The biggest rule change for the 2020 season is the three-batter rule. As in: any pitcher who comes into a game must face three batters — or get to the end of an inning, whichever comes first — before being lifted for a reliever. It’s a pretty radical rule, aimed at cutting down on multiple game-interrupting pitching changes in the middle of innings.
I don’t know if it’ll work to cut down on game times. Most research I’ve seen to that effect suggests it won’t have a big impact actually. A couple of minutes maybe. It will, however, have a big effect on strategy, however, with managers being forced to move away from one-batter relievers and specialists on which they have come to heavily rely.
Today Jayson Stark of The Athletic has an article up in which he talks to several managers and they speculate as to what kinds of old strategies will go away and what sorts of new strategies might develop in response to the rule. Among the things the managers say we’ll see: (a) a big increase in intentional walks, as an IBB counts as a batter faced; (b) stacked lineups with consecutive righties or lefties rather than alternate lefties and righties as they tend to do; and (c) the elimination of that thing where some managers hide a pitcher at first base or left field and then bring him back to the mound in order to face only same-sided batters.
Which, to me, is fine. And I think the managers’ stress about it all is overblown. Or, at the very least, something we shouldn’t care about all that much.
I mean, yes, I’m sympathetic to managers, but casting it as some nearly impossible conundrum is a bit much for me given that it was not until 1987 that even half the teams in baseball had relievers with fewer innings than appearances. It’s a big adjustment given that most of today’s managers came into baseball after that, but it’s been done and it’s been fine.
The unspoken thing in all of this is that it may actually be good for baseball for managers and pitcher to not hyper-optimize every pitcher/batter encounter. I get it: if you’re a big league manager you don’t want someone telling you that you cannot, in every single moment, give yourself an optimum matchup, but jeez, man, sometimes a guy just has to get an out. Maybe we’ll even get some more balls in play as a result of this.
One thing I will take specific issue with, however, is the lead assertion in the article that this will lead to a massive increase in intentional walks and, beyond that, it could cause managers to give free passes to batters with men on base or even with the bases loaded. Every team has an analytics department. Every analytics department knows that, in most all cases, it’s better for a pitcher to try to get the batter out than it is to give him a free pass. Even if the batter has a .600 OBP against off-hand pitchers, well, that’s not as good as the 1.000 OBP an intentional walk intentionally gives the guy. I agree: there will be more intentional walks. And some of them will be aimed at simply getting a pitcher one more batter faced to qualify for the rule. But I doubt it’ll be an epidemic because that just doesn’t seem to make statistical sense.
Anyway, all of you who have jobs have had to deal with workflow changes in the past. A lot of them are dumb and pointless, imposed upon you from on high for reasons that aren’t clear and/or that aren’t important. It stinks, but you suck it up and get through it. The managers will too. And, hey, maybe some pitchers will figure out that they knew how to get more batters out than they were led to believe they could.