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How will MLB’s rule changes affect the Cubs in 2020?

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Baseball will be governed a bit differently next year. The rule changes could have unintended consequences.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Major League Baseball has been tweaking various rules over the last few seasons. The ostensible reason is to improve the pace of play. The way I see it: Some of these rule changes, particularly the automatic intentional walk rule and the reduction in mound visits, have shaved a few seconds off game time. If MLB really wanted to improve the pace of play, they’d institute a pitch clock and enforce it. When they did that in Double-A and Triple-A in 2015, 12 to 15 minutes per game were saved.

Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen at least until the next round of collective bargaining, if then. Instead, MLB will institute four changes in 2020, one of which will affect the way the game is played. The other three can be categorized more as “organizational,” the way rosters are constituted or affected by injury.

Emma Baccilleri of Sports Illustrated has summed up these rule changes and expressed her opinions on how they would affect the game in this article posted last Friday. Here are the four rule changes and my reactions, both in general and to Baccilleri’s comments. I’m doing these in a different order than in her article, starting with the one that will affect the way baseball is played. (Note: Each rule below is as posted in Baccilleri’s article.)

New Rule: A pitcher must either face at least three batters or pitch to the end of the half-inning.

Baccilleri says:

There are short relief appearances that don’t go to the end of a half-inning, but they’re far less common, and getting rid of those is more likely to be felt as “cutting down on time-consuming mid-inning pitching moves” versus “removing brilliant strategy.”

While this is true, I’m concerned about relief appearances that begin a half-inning. For example, let’s say a reliever whose name sounds a bit like “Cish Stevek” comes in and walks the first two batters of the inning, clearly unable to command the strike zone. (Here’s a 2019 game where the reliever whose name is similar to the above did exactly that, and it wound up blowing the game for the Cubs.)

Under the old rule, a manager could take such a pitcher out of the game. Now, you have to leave the guy in. I don’t like this rule, as it takes away the ability of a manager to manage his pitching staff the way he sees fit.

I suppose I’d be more okay with it if it were a two-batter minimum rather than a three-batter minimum. Games are going to be lost because of this rule (and at that point, it would likely be changed). Regardless, for the Cubs and other teams, if instituted as written above this rule will likely change some pitchers’ roles and change the way the bullpen is constituted.

Incidentally, this, tweeted by Bruce Levine last week, does not appear to be the rule under consideration:

New Rule: The active roster size with increase from 25 players to 26. Then, in September, the roster will expand up to 28, rather than 40.

Baccilleri says:

As for the difference in September, it should cut down on the worst offenders when it comes to crazy ‘pen parades (and, sadly, the best ones when it comes to minor-league lifers finally getting their chance in the big leagues) but that shouldn’t be felt particularly hard, either, as most teams’ September rosters already sat closer to 28 than 40.

Tell that to Cubs management, Emma. The Cubs’ active roster has been 35 or more players each of the last three Septembers, and by the end of September 2019, the Cubs had activated everyone on the 40-man roster except Adbert Alzolay and Justin Steele (and the latter had been on the minor-league injured list since May).

I’m not saying 35-man active rosters are a good idea. They lead to 14-man bullpens and endless parades of relievers in September and this is what the rule is designed to address. But what happens if, as happened to the Cubs in September, several players wind up injured? Then teams might have to burn an option year on a replacement. The Cubs did that anyway this past September when they needed Nico Hoerner.

28 seems too small. Or, what if teams could have all 40 men eligible, but only 28 active for any one specific game? And a rule could be added so that teams couldn’t just deactivate starting pitchers, or they could have only a maximum number of relievers.

Regarding the 26th man before September, I like this idea. It will allow teams to carry a guy they haven’t been able to in recent years, for the most part, someone like a defensive specialist, pinch-runner or third catcher.

Baccilleri is also correct when she says this rule will eliminate MLB cups of coffee for career minor leaguers who have earned it by good play in the minors. Those are always great stories. MLB should want more good stories.

New Rule: Teams must label each one of their roster spots as pitcher, position player, or two-way player. (A “two-way player” must have a record of one season with at least 20 IP and 20 games started with three plate appearances or more as a position player or designated hitter.) There will be a limit on the total number of pitchers per roster—probably 13, but this part is not official yet—and position players will not be able to pitch unless a game has a run differential of more than six or is in extra innings.

This one’s very interesting. Call it the “Shohei Ohtani rule” if you like, because it was first proposed when Ohtani made the Angels roster and was clearly going to both pitch and be a designated hitter. He’ll be back to both roles in 2020. Other teams have begun to explore this role, in this era of huge bullpens, to try to squeeze some bench play out of a guy who can pitch.

Michael Lorenzen did this well for the Reds in 2019. He was both an effective reliever (73 appearances, 2.92 ERA, 1.152 WHIP, 2.0 bWAR) and a not-horrible hitter (.208/.283/.313, 10-for-48 with two doubles and a home run, 0.4 bWAR) who actually started six games for the Reds in center field. Brendan McKay started 11 games as a pitcher for the Rays and was their DH once, and served as a pinch-hitter several times (2-for-10 with a home run), and hit .200/.298/.331 (29-for-145) in the Rays minor-league system with four doubles and five home runs. This rule even has Mark Trumbo thinking about coming back as a two-way player; this article says Trumbo threw 96 mile per hour fastballs in high school:

He was drafted in 2004 as a pitcher by the Los Angeles Angels, but he failed his physical due to an arthritic elbow, prompting a switch to hitting full-time.

Many teams are likely going to think about doing this, or in the future trying to develop two-way players. On the current Cubs roster, who would you think might be the best at this? I’d vote for Victor Caratini, who can catch and play first and third base. He threw mostly 65 mile per hour meatballs the last time he pitched, but could likely dial it up if he were serious about it. Plus, he can field the position [VIDEO].

Note also that the new rule will provide that a position player cannot pitch unless the game is in extra innings or if the run differential is more than six. Those things account for the vast majority of position-player pitching appearances, so I wouldn’t expect much change there.

Perhaps, as the Reds did, the Cubs could take a current pitcher and have him work on hitting so he could become a “two-way” player. Travis Wood might have been good at this. If the Cubs went that way, Tyler Chatwood — who played shortstop in high school and was scouted as both a position player and pitcher before the draft — might be a good choice.

New Rule: The minimum time on the injured list for pitchers will increase from 10 days to 15 days. (The 10-day IL will still exist for position players.)

This is something quite a number of teams have taken advantage of to have a six- or seven-man rotation, or to rotate relievers through their Triple-A team. Here, of course, we’ve called it the “Iowa shuttle,” but that’s not really going to be possible anymore. It wasn’t such a bad thing for a pitcher to take a 10-day “rest” for some sort of minor neck or knee or lat problem, but losing that pitcher for 15 days? Theo Epstein’s front office (as well as other FO’s) will likely hesitate and many more pitchers will wind up “day-to-day.”

As are we all. We’ll see if any further modifications are made to these rules before Opening Day 2020.

Poll

Which current Cub would be the best "two-way" player?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Victor Caratini
    (95 votes)
  • 47%
    Tyler Chatwood
    (275 votes)
  • 6%
    Ian Happ
    (39 votes)
  • 3%
    Nico Hoerner
    (19 votes)
  • 15%
    Anthony Rizzo
    (91 votes)
  • 7%
    Kyle Schwarber
    (41 votes)
  • 3%
    Someone else (leave in comments)
    (23 votes)
583 votes total Vote Now