What would it take for MLB to enforce the Mercy Rule?

Perhaps the most appealing part of baseball is it has no set end point. A winning team can’t run out the clock and wait for time to expire, the game keeps going until the final out is recorded.

But what if baseball’s greatest blessing became its worst curse? What if a team took the lead and then… didn’t stop? What if by the time they were done running up the score, Mr. Met had retired in his old age and been succeeded by his eccentric son who is far into cryptocurrencies? With no game clock around to put the losing team out of their misery, there’s a non-zero chance that the winning team could simply keep scoring one successful at-bat after the other, putting up hundreds or thousands of runs never stopping until the heat death of the universe kills us all.

This begs the question: when would MLB step in and put an end to things? Major League Baseball doesn’t have a mercy rule, so someone would have to make an unprecedented decision to shut things down. Let’s try to figure out when that would happen.

The Teams

Perhaps the most important variable required for MLB to enforce a mercy rule is both competing teams would have to be sociopaths. I’m talking Jared Leto on the set of suicide squad style sociopaths. The winning team would have to want to continue piling on runs long after it became clear they were guaranteed to win. They have to want to humiliate their opponents, more than they want to go home and see their families. Their number one priority must be obliteration of their opponents and baseball as a whole.

Likewise, the losing team must be equally manic. They’ll need to want to continue playing as all this happens. While MLB doesn’t have any mercy rule, it does have several rules in place for a forfeit. That can not happen. Our losing team must be stubborn and spiteful, they must continue to play the game even if they’re losing by dozens, if not hundreds of runs. They must know that chaos is amongst us and stare directly into the abyss. At best, they may at least be hoping to secure a Pyrrhic victory by forcing their opponents to expend so much energy running up the score that their careers are shortened as a result.

The Game

The start of the game will be just like any other, but quickly devolve into the kind of spectacle that the world stops to watch. It will have the can’t look away terror of a trainwreck, it will be the modern white Bronco chase, people will tune in just to say they were there when disaster struck.

I spent some time thinking about the best time for one team to start piling on the runs, and I think the top of the first inning is undoubtedly the best scenario for a few reasons.

  1. It means that the team doing this are the visitors.
  2. If the losing team somehow manages to finally get three outs in the inning, there remains the possibility that this all happens again later in the game.
  3. But most importantly, it means that if MLB decides to enforce an impromptu mercy rule, they’re doing it without ever allowing one team to bat.

The game will be beautiful. The game will be chaos. The game will destroy baseball.

The first major milestone will occur when the winning team takes a thirteen run lead. In the history of Major League Baseball, no team has ever comeback from a thirteen run deficit. At this point, the game is effectively decided. A few runs later when the 19th run of an inning is scored, a century old record for most runs in an inning will be broken. By now, people who aren’t fans of either team will have begun tuning in to see how long they can go, but like passengers on the Titanic, they have no idea they just signed themselves up for disaster.

At thirty-one runs the modern record for most runs scored by one team will be broken, at thirty-seven, the all-time record will fall too. At this point, the only reason anyone would want the game to continue is morbid curiosity. Every possible team scoring record has been broken, to win, the home team would have to post a comeback over three times greater than the greatest comeback in baseball history. Standings wise, the game is long over, and yet the scoreboard says it’s still the top of the first inning with zero outs.

It has literally only just begun.

For a team to be winning 37-0 with no outs means they’ve had to have already gone through their lineup four full times, about an entire game’s worth of plate appearances all in a single inning. With MLB as a whole averaging just under four pitches per plate appearance, we can estimate that the opposing team in this scenario has already thrown somewhere around 150 pitches, once again about an entire game’s worth.

With each batter getting on base, no quick outs happening, and probably at least a handful of mound visits we’re looking at the game clock likely approaching two hours by this point. Two hours have gone and the game is no closer to being over than it was when the first pitch was thrown.

We’re two hours into the game and an insurmountable lead is on the board, and it’s still the top of the first inning with zero outs. It could very well keep going to 50 runs, 100 runs, maybe a 1000 runs if we want to make a weekend of it.

At what point does the mercy rule get enacted?

The Precedent

Major League Baseball has never had a mercy rule, but the World Baseball Classic famously does. If a team is winning by 10 runs after seven innings, or 15 runs after five innings, the game ends. Since the WBC is a product of MLB and the MLBPA, that means that these are rules both the league and its players are familiar with and have in some way agreed upon.

It also should be noted that the league avoids referring to this as a “mercy rule” and instead it’s listed as “Early Termination for Large Leads.” They’re even being merciful about embarrassing players with a mercy rule.

MLB umpires enacting a mercy rule wouldn’t be without its supporters either. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone is on record saying that it’s something worth exploring.

The Ending

Back to the question at hand. When would it end? Again, we have to assume the losing team is deciding to play this out due to some strange masochism, and wouldn’t voluntarily forfeit the game at any point. One would have to assume that at least one of them is getting off on this kind of abject humiliation.

However, there are a few rules in place where an MLB umpire could force a team to forfeit, so when these umpires have decided they’ve seen enough and/or miss their families and wish to escape this hellscape of baseball purgatory they find themselves in, they could reasonably enforce one of these rules.

Rule 7.03(b)

A game shall be forfeited to the opposing team when a team is unable or refuses to place nine players on the field.

Eventually, the losing team would run out of players. It has to be assumed that they’d go through their first few pitchers relatively quickly, pulling guys after giving up five or so runs. By the time we reach the 37-0 point of the game, there may be only a handful of guys left in the bullpen. Even if the team decides to stretch their remaining guys as long as possible, or chooses to have position players pitch as well, the human body has a limit on how much it can exert itself before needing to be removed from the game.

What that limit is varies from player to player, Nolan Ryan once famously threw 253 pitches in a single game, but eventually even he would simply no longer be able to throw the baseball across the plate. (unconfirmed – citation needed)

It takes about an hour for 100 pitches to be thrown in a baseball game. Worst case scenario, if a team has a roster of all Nolan Ryan’s that can throw 250+ pitches, multiplied by 13 pitchers on the roster, we’re looking at around 3250 pitches thrown before all arms give out. That puts the high end of our cruel experiment at 32.5 hours of destruction before the team is forced to forfeit.

It may take a while, but when the losing team is finally unable to field a healthy pitcher as a sacrificial lamb to the ERA gods, the umpire could end the game right there.

Rule 7.03(a)(2)

A game may be forfeited to the opposing team when a team employs tactics palpably designed to delay or shorten the game.

Could being so bad that you’ve given up over 30 runs in the first inning and then refused to change tactics or forfeit be seen as a tactic designed to delay the game? It very well could be.

Similar to the referee in a boxing match, who can call the contest if they determine that the fighter isn’t properly defending themselves, the umpire could theoretically claim that the losing team is delaying the game by refusing to forfeit.

It would be the most controversial call in sports history, and all sides would be angry. People would be upset that the umpire put an end to a historic marvel, people would be upset at the winning team for breaking the “UNWRITTEN RULES OF BASEBALL” and running up the score such a ludicrous amount, and people would be VERY upset that the Houston Astros were found to have cheated their way to a World Series victory and the league refused to strip them of their title with Commissioner Rob Manfred calling the World Series trophy “a piece of metal.

Controversy aside, forfeiture due to being so bad it’s delaying the game would result in some spicy takes online and some glorious memes we can only hope of one day seeing.

Rule 8.01(c)

Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules.

As stated earlier, Major League Baseball does not have a mercy rule meaning that “Early Termination for Large Leads” is a point not specifically covered in the official MLB rulebook, giving the umpire authority to freely rule it as they see fit. The precedent of having early termination exist in the World Baseball Classic sets it apart as a point that could require decisive authority meaning it’s absolutely within the rights of the umpire-in-chief to make the unprecedented call for ending a game that has functionally already been decided.

So there you have it, since mercy rules don’t exist in the MLB rulebook, it’s at the discretion of the umpire when one would get enforced. We would have to assume that moment exists at some point between the 37-0 mark when all team scoring records have been broken and the 100-0 mark when broadcasters would have to reformat their on screen graphics to allow for a third digit. There would be chaotic amounts of backlash for making the call to end the game, but the rules clearly state the umpires have all authority in this situation.

…Which opens up a whole new can of worms.

Since there’s absolutely no mention of a mercy rule in the rulebook, that means the umpire has zero parameters they’re required to follow and theoretically has authority to enforce the early termination of a game for large leads after seeing a team take a 1-0 lead. After all, while the WBC rulebook states that a large lead is one of at least ten runs, the MLB rulebook makes no such distinction giving the umpire authority to state one run is too much to ever overcome.

There’s also no point in the rulebook stating whether or not a team’s entire outfield is expected to be singing Tony Award Winning Best Original Score numbers throughout the entire contest, meaning the umpire has authority to rule on this as well.

How crazy could an umpire-gone-rogue get? What exceptions exist in the rulebook that could be used to slowly turn a Baseball game into a table reading of The Simpsons S2E8 “You Only Move Twice” starring Mike Trout as Hank Scorpio? Could an umpire use Rule 8.01(c) to absolutely destroy the game of baseball like some corrupt supervillain drunk on power? It could be the most exciting thing to happen to the game in years.

Which begs the question, when would MLB step in and put an end to things?

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