WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Baseball’s most controversial rule change in recent memory, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, will be put into effect for spring training games Thursday. Sporting News spent the past week talking with players and managers in the Grapefruit League, and it was hard to find anyone who has warmed up to the idea since its chilly initial reception at the Winter Meetings, when the rule was officially announced.
“We’re going to have to live with it, so we want to be as proactive as possible with it,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “As far as understanding the why, when and how of using it, we’ve gone through that process and are still doing it.
“It’s not a small change. It’s a very significant change in the strategy of our game, and it’s my job to understand it the best I can.”
That’s the goal, to understand all the unintended nuances of the three-batter minimum rule. I asked Astros manager Dusty Baker the same question I asked most people: Do you feel like you have a handle on all the ways the rule will impact the game?
“Not really,” Baker said. “I don’t think anybody does.”
Not everyone was as straight-forward with their answer as Baker — few ever are — but the feeling was the same. Let’s start with MLB’s stated intention/hope: By forcing pitchers to face at least three batters every time out — the exception being when a relief pitcher needs to face only one or two batters to end an inning — the number of time-consuming pitching changes will be reduced, shaving minutes off the average game time, which is north of three hours.
That’s the working theory. Whether that theory works, well, that remains to be seen.
“I’m trying to keep an open mind about it, but I just think it’s one of those things that, in practice, I don’t really see how it’s going to speed up the game,” Nationals lefty Sean Doolittle said. “I think it puts teams at a disadvantage by not being able to play matchups late in games.
“You know, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like it’s a way to help us put the best version of the game on the field.”
Because if managers can’t play batter-to-batter matchups, bringing in a LOOGY — the common name for a left-handed one-batter-only reliever — to face a lefty hitter, maybe that lefty hitter reaches base on his favorable matchup and extends a rally. Extended rallies mean more baserunners, longer innings and more minutes added to the time of game.
“My whole thing with the three-batter minimum,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said, “after looking at it and reading everything, I don’t necessarily think it’s going to speed up the game, but you’re going to see more offense.”
Yep. Skepticism abounds.
“I’m not crazy about it, and it does kind of get rid of the specialty lefty, or the specialty guy — guy you bring in to get the ground ball,” Baker said. “It’ll probably add to the offense, I think, because you’re going to have guys facing guys that you wouldn’t normally have facing them. We’ll see.”
There a little frustration, too, even if it’s framed with a more positive spin.
“It’s going to rework, which is my job, how you think about running a bullpen,” Shildt said. “I’ve studied bullpen management for years and had some really good tutelage from some really good people in that subject, because it’s a really big part of my job. Have to rethink what that looks like.”
There’s been a lot of rethinking.
“I mean, what are you going to do? If you get upset about the rule, that doesn’t help. You still have to go do it. You have to adapt,” Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “You can’t control what rules they make, you can only control how you react to it. As a pitcher, as a catcher, as a team, you just have to adapt to it and make the best choices.”
We’ll see the new rule in practice starting with Thursday’s spring training games, but even those won’t give us a true picture of how it will impact the regular season. Relievers are only brought in mid-inning during spring training exhibitions when the current hurler reaches a pitch count or just can’t seem to get anyone out, not for righty/lefty matchup reasons.
And even when that reliever is brought in mid-inning, the opposing manager isn’t going to counter that move by pinch-hitting; the batter is up there because he needs work, too, facing live pitching in a game situation. So even though the rule will be in place for the rest of spring training, it’s not really going to influence managers’ actions.
The real testing of the new theories and strategies of bullpen management won’t happen until Opening Day.
Expect frustration. Expect left-handed hitters who normally would have been pulled when a LOOGY was brought in to face them to deliver that big base hit against a right-handed pitcher. Expect games to be lost that, in years past, might have been won.
Expect anger. If there’s enough anger? And if the rule doesn’t help MLB reach its goal, reducing the average time of game after a month or two?
There is precedent for a bad rule to be changed.
Remember in 2014, the transfer rule? That year, as part of replay rules, MLB said that a player had to cleanly transfer the baseball from his glove to his throwing hand for it to be considered a catch. In the past, if a player bobbled the baseball making that transfer, it was still considered an out.
That rule was met with near-universal criticism in baseball circles.
“After a month-and-a-half, they banged it,” Doolittle brought up last Friday. “Just, one day it was gone. I don’t know if that’s even a possibility here. I really don’t know.”
And that — “I really don’t know” — is a pretty good summation of where baseball stands with this latest new rule heading into the last few weeks of spring training.