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Some further thoughts on MLB’s rule changes for 2020

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There will be unintented consequences. Count on it.

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Earlier this week, Major League Baseball made official several rule changes that will take effect for the 2020 season.

I covered most of these in this article last November.

However, the official announcement from the league included a few things that weren’t known last November, so I thought I’d write again on this topic to review the changes as well as point out the things we didn’t know and some unintended consequences that are very likely to happen as a result.

Rule change: Three-batter minimum

From MLB

The Official Baseball Rules have been amended to require the starting or any relief pitcher to pitch to a minimum of three batters, including the batter then at bat (or any substitute batter), until such batters are put out or reach base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire crew chief’s judgment, incapacitates him from further play as a pitcher.

What we didn’t know

The three-batter minimum will become effective in 2020 Spring Training beginning on Thursday, March 12.

In reality, the change being effective in spring training won’t mean much. Even in the later stages of spring training, many relievers are still just getting their work in, and the likelihood of a pitcher having to come out of a game after fewer than three batters is pretty small.

Unintended consequences

This is going to blow up in someone’s face:

in the umpire crew chief’s judgment

So now we are giving umpires extra duty as trainers or doctors? What if a pitcher has some sort of pain in his arm after two batters and the manager or trainer says he should come out of a game but the crew chief disagrees?

“It’s gonna happen,” as the saying goes.

Rule change: Active roster limits

From MLB

  • Rosters through August 31 and Postseason: Active Roster limits from Opening Day through August 31 and including Postseason games shall be increased from 25 to 26. In addition, Clubs will be permitted to carry a maximum of 13 pitchers from Opening Day through August 31 (plus Postseason games).
  • September Rosters: From September 1 through the end of the Championship Season (including any tiebreaker games), all Clubs must carry 28 players on the Active Roster. In addition, Clubs will be permitted to carry a maximum of 14 pitchers during this period.
  • Two-Way Player Designation: Players who qualify as “Two-Way Players” may appear as pitchers during a game without counting toward a Clubs’ pitcher limitations. A player will qualify as a “Two-Way Player” only if he accrues both: (i) at least 20 Major League innings pitched; and (ii) at least 20 Major League games started (as a position player or designated hitter) with at least three plate appearances in each of those games, in either the current Championship Season or the prior Championship Season (for 2020 only, this will include 2019 as well as 2018). The Club must designate that player as a “Two-Way Player” in advance of that game. Once a Club designates a qualified “Two-Way Player” that designation will remain in effect, and cannot change, for the remainder of that Championship Season and Postseason.
  • Position Players Pitching: Any player may appear as a pitcher following the ninth inning of an extra inning game, or in any game in which his team is losing or winning by more than six runs when the player enters as a pitcher.
  • Extra Player Rule: The previous “26th player rule” will be replaced with the “27th player rule” for all applicable Championship Season games prior to September 1. The 27 player shall not count toward any pitcher roster limits described above. Thus, a Club may designate 14 pitchers in games under circumstances where the Major League Rules would permit a 27th Active player.

What we didn’t know

I had not previously heard that the 28-player limit after September 1 was now a requirement (“must carry”). While the Cubs over the last few seasons have activated nearly everyone on the 40-man roster, apparently some teams refused to expand their rosters at all. This creates a level playing field for everyone.

Unintended consequences

While I usually don’t like rosters with 14 or 15 pitchers, what happens when a team’s bullpen is overtaxed? In the past, teams under the pre-September limit of 25 (now 26) could add a pitcher for a few days. Now this won’t be permitted. This could overtax bullpens even further. What teams are going to have to do is develop more relief pitchers who can throw multiple innings. This could potentially help teams out with the three-batter minimum as well.

Regarding the position player pitching rule, it would be very rare to have a game where a team is trailing or ahead by fewer than six runs and have a position player pitch. But consider this scenario: A visiting team is losing 9-1 and the game is in the eighth inning. Its bullpen is overworked and the visiting manager intends to have a position player pitch the bottom of the eighth. But with two out in the top of the eighth, someone hits a three-run homer to make it 9-4, and the next hitter makes an out on the first pitch. No actual pitcher has been warmed up, since the three-run homer was unanticipated. By rule the position player can’t pitch. What happens then? Stalling? A faked injury? So much for your precious pace of play, Rob Manfred.

It appears that the only player eligible under the two-way player rule for 2020 will be Shohei Ohtani — and that, only because of the “for 2020 only, this will include 2019 as well as 2018” stipulation, because Ohtani did not pitch at all in 2019.

The RedsMichael Lorenzen doesn’t qualify as a two-way player for 2020 because he has started only six MLB games as an outfielder, all of those in 2019. It will be interesting to see if the Reds use him more in the outfield this year so he could qualify as a two-way player for 2021, especially since the Reds already have a surplus of outfielders.

Regarding the 28-man roster in September — which, not coincidentally, will save owners money on travel expenses — this will likely result in increased use of the Injured List in September. The Cubs lost Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to injury in September 2019. They didn’t have to put those players on the Injured List because replacements were already active (except when Russell wound up on the concussion list and Nico Hoerner had to be added to the 40-man roster). Now, an IL stint will be necessary because teams “must” carry 28 players.

I would rather have seen the league have a 30-man roster in September, but have only 28 active for any particular game.

Rule change: The Injured List minimum stay for pitchers goes back to 15 days

From MLB

Injured List Reinstatements and Option Period for Pitchers: Clubs may not reinstate pitchers or Two-Way Players from the Injured List until 15 days have elapsed from the date of the initial placement for such injury – an increase from 10 days. In addition, the option period for pitchers will be lengthened from 10 days to 15 days.

What we didn’t know

Nothing. This is exactly the way the rule change was explained last fall. It should be noted that for position players, the 10-day minimum on the Injured List still applies.

Unintended consequences

This rule was instituted to stop teams like the Dodgers from using options and the injured list to “rest” their starting pitchers. In 2018, for example, no Dodger pitcher started more than 27 games and not a single pitcher on their staff qualified for the ERA title (Clayton Kershaw led the team with 161⅓ innings).

It’s going to hurt teams like the Cubs who have relied on the “Iowa Shuttle” to move relievers up and down between the major leagues and Triple-A.

If teams have enough relievers with options, they might still be able to do that. The Cubs didn’t make any major free-agent signings this winter, but they did accumulate several pitchers (Jharel Cotton, Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, among others) who they can still shuttle between Des Moines and Chicago as needed.

Rule change: Shorter decision time for challenge system

From MLB

Managers will now have up to 20 seconds to challenge a play instead of 30.

What we didn’t know

This rule was not on the list of proposals last November.

Unintended consequences

None, really, but this appears to be yet another attempt by Manfred to speed up the pace of play. In practice, this will accomplish almost nothing. There were 1,356 reviews in MLB last year. That’s an average of a little more than one every two games. Even if you assume that there are that number of plays where managers have the video room check to see if a challenge should be made and they decline, that would bump the average up to about one per game.

So this rule change will likely save, on average... about 10 seconds per game. Along with the automatic intentional walk and the mound visit rule, this rule won’t really speed up play at all. Perhaps it’s another attempt by the Commissioner’s office to tell players, “Look, we tried all these things and they didn’t do anything, so now we need to implement the pitch clock.”

I’m 100 percent in favor of a pitch clock and enforcing it. When this was done in Double-A and Triple-A in 2015, 12 minutes were shaved off average game times.

Maybe next year.