Why three batter minimum for relief pitchers is a good thing

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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 Office of the Commissioner will implement an amended Official Baseball Rule 5.10(g) requiring that starting pitchers and relief pitchers must pitch to either a minimum of three batters or the end of a half-inning (with exceptions for incapacitating injury or illness).  The Players Association has agreed that it will not grieve or otherwise challenge the Office of the Commissioner’s implementation of the amended Rule 5.10(g).

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.

Rich Hill keeps Cardinals off balance into 7th, Pirates complete three-game sweep with 2-1 victory


PITTSBURGH – When he’s on, Rich Hill‘s pitches still dance. They still dart. They go this way. Then that way. They can baffle hitters with their movement, particularly the ones that don’t come close to breaking the speed limit on most interstates.

In a game that seems to get faster each year, Hill is a throwback. A survivor. At 43 and 19 years into a career he figured would have been over long ago, the well-traveled left-hander knows he’s essentially playing on borrowed time.

Hill is in Pittsburgh to show a young staff how to be a pro while occasionally showing the kids he can still bring it. That example was on display in a 2-1 victory over St. Louis on Sunday that gave Pittsburgh a three-game sweep of its longtime NL Central nemesis.

Knowing the bullpen needed a bit of a break, Hill (5-5) kept the Cardinals off balance for 6 2/3 innings, expertly weaving in and out of trouble with a series of curveballs that hover around 70 mph offset by a fastball that can touch 90 mph but plays up because everything else comes in so much softer.

Hill walked three and struck out six while giving up just one run, a seventh-inning homer by Andrew Knizner that drew the Cardinals within one. He allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the first four innings and stranded them all as the Pirates pushed their winning streak to five.

“He threw the pitches he wanted to throw,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “They didn’t swing at them. The fact that he’s able to just bounce back and continue to execute shows how savvy he is as a veteran.”

Ji Hwan Bae‘s two-run single off Miles Mikolas (4-2) in the first provided all the offense Hill would need as Pittsburgh swept St. Louis for the first time in five years. Ke'Bryan Hayes singled three times and is hitting .562 (9 for 16) over his last four games after a 3-for-32 funk dropped him to seventh in the batting order.

David Bednar worked the ninth for his 13th save and third in as many days, striking out Knizner with a 98 mph fastball that provided an exclamation point to three days of tight, meaningful baseball, the kind the Pirates haven’t played much of for the better part of a decade.

“We know we have a very good team,” Hill said. “We’ve had meetings in here and we talk about it and reinforce it and just continue to go out there and give that effort every single night and understand that (if) we continue to put in the work, it’ll start to show every night on the field.”

Tommy Edman had two hits for the Cardinals, and designated hitter Luken Baker picked up the first two hits of his career after being called up from Triple-A Memphis early Sunday.

The middle of the St. Louis lineup – Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Gorman and Nolan Arenado – went a combined 0 for 11 as St. Louis lost for the fifth time in six games. The Cardinals left 27 men on base at PNC Park over the weekend to fall back into last place in one of the weakest divisions in the majors.

It’s a division the Pirates – coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons – are managing to hang around the top of for a solid two months. The bullpen has evolved into a strength, with Bednar at the back end and a series of flashy hard throwers like Dauri Moreta in the middle.

Moreta came on for Hill with two outs in the seventh and struck out Goldschmidt with the tying run at first while Hill was in the dugout accepting high-fives, already thinking about his next start, likely on Saturday against the New York Mets. It’s a mindset that has kept Hill around for far longer than he ever imagined.

“Every time he picks up a baseball, I know he feels blessed to be able to continue to throw baseballs for a living,” Pirates catcher Austin Hedges said. “I think that’s one of the best things he can teach our young guys.”


Cardinals: Continue a six-game road trip in Texas against the Rangers on Monday. Adam Wainwright (2-1, 6.15 ERA) faces Martín Pérez (6-1, 4.43 ERA) in the opener.

Pirates: A season-long nine-game homestand continues on Monday when lowly Oakland visits. Johan Oviedo (3-4, 4.50 ERA) gets the start against JP Sears (0-3, 4.37 ERA).