Why the Three-Batter Minimum Is a Huge Mistake; Recapping Baseball's Announced Rule Changes

Are you confused by the flurry of Major League Rules changes, some of which take place this year and some next year? Here’s all you need to know: the bad decisions, the good ones and everything in between:

The Bad

Three-Batter Minimum

There’s no other way to look at this: this is a terrible rule. For the sake of taking away one pitching change every other game, MLB messed with the integrity of the game by penalizing strategy and innovation.

“It’s stupid,” said one major league manager. “It’s as if the NBA decided, ‘Okay, on Tuesday nights three-point shots no longer will be allowed.’ I’m all for things that help move the game along, but leave the strategy alone.”

Imagine you and a friend are watching your favorite team play in 2020 and one of the relievers just doesn’t have it that night. It’s the seventh inning of a tie game. He walks the first batter. Throws a wild pitch. Walks the next batter. You look at the dugout. The manager isn’t moving.

“Why don’t they take this guy out?”

“Can’t.”

“What do you mean ‘can’t’?”

“Pitchers have to either face three batters or complete the inning.”

“What? Why? That’s dumb.”

The next batter hits a three-run homer.

Remember the key three-run home run Mitch Moreland hit in Game 4 of the World Series last year? Would not have happened under this rule. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts brought in Scott Alexander in the seventh with a 4-0 lead to face Brock Holt with a man on. Alexander walked him on four pitches. Under the new rule, Roberts would have been forced to leave in an ineffective Alexander to face Christian Vazquez and the pinch-hitter for pitcher Matt Barnes.

Roberts replaced Alexander with Ryan Madson. The strategic wheels turned. Red Sox manager Alex Cora countered with Jackie Bradley and Moreland as pinch hitters. Bradley popped out. Moreland popped a three-run homer.

The entire inning plays out differently under the new rule.

“Just imagine—and it’s going to happen—somebody loses a World Series game because they were forced to leave a pitcher in the game,” the manager said.

The pitching changes that the rule is designed to eliminate simply don’t happen enough to warrant putting governors on strategy, especially because these moves generally happen in high-leverage situations. Last season pitchers faced one or two batters mid-inning only 0.58 times per game, not nearly enough for this to be “a problem” that needed solving.

“This only helps large-market teams like us,” said one executive. “Simply because we can afford to have more guys who get out both lefthanders and righthanders. The smaller-market team can’t afford as many of those guys who you just leave in the game.”

Worse, lefthanded specialists such as Andrew Chafin of Arizona better start planning for life after baseball. This rule is forcing them out of the game. The 10 pitchers with the most appearances last year that would be affected by this rule are all lefthanded, led by Chafin. The 10 pitchers with the most such appearances all time are all lefthanded, led by Mike Myers, who works for the players association. The PA, by agreeing not to challenge the rule implemented by MLB, is signing off on legislating a certain pitcher type out of the game.

Remember, this rule also applies to starting pitchers. Again, MLB is unnecessarily taking dead aim at innovation and strategy. Openers, such as how Milwaukee deployed Dan Jennings in September and Wade Miley in October, are the equivalent of the spread offense in football, or The Philly Special play to help win the Super Bowl. Don’t like it? Beat it. Don’t squelch innovation.

And before you think the opener is such a problem it needed this rule to expunge it, keep in mind that last year the rule would have affected only five starts. There were more starts of one or two batters in 10 other seasons, including such diverse years as 1913, 1923, 1949, 1957 and 1991 (including starts shortened by injury).

Limit on Position Players Pitching

Starting next season, you can’t bring in a position player to pitch unless it’s extra innings or your team is down by at least six runs.

This is wholly unnecessary and smacks of over legislation. Player usage should be left to the manager, not to Park Avenue. And besides, whenever a position player takes the mound it’s fun. Why legislate against fun?

Once you have a rule like this, then you have to add another layer of legislation by actually defining who is a position player, who is a pitcher and who is a two-way player. A two-player is defined as someone who accrued 20 innings pitched and 20 starts at a position (including DH) either in the current or prior season. I can already envision a scenario where teams late in the year pile up innings for a position player to make sure he reaches 20 innings, thus earning “two-way” status as if the team is chasing frequent flier miles. What you have created is a scenario where you manage to an arbitrary rule, not to the circumstances on the field.)

So if the Reds used Michael Lorenzen as a pinch-hitter and then leave him in the game as an outfielder 50 times, in addition to his relief work, he’s not a two-way player because he didn’t start 20 games at a position? Matt Davidson makes 15 one-inning relief appearances for Texas, in addition to his starts at third base, and he’s not a two-way player?

The Good

Roster Sizes

Hallelujah. Baseball finally addressed the travesty of September baseball, with its 40-man rosters. The limit starting next year will be 28 players, with no more of 14 of those pitchers.

September baseball for years has been a joke—a long, boring, sloppy joke. Last year pitching changes went up 20% in September as compared to August. Like the three-batter minimum rule, this one works against lower-revenue teams. Oakland, for instance, made the most pitching changes in September last year: 134 in 26 games, or an average of 5.2 changes per game.

The tradeoff to get a September roster limit is adding another player for the first five months: 26 active players, with no more than 13 of them pitchers. The upside: it may bring back strong bench players, such as veteran pinch-hitters (Manny Mota, Lenny Harris, Matt Stairs, etc.) or an elite basestealer (Quinton Berry).

Baseball in July

Baseball strengthened the one month when baseball has most of the sports landscape to itself. Starting this year, July will feature:

“All-Star Election Day,” a one-day event in which fans will select the All-Star starters from among three finalists.

• Home Run Derby with more star power (thanks to $2.5 million in cash prizes).

• The All-Star Game itself, with bonuses going to the winning team to raise the level of competition.

• The Hall of Fame induction weekend.

A July 31 trade deadline that is a hard deadline, not a soft one as in the past because of the August waiver period that now goes away.

Mound Visit Limit

Sure, why not? They have been cut from six to five this year. Don’t stop there.

Expanded Injured List for Pitchers

Teams can’t use a revolving door as easily to stash pitchers, effectively creating a 17-man pitching staff out of a 13-man staff. (We’re looking at you, Dodgers.) Now pitchers have to stay on the IL or in the minors on options for 15 days, not 10.

“The fake DL common with pitchers,” said one AL manager. “We used the fake DL with two of starters just to give them a break.”

To Be Determined

One Trade Deadline

The players wanted this rule to try to force teams to spend money in the offseason. Tired of watching free agency slow to a crawl, they figured this rule would force teams to more fully set their roster before the season, rather than the current way teams have co-opted from Billy Beane in Oakland by using a partial build-out in the winter and then re-examining their options based on the first 80-90 games.

I think the players’ calculus is wrong. These general managers are too smart to return to spending millions on mediocre mid-level veterans. Flexibility, both in terms of finances and roster construction, is the new coin of the realm. This rule will not change that.

The upside is that a hard deadline will force teams to finalize trades when they are motivated to move a player. You can’t defer to August. That could make for a more exciting deadline.

But what you gain in July is what you lose in August. And please don’t tell me the August waiver period was some Byzantine system that had to be expunged because of its complexity. There are almost as many Ivy League and master’s degrees in front offices these days as on Wall Street. The waiver system wasn’t string theory, folks.

Forcing teams to decide by July 31 whether they are buyers or sellers has a down side. In the wild card era, when 86 wins can get you in, it’s too early for some teams to make that commitment. Best example: the Cubs would never have obtained Daniel Murphy last year under this rule. The Nationals held their players through July 31, and only weeks later, as they gained no traction in the race, did they put players on the trade market. Bryce Harper nearly went to Houston in that scenario. Now it can’t happen.

You also legislate against picking up finishing pieces to contending clubs. The Brewers picked up Curtis Granderson, Gio Gonzalez and Xavier Cedeño last year. The Cubs traded for five players in the past four Augusts. That can’t happen now.

Shorter Commercial Breaks

This year the breaks for national TV games are reduced from 2:25 to 2:00 (locals go from 2:05 to 2:00). That sounds like a no-brainer, right? But there are going to be times when your TV screen is in a two-box—an ad playing in one box with the sound up, and game action muted in the other—and somebody hits a first-pitch home run.

Okay, you didn’t miss the pitch live, but the compromise is you as a viewer will have to accept the inevitability that something big will happen while an ad is playing next to the live, soundless view. And some ads will slide in between pitches (the ones that used to play coming out of break). The net effect should be a positive, but it will require viewers to adjust.

The Next CBA

An upside to these rules changes is that players and owners fought through the toxic climate created by a recalibrated free agency system to come to agreement on some issues. When it comes to the next CBA, it’s the equivalent of practicing your putting: the more you see putts falling into the hole, the more confidence you have about getting the next big putt to fall.

But let’s see what happens. Agreeing to changes to the economic system is way more difficult than agreeing on the number of mound visits to allow. The players need to find a way to get more money to players in their prime years, now that amateur bonuses are capped (the front end of a career) and players in their 30s are devalued (the back end of a career). Players and owners have agreed to start those discussing now, three years ahead of the CBA expiration. That’s at least a start.

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