The three batter minimum for relief pitchers is a good thing


This morning Major League Baseball announced a number of major changes to the rules and circumstances of the game. Some deal with on-field stuff, some deal with roster things and others relate to the business of the game. We talked about all of that in our post about the announcement. In terms of fan response, however, one of the items on the list stands out from all of the others: the three batter minimum rule.

As it was described in the press release:

The union has agreed not to protest the new rule because it's getting some other things thrown its way (e.g. a 26th roster spot), but based on Tony Clark's terse comment this morning, it does not seem like the union actually likes the idea. Rob Manfred has the ability to impose that rule unilaterally in 2020, however, so unless he gets cold feet, it'll be part of the game.

So, whaddaya think about it?

Most of the response I've seen to it has been sharply negative. I'm going to respond to it all in Q&A style.

Q: Why in the heck are they doing this?

A: Because of things like Bruce Bochy using nine pitchers in three innings and Mike Scoioscia using 12 pitchers in a nine-inning game. Major League Baseball wants to do stuff to both reduce the length of games and, more importantly, increase the pace of games and to reduce dead time brought on by pitching changes. Harsher methods, such as limiting the number of pitchers or pitching changes in total, are thought to be painting with too broad a brush. The three batter rule is a bit more precise, aiming to eliminate the practice of bringing in a reliever to face only one or two hitters, which tends to bring games to a screeching halt in the middle of innings.

Q: What happens if a guy comes in and he just doesn't have it? We have to sit and watch him walk three batters on 14 pitches?

A: Well, yeah. Throw strikes maybe? Take a few minutes to think if you really and truly want to pull your starter as soon as you've come to do it in recent years?

Less flippantly, how often does that disaster relief appearance happen? Not terribly often, right? Now, how often does a manager, by design, set up a three-batter, three-pitcher sequence, requiring four commercial breaks to get us from the start of one half inning to the start of the next half inning? Almost every game. Yes, we may get some ugly three-batter appearances from relievers who can't get the job done, but we'll eliminate far more La Russa-ian walks to the mound to call out pitcher number three in the sixth inning of a random Wednesday night game. That's the judgment MLB is making here.

Q: Managers are going to try to find a way to work around this, right? They'll have guys fake injuries and stuff.

A: There is a potential work around for every rule and, yes, baseball players and managers are famous for pushing every single rule to and often past its breaking point. I suspect, though, that the risk of faking of injuries to get a pitcher out before he faces three guys is a lot lower than many people think.

Think of how a legit pitching injury usually plays out. It's a days-long process of injury updates and questions from the media to both the player and the manager before and after each game. For real injuries there are side sessions and throwing from flat ground and all of that. You can't pretend you have a blister or a sore hammy or elbow soreness on Monday and come back on Tuesday throwing 98 m.p.h. gas.

I suppose there are harder-to-detect maladies like illnesses, or a guy can claim he has a cramp on a hot day. But at some point the credibility and pride factors come in, right? Can a pitcher really keep that lie up for a couple of days? These guys aren't expert liars. We all know, for example, that they're full of crap when they bean a batter and say that "the pitch just got away from them" and the league discounts such lies when doling out punishment. As far as pride goes, a guy found out to have faked an injury to beg out of a game is going to catch holy hell from his teammates, who place a premium on guys owning their failures on the field. And then there's the unwritten rules police. Frankly, this is a rare instance in which I'd be fairly sympathetic to that crowd because pretending to be hurt is, to use a venerable baseball term, horses**t, best left to the soccer pitch

How does a fake injury play against that? Pretty poorly I'd guess. Ballplayers will do anything to get ahead, but they'll also do anything to avoid being seen as soft, and I think self-policing will go a long way toward curbing that.

Q: Fine, but that kind of pitcher usage is a natural development of strategy. This is a rule change. We haven't had a rule change this major since the advent of the DH and everyone hates that!

A: Well, not everyone hates the DH, but let's leave that aside for the moment.

I'm sympathetic to the notion that the game should evolve rather than be shaped from above. But is it not the case that evolution in the game has led us to this fairly miserable place where games are interrupted by a parade of relievers? Not all innovations are good. As the great John Thorn told me this morning, "The science of the game is to devise ever more clever optimal ways to win; the aesthetic of the game is what draws fans and keeps them." Which is to say that just because an effective tactic is developed does not mean said tactic is fun to watch or good for the game. Current bullpen strategies are effective. They're also a boring slog. A relatively new boring slog, mind you. Spare me your appeals to traditionalism: one-batter relievers were invented by a surly, self-proclaimed genius we all tend to dislike a great deal in the late 80s and weren't widespread until well into the 90s.

I'll add that this development could also cut down, at least a little bit, on the notion of The Executed Pitch. I wrote about that two years ago, but the short version now is that the game is full of relievers who gear up to maximum effort - taking maximum time - for each and every pitch, each of which must be perfectly executed at maximum velocity. That's also effective and boring and, perhaps, the need to face three batters may favor the "work fast, throw strikes" approach of yore, at least around the margins.

Q: If one-batter appearances are over, what happens to the left-handed specialist? Aren't they all going to be out of jobs? I thought you were pro-labor, Mr. Craig Commieterra?

A: Yes, and it stinks to make anyone obsolete. But, as noted, they're also going to expand the roster to 26 guys, so for every LOOGY put out of work, another player is gonna have a job. And let's be clear: the LOOGYs are not the top-earners in this business. Tony Sipp is a veteran lefty specialist who had an outstanding season in 2018 and he was unemployed until yesterday. He took a $5 million pay cut too, signing for a mere $1 million. It's not like getting rid of lefty specialists is going to kill salaries. Especially if they're shifted to guys who play more. And almost any other guy on the roster is paid more.

I get that people have strong feelings about this. And I appreciate that changing the rules of the game to address what is, essentially, an issue of marketing baseball to casual fans is something that, if taken to extremes, could be a very bad thing.

But I don't see the need for some philosophical bright line on that. Some changes can be good, some can be bad. They should be judged on their merits. On that score, I think this one is, at worst, going to be benign, and could actually be a good thing that could very well solve what I think is a legitimate problem in today's game. Any rule change could lead to unexpected consequences and, as with all of those, we'll ultimately judge the three batter limit in the execution of it. If it's a disaster, MLB should work quickly to undo what it has done.

For now, though, I am in favor of the change. I think it might be a good thing.


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