How Will the Indians Combat the 3-Batter Minimum Rule?
When your delivery involves your fingers nearly scraping the dirt as your arm slings its way toward the batter, or if your lefty-righty splits look like an incarnation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you have no misconceptions about your strengths and weaknesses as a pitcher. That's why Indians reliever Adam Cimber, when was asked about baseball's impending three-batter rule nearly a year ago, didn't hide his feelings nearly as well as his delivery shields the ball from right-handed hitters.
"As a reliever that is somewhat of a specialty," Cimber said last spring, "I would say it's a frustrating rule change."
And no one could blame him. Whether you like the rule or you're skeptical about its overall impact -- how much time will it really save? -- everyone can understand why any reliever that has thrived in a specialist role would be frustrated. The same goes for Tribe manager Terry Francona, who hasn't been shy about voicing his displeasure over the change, which will force relievers to face at least three batters after entering a game in 2020, unless that pitcher reaches the end of an inning or suffers from injury or illness. Otherwise, the same level of mixing and matching that Francona prefers will no longer be permitted.
However, like it or not, it's coming. Adapt or ... well, there's really no alternative.
But how much will it impact the Indians, a team that still employs Cimber and Oliver Perez, two of the most obvious specialist-type relievers in the game? More important, how will they combat losing one of their vintage maneuvers?
Several outlets, including FanGraphs and ESPN, have taken a stab at quantifying the rule's consequences, but it's a messy exercise that probably leaves a few loose ends. So let's start with the known and work from there.
Under Francona, the Indians have been among baseball's most reliant on short-stint relievers, even as the "LOOGY" -- the lefty relievers who enters to only face lefty hitters -- has died a noticeable death around the game in recent years. Even as baseball has trended away from bullpen specialists, Cleveland has employed them with regularity. For more clarity, let's examine the number of short stints (appearances that feature the pitcher facing two or fewer batters) Francona has utilized since arriving in 2013.
% of appearances
While 2019 was among the lowest short-stint usage rate by the Indians over the past seven seasons, their total of 96 last year was the fourth-most in baseball, led by Perez (33), Cimber (19) and Tyler Olson (16), per Baseball-Reference. But we should also point out that not all of those short stints would have fallen under MLB's new rule. Some of the outings were cut short by the end of an inning, which are still permitted.
For example, of Perez's 33 short stints in 2019, 22 featured the veteran lefty exiting before facing a third batter or the end of an inning, which means nearly 33 percent of his outings fall under the rule's umbrella. Of course, Perez was once a starter and has the capability of lasting more than 2/3 of an inning, but ignoring the 282-point difference between his lefty split (.607 OPS) and righty split (.889 OPS) in 2019 would be irresponsible. The club certainly hopes he can recapture what worked in 2018, when he was actually better against righties (.322 OPS).
Interesting enough, however, only four of Cimber's 19 short stints were the result of facing two-or-fewer batters and exiting before the end of the inning. Many of his outings, in fact, were in tandem with Perez, with Cimber getting the final outs to end the frame. Still, Cimber's splits are just as worrisome, with lefties (.943 OPS) faring much better than the righties (.645). Given that MLB rosters will expand to 26 this season, the fact that an extra potential bench spot could offer additional pinch-hit opportunities adds another layer to the altered Perez-Cimber strategy.
% of PA vs. opposite platoon advantage
wOBA vs. opposite platoon
Oliver Perez (2018-2019)
Adam Cimber (2018-2019)
Now, as a handful of relievers pointed out last year, perhaps knowing that the rule is looming can help. For instance, it's possible that in the past, specialists have only focused on shrinking their pitch arsenal, gearing them toward offerings that best retire their platoon advantage. Perhaps they can introduce a pitch that is better suited to facing the opposite-handed batter. Still, there's no guarantee that adding a changeup or some other alternative secondary offering will help.
So, that brings us back to the bigger question: What does that mean for 2020? Francona has said most of his frustration over the rule comes from the way his bullpens in Cleveland have been built, relying on platoon advantages to piece together what couldn't be handled by Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Brad Hand throughout his time as Indians manager. That’s not to say that lefty-righty matchups are Francona's only managerial philosophy -- he had no problem letting his best relievers go multiple innings in past postseasons -- but limiting how short stints can be used removes a tool from a skipper's toolbox. Maybe that's a contributing factor on why the Tribe targeted Emmanuel Clase in the Corey Kluber trade with the Rangers.
One of the best ways to reduce the reliance on platoon advantages is to add relievers not as dependent upon them, and Clase, despite all of the things written about the frustrating parts of the Kluber trade, possibly offers an alternative.
With an ability to register triple digits on the radar gun and keep the ball on the ground, the 21-year-old Clase has the makings of a hurler capable of getting righties and lefties out. Last year, his wOBA (weighted on-base average) was equal against both sides of the plate in the majors (.289), and for what it's worth, he limited lefties to a lower average than righties in the tiniest of Class-AA sample sizes before his promotion.
That might not win you over on the Kluber deal -- you can really like Clase and still find fault in the overall trade -- but you can see why the righty would be coveted as baseball's rules change.
Then, there is righty James Karinchak, who earned a promotion to the majors at the end of 2019 following an impressive rise through the upper levels of the Tribe's minors. The 24-year-old strikeout artist can also run his fastball into the upper 90s at the top of the zone, paring it with an impressive breaking ball that tumbles to the bottom, making him an equal opportunity whiffer. Last year, Karinchak registered seven of his eight MLB strikeouts against lefties. And, again, for whatever it's worth, he also held left-handed hitters to an .064 average between Double A and Triple A last season.
Where Francona may have lost an ability to mix and match Perez and Cimber as he'd like, perhaps the existence of Clase and Karinchak, along with righty Nick Wittgren, who has been better than average against lefties in his career, will limit his need to do it.
Relievers capable of working entire innings or more have become more valuable in baseball's changing environment, and the Indians now have a pair of intriguing young arms under control for at least the next six seasons. We still don't know how and when that duo will be utilized -- their youth leaves plenty of room for the unknown and the club desperately needs Hand to return to first-half of 2019 form -- but Clase and Karinchak certainly seem like a reasonable rebuttal to how Cleveland will traverse a season without as many short stints from Perez and Cimber at their disposal.