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The 3-batter reliever rule is a solution in search of a problem

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Here are some numbers backing up that claim.

Cubs infielders await a pitching change in September 2019
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Earlier this week I wrote this article taking the position that the Cubs are loading up on fungible relief pitchers with options because of the new three-batter-minimum rule for relievers that will be in effect this season. The Cubs will need more pitchers who can get batters from either side of the plate out due to the rule, and I had written this article last November about why there could be unintended consequences of this rule:

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.

Now, Cliff Corcoran of The Athletic has put some numbers together that show that this rule is attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist:

However, while there were 2,162 pitching appearances that lasted fewer than three batters in 2019, 1,471 of them concluded with the end of an inning or the end of the game. That leaves just 691 appearances that the three-batter minimum would have extended, and that’s before searching that sample for outings that ended in injury and thus also would have been exempt from the rule.

Over the course of the 2,429 major-league games played in 2019, those 691 pitching appearances work out to just one every 3 1/2 games. If, in every case, the new rule eliminated the mid-inning pitching change entirely, it would have made the average time of a major-league game in 2019 (drumroll, please) … 34 seconds shorter.

Thirty. Four. Seconds.

This is along the lines of similar “pace of play” initiatives Commissioner Rob Manfred has taken in recent years, the automatic intentional walk and limiting mound visits, neither of which has moved the needle on pace of play or the length of games at all. And, Corcoran points out, these unintended consequences could be even worse:

Again, the vast majority of those 691 pitching changes were made for a reason, and that reason had far more to do with trying to win than it did with playing matchups. The real impact of the three-batter minimum will be forcing pitchers getting lit up to the tune of a .393/.518/.657 slash line to remain in high-leverage situations. That will alter the outcomes of games, and it could alter the outcome of the season.

It’s frankly inexplicable that Major League Baseball would move ahead with a rule that will not only not have its intended positive effect but will also have a more obvious negative effect. Consider the fans’ experience. Fans likely won’t notice when a pitcher remains in a game to get the third out of an inning because of the rule, because they won’t have anticipated the extraneous pitching change the manager otherwise would have made, but they are sure going to notice when a pitcher who has been struggling is left in for an extra batter because of it.

So this is a bad idea on its face, but when implemented is going to be a worse idea. Great job, Major League Baseball!

Based on some examples in Corcoran’s article (which is well worth reading in its entirety so I won’t quote any more of it), we’re not going to be more than a couple of weeks into the 2020 season when this rule is going to cost a team a game.

I wish Rob Manfred actually was a baseball fan. Then perhaps he wouldn’t force these so-called “improve the pace of play” rules on the game, rule changes that don’t really save any time at all. The one thing MLB could do that would actually speed up the pace of play is to institute a pitch clock and enforce it, but they steadfastly refuse to do that.

Such is the state of baseball in 2020.