SAN DIEGO — The Big 3 free-agent sweepstakes, the Astros sign-stealing investigation and the election of two new Hall of Famers dominated the news cycle at last week’s Winter Meetings.
And in the same press conference that he addressed these page-one topics, commissioner Rob Manfred said he expects the proposed rule changes from last offseason will be implemented for the 2020 season, among them a three-batter minimum rule for pitchers per appearance unless they record the last out of an inning first.
These new rules also include adding a 26th man to the active roster, limiting roster expansion in September to 28 players and returning the duration a player must spend on the injured list from 10 to 15 days.
All of the changes will impact every team but none has the potential to affect the game quite like the three-batter minimum. The purpose of the rule is to eliminate some of the inaction that comes with every manager stroll out to the mound, every jog (or cart ride) in the from the bullpen and every set of warm-up pitches thrown before play resumes. How much dead time this rule will actually slash is debatable—relief appearances of one or two batters hit an 11-year low in 2019, in part because analytics has de-emphasized platoon pitching matchups—but there’s no question that it limits how managers can use their pitching staff each game.
Some managers were quick to voice their displeasure with the new rule, even if they weren’t constantly making mid-inning pitching changes that depended on a reliever facing one or two batters. Instead, they were against any rule that would restrict in-game strategy.
“I don't like it,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I haven't liked it from the beginning.”
Maddon, who spent the last five seasons managing the Cubs, said he noticed the problems with pace of play while watching the postseason from his couch for the first time since 2014. He said he’s all for trying to speed up the pace of the game, so long as it doesn’t change the way it’s played.
“Length of the game has nothing to do with baseball or why it's interesting or not,” Maddon said. “The thing I would never interfere with is strategy, and to me [the three-batter rule] interferes with strategy.
“Pace and length of the game, I think, are interconnected, but strategy is sacred.”
The Astros are one of the most analytically advanced clubs in baseball, and they’ve turned more to pitch arsenal and the swing paths of opposing hitters when assembling their teams and deciding which relievers to deploy.
For example, they didn’t carry a lefthanded pitcher on their playoff roster this season, and they had only two lefties throw more than 10 innings in all of 2019. So they didn’t have to worry about a reliever’s handedness when determining whether to make a pitching change.
Still, manager A.J. Hinch said he’s “never been a big fan” of the three-batter rule and that “it will impact strategy for sure.”
The Tigers lost a whopping 114 games last season, so their problems heading into 2020 are much bigger than how they can use their bullpen. But manager Ron Gardenhire wasn’t exactly excited about a rule that would curb what he can do with an already limited pitching staff.
“Can we talk about that after a few cocktails?” Gardenhire said when asked for his thoughts on the rule.
Other managers were more concerned with how the rule would impact a pitcher’s health.
“I'm hoping that nobody, because of the rule, that nobody gets injured or gets hurt,” said Nationals skipper Dave Martinez, whose team won the World Series despite having the National League’s worst bullpen ERA during the regular season.
Relievers are often used in consecutive games, and they can do that effectively because they aren’t throwing too many pitches per appearance. Now, with the new rule, managers might be hesitant to let a pitcher go two or three nights in a row because it’s hard to know how many pitches he’ll need to get through three batters.
One way around that is for a manager to use a pitcher to get the last out of an inning, because with the new rule, a pitcher cannot be taken out of a game unless he faces three batters or the inning ends. But, as Rockies manager Bud Black points out, “What if he doesn't get that guy out?”
The answer is that pitcher would have to stay in the game for at least another batter, maybe two, and would throw more pitches. “Now he's exposed not only competitively, he's exposed physically,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said.
The responses from managers weren’t all negative, though. Shildt, the 2019 NL Manager of the Year, said the only thing the rule takes away is some of a manager’s decision-making freedom, and that could end up leading to more strategy. Minnesota’s Rocco Baldelli, the AL Manager of the Year, felt the same way.
“It creates different strategy,” Baldelli said. “I would say some things are certainly going to change, but it's going to change in a way that it's going to make you think differently. I don't think it means it's taking away anything from the game, it's just a change to the game.”
One thing that could be affected is the use of pinch-hitters. Look at the Dodgers. Over the last few years, they’ve used their hitters in platoon roles more than any other team, and they’ve had success doing it.
In the past, opposing teams could try and neutralize this platoon advantage by bringing in a lefty reliever to face the Dodgers’ lefthanded hitters. Now, if the Dodgers have three lefty hitters due up and manager Dave Roberts has righty A.J. Pollock pinch-hit for the second one, the other manager cannot counter with a righthanded reliever because his current pitcher has faced only one hitter.
“There’s definitely certain matchups that you can count on because they can’t take a pitcher out,” Black said, “so it can swing a bit toward the offense.”
Black said he’s going to wait and see what changes with the new rule before making an opinion. Shildt said he had no problem with the rule, adding that his job isn’t to make the rules but to “manage within the rules that exist.”
Asked if he liked the rule, Gardenhire said: “Am I a fan? I love it when my pitchers get three hitters out in a row. I think that's the greatest thing in the world.”