) both pitched in the 18th, and a collection of hits from Arizona’s hitters broke the 7-7 tie with a five-run inning, ultimately winning 12-7. This game was baseball’s longest since 1989, when the Dodgers and Astros played a 7-hour, 14-minute game. But — wow — talk about length.

Even with this crazy example, I don’t think extra innings are an urgent problem that we need to fix. A crazy game every once in a while is definitely not a bad thing. However, baseball needs to understand that extra innings do take longer than they should, and time needs to be limited. Is it a pressing matter warranting drastic changes, like extra baserunners? I don’t necessarily think so.

How many extra inning games are played per season?

We’ve established that most extra inning games are done by the 12th inning. We have also established that those 10th, 11th and 12th innings take a very long time. But, how often do fans have to deal with this? I think this is where my mom could be wrong, as she says, “I feel like games always go into extra innings.” That’s not necessarily true.

The 1,200 extra inning games since 2012 make up 8.7 percent of total MLB games in that span. One out of every 11 games played goes into extras, so we can expect around one game per night to go more than nine frames.

Here are the number of extra inning games per season since 2012:

Extra inning games, by year

Year Games Percentage of Total
Year Games Percentage of Total
2012 192 7.9%
2013 243 10.0%
2014 231 9.5%
2015 212 8.7%
2016 185 7.6%
2017 137 8.6%

As you can see, extra inning games make up anywhere from 7.6 percent to 10 percent of total games played in an entire season.

I was curious to see if we would see any spike in extra inning games in recent times because of increased reliever usage and lower run-scoring. But even compared to 1980, for example, when some pitchers were still throwing 10, 15 or even 20 complete games, the amount of extra inning games has remained relatively constant. That year, there were 217 such contests, making up around 10 percent of total games. So, no, there has not been an increase in extra inning games over the years.

Here’s that claim in visual form, spanning the last 40 years (1978-2017):

Data via Baseball Reference

There’s nothing that suggests that we are seeing more (or fewer) extra inning games. If anything, the number of extra inning games is dependent more upon the individual season than any other external factors. At least in this regard, the game hasn’t changed.

Why all the fuss, then?

If extra innings only happen so often, and they really don’t go on that long from an inning standpoint, then why do we care so much about them?

I think the underlying problem lays within the sport itself. There’s no denying that baseball is a long game. And depending on who you ask, it can be boring. To the general fan, or the non-fan who may be trying to get into the game, extra innings can seem like a drag, especially since there is no distinct end.

But after all this research that I did, I think baseball’s problem has nothing to do with extra innings. I’d argue that if nine-inning games were even 30-45 minutes shorter, then fans might be more inclined to stay for extra frames. However, it’s because we are dealing with three to three-and-a-half hour nine-inning games (which can be partly attributed to pitching changes) that fans are so turned off by the supplemental innings.

This is unfortunate, too, because those games are the ones that we so often remember. I won’t soon forget that Nationals-Giants instant classic from not too long ago, not least because it feels like it just ended.

Data is accurate through games played on August 1, 2017.

Martin Alonso and Henry Druschel also helped to compile statistics for this report.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.