The LOOGY's Last Ride: MLB's Three-Batter Minimum Rule Change Will Imperil the Lefty Specialist

Lefty specialists were already a rare breed of relief pitcher. With a three-batter minimum due to arrive in 2020, the existence of the "LOOGY" is directly threatened.
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PHOENIX — Here’s how much A’s reliever Ryan Buchter hates MLB’s proposed three-batter minimum for pitchers, which is set to take effect for the 2020 season. His plan, he says on a late February morning in Oakland’s spring training camp, is to send a photo of his two-year-old daughter, Ella, to the commissioner’s office with a simple message: “You’re taking food out of her mouth.”

“It’s stupid,” Buchter says of the new rule. “A manager has to bring me into a game to face three hitters even if a guy has a great career average against me. You’re telling me I have to face him now because the commissioner wants to put a rule in that supposedly speeds up the game? I spent 10 years in the minors trying to fight my way to get here, and now that I’m finally here, I’ve got a guy telling me I might not stay long because of a rule change.”

That may sound dramatic, but Buchter’s anger makes sense given the player he is: a lefthanded reliever whose job is to get lefty hitters out. For those particular southpaws—often branded as LOOGYs, or lefty one-out guys—that usually means appearances in which you only face one or two batters, as was the case in 19 of Buchter’s 54 appearances last season. But Rob Manfred’s desire to shave precious minutes off the game threatens to push those specialists—already a declining group thanks to the evolution of modern bullpens—the way of the dodo and the knuckleball.

“As a lefty pitcher, I’m not for it because it takes away jobs,” says Jerry Blevins, another one of Oakland’s bullpen lefties and someone whose stints in games last year were frequently short by design. Adds Padres veteran southpaw Aaron Loup: “That rule change, it would definitely affect me. For the most part, when I come into the game, it’s going to be to face lefties.”

The idea of the lefty specialist—the guy who faces the toughest lefthanded hitters in the opposing lineup but seldom any righties—had existed in the game for years but took flight in the 1980s and ‘90s, pioneered by noted bullpen maverick Tony LaRussa. The LOOGY’s heyday came a decade later: From 2001 to 2004, more than 75% of lefthanded relievers who weren’t their team’s closer averaged less than an inning per appearance. That included stalwarts like Mike Myers, Randy Choate, Ray King, and the patron saint of LOOGYs, the ageless Jesse Orosco.

But the LOOGY is now a relic of a different age. Today’s bullpens are designed to be deep and flexible. They’re responsible for gobbling up more and more outs, meaning having a pitcher who can only record one or two a night against one kind of hitter won’t cut it. It hasn’t helped the LOOGY cause that teams are increasingly flush with flamethrowers capable of striking out anyone. “For your typical [LOOGY], why waste time doing that when you can just stick whoever in there throwing 98 [mph] and strike him out anyway?” Loup posits.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal when you’re putting together a team,” says Indians righty Tyler Clippard. “You want your seven or eight best arms regardless of handedness.”

Ironically, then, Manfred’s quest to rid the world of mid-inning pitching changes comes at a time when managers have more or less eschewed the type of reliever most responsible for that move. But regardless of how it affects them specifically, the relievers surveyed are philosophically opposed to any rule that limits pitcher usage as a whole.

“I don’t want to dictate how the game is played through rules,” Blevins says. “I want to give the managers flexibility in what they want to do. I can come in and get an inning or an inning plus or one guy. That’s what separates the good from the great, is a manager that can do that.”

One issue that came up frequently was the question of what happens if a reliever can’t find the strike zone. “If you have a guy out there who’s struggling and just can’t get an out, there’s nothing you can do,” Clippard says. “So you just lose that game because one guy has a bad day?” Similarly, they worry about increased injury risk for relievers forced to throw lots of pitches or wonder how playoff games, when championships can swing on a single batter, will be altered. And they all feel unfairly targeted. “You’re not going to make a hitter have three at-bats before he can get pinch-hit for,” Blevins says.

The new rule will require tactical shifts and new strategy, but some of those extant problems—and the unforeseen ones that will inevitably arrive—have no easy answers. (Nor has MLB provided any detailed guidance on what the rule will look like or entail. Unsurprisingly, the MLBPA was firmly against the change, though to no avail: The league was able to impose the rule unilaterally and the union acquiesced in exchange for some concessions.) It’s a strange move to make, too, given that most relievers these days don’t face fewer than three batters per outing.

One the one hand, you can understand Manfred’s thinking: A manager strolling out to the mound during an inning to make a pitching change is an aesthetic dead spot that no one enjoys. But ultimately, it’s unlikely to save more than a minute or two per game, if even that—and the tradeoff is the hastened demise of an entire niche of pitchers. The 10 pitchers with the most two-batters-or-fewer appearances last season were all lefthanders.

“We’re starting to phase out as it is now,” Loup says. “But you’re basically taking guys like me that do face lefties and really phasing them out.”

To these relievers, there are better things for the league to focus on, and the speed of the game isn’t high up on their lists. “Making sure a guy like Vlad [Guerrero] Jr. is on the field is more important to me than 20 seconds for a pitch clock,” Blevins says. “I don’t think pace of play is the issue. I think it’s a competitiveness issue.”

“When over half the league is competing for the No. 1 draft pick and the quality on the field is not good, then nobody wants to come see it,” Buchter adds.

For now, though, the word from on high is relievers face three batters or bust come 2020. If that marks the end of the LOOGY, then so be it. Perhaps it was a position whose time had already come anyhow. “I think we take a lot of pride in trying to be pitchers first and not just specialists,” says the Giants’ Tony Watson. “We can all get righties out.”

Yet it still feels cruel that, as the potential last LOOGYs exit stage right, they should be swept off via executive fiat. Pitchers like Buchter shouldn’t have to worry about being the sacrifice on the altar of slightly speedier baseball. For now, though, all they can do is adapt or die.

“It’s not great for guys like me,” says the Indians’ Adam Cimber, one of the game’s rare ROOGYs. “But it’s something I’m going to have to get past. One way or another, get three outs.”