Why MLB's New Pitching Restrictions Are Bad for the Game

MLB's new rule, mandating a three-batter minimum for pitchers unless they end a half-inning, won't increase pace of play and might not even be implemented in 2020.
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The worst, most unnecessary baseball rule foisted upon managers and true fans of the game has not been implemented yet. There is still time and hope.

MLB announced almost a year ago a plan that all pitchers must face a minimum of three batters per appearance or pitch to the end of the half inning. The MLB Players Association agreed not to challenge the rule as part of negotiations involving roster size and scheduling.

On its website MLB explained the rule is “an effort to reduce the number of pitching changes and, in turn, cut down the average time per game.”

To go all 19th century on you, that is pure poppycock. The rule will do great harm to the organic strategy of the game and do nothing perceptible to time of game.

As teams build their rosters for 2020, they still don’t know if MLB will implement the rule. One team president texted, “I’m assuming it is in for ’20.” But no final decision has been made, according to a high-ranking baseball source. MLB has the right to implement the rule, but it still needs to meet with the players association before making a decision. Almost nobody in uniform, especially managers, likes the proposal.

MLB has tinkered with the structure of the game throughout history, including recent changes to slides at second base, collisions at home plate, intentional walks and mound visits. But this is the rare time when it is messing with the strategy of the game, and it’s just not worth it.

Imagine telling an NFL coach that a substitute would have to stay on the field for three plays or an NBA coach that a sub would have to stay in for three minutes. It’s an artificial governor that attacks inventiveness.

If MLB truly did the research on this idea–and paid attention to how the game is changing–it would understand that messing with strategy is not worth the minuscule impact it might have on time of game. Here are the facts:

• Relief appearances of one or two batters are going down, not up. They have gone down three of the past four years. In 2019 they fell 16% from just four years ago, reaching an 11-year low. That’s not the definition of a problem.

• Only about one-third of all one- or two-batter appearances would be affected by the proposed rule (those that do not end the half inning). In the LCS and World Series this year, for instance, when you would think matchups are most urgent, only nine of 24 appearances of one or two batters would have been affected (and nine of 128 pitching changes overall). Only one of 48 pitching changes in the World Series would have been impacted by the rule (but a huge one, as you can read below).

• One-batter relief appearances in 2019 reached a 13-year low. They are down 21% from just four years ago. In that time teams stopped matching up based on handedness and relied on micro-data such as pitch and swing paths. The Astros didn’t even carry a lefthander in the World Series. “Analytics have created a real shift away from those one-batter kinds of matchups,” said one veteran manager. “The value of having the one-batter guy just isn’t there.”

• The proposed rule would eliminate one mid-inning pitching change every three or four games. That’s it. Total time per game “saved” over a year: 44 seconds. Are you telling me you would take away the manager’s right to do what’s best to win the game just to get rid of one pitching change every three or four games?

Brief pitching appearances are not the problem. Take a look at this snapshot, which includes all relief appearances of one or two batters faced, the average time of game (according to Baseball Reference), and average pace (seconds between pitches, according to FanGraphs). Relief appearances of one or two batters are going down, while the time between pitches is going up.

MLB Pace of Game

1-2 Batters Faced

Time of Game

Pace (seconds b/w pitches)

2019

2,164

3:10

24.9

2015

2,585

3:00

22.7

2009

2,196

2:55

22.0

In the past four years baseball organically cut 421 one- and two-batter appearances, and yet time of game went up 10 minutes.

In 10 years, with slightly fewer such short appearances, time of game went up 15 minutes. Why? Because of the increased dawdling between pitches by pitchers and batters. Full stop.

Now you know the real problem. Players have added 2.9 seconds between pitches in just 10 years. At 302 pitches per game, that’s 14 to 15 minutes of pure nothingness added to a baseball game. This has happened while the dominant rubric for any entertainment option in a highly competitive landscape–football, basketball, movies, video games, etc.–is more action over a shorter period of time, not less action over a longer period of time.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has talked a good game for years about improving the pace of action, especially as it relates to the pitch clock, which he did institute in the minors to great success. But he has been hesitant to take on the players association when it comes to the pitch clock in the majors–the one move that would have the biggest impact and still not touch the strategy of the game.

The PGA doesn’t put up with laggards. Players are penalized one stroke upon their second offense of slow play and two strokes on the third. But MLB does nothing while Jose Alvarado of the Rays takes 31.9 seconds between every pitch. That’s absurd that a player can slow the game down like that with no accountability.

Baseball’s slow play problem is getting worse, even as Manfred has talked about the importance of pace of action. Check this out: look how the number of pitchers who take 30 seconds or longer between pitches has increased, according to FanGraphs data:

30-Second (Or More) Pace Pitchers (Min. 10 IP)

2019

17

2018

8

2017

3

2016

4

2015

2

You can tell me sign-stealing paranoia has slowed the game (all the more reason why Manfred needs to be forward-thinking and shut down all team video rooms during games, not only backward-thinking in penalizing the Astros). You can tell me a pitcher needs extra time in big moments, especially with runners on. You can tell me a pitcher “needs” time to formulate the next pitch with so much power at the plate.

(Slow pitchers tend to be late-inning guys such as Kenley Jansen, Joe Kelly, Emilio Pagan and Kirby Yates. In fact, in their defense, the 10 slowest pitchers posted an ERA almost a full run lower than the 10 fastest pitchers, 3.28-4.27.)

Okay, I get all that. But you can’t tell me that adding more and more time between pitches helps the game. It is the single most corrosive element to the game’s appeal. Play the same game with less time between pitches–even with the three true outcomes–and the game is more attractive.

Messing with strategy to attempt to solve a pace of game problem is a wrong-headed approach.

I’ve already pointed out how rarely the new rule would affect games, with almost no effect on overall time of games. Now let me explain the rare cases when it would apply. These moments tend to be the highest leverage moments of a game. Here are two of the nine examples in the 2019 postseason:

World Series Game 7

Houston manager A.J. Hinch brings in Will Harris with a runner on and a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning. Harris gives up a second-pitch homer to Howie Kendrick and falls behind 2-and-0 to Asdrubal Cabrera before he hangs a curveball. Cabrera singles. Pitching for the ninth time in 17 days, Harris is cooked.

Hinch knows it. He needs to get Harris out in order to keep the game at 3-2. He brings in his closer, Roberto Osuna. With the new rule, Hinch would not be allowed to take out a tired pitcher who just gave up a homer and single in Game 7 of the World Series.

That’s just dumb.

ALCS Game 2

The Yankees and Astros are tied in the bottom of the 10th inning. New York manager Aaron Boone has CC Sabathia pitch to Michael Brantley to start the inning. Sabathia wins the left-on-left matchup via a groundball.

The next two batters, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, are righthanded. Boone smartly brings in Jonathan Loaisiga. Under the new rule, that move would not be allowed.

Loaisiga walks Altuve and Bregman. He clearly doesn’t have it. Boone takes him out in favor of J.A. Happ, who pitches out of the inning. Under the new rule, Boone would have to stick with a pitcher who walked two straight batters in a tied LCS game in extra innings.

Imaginary Yankees fan to his buddy after Loaisiga walks two batters in the same scenario under the proposed rule: “Get him out! Why don’t they take this guy out?”

Buddy: “Because they can’t.”

“What do you mean, ‘They can’t’?”

“The rule is he has to stay in the game for another batter.”

“Well, that’s stupid.”

“Yep.”