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MLB Rule Changes Overly Impacts Relievers

Major League Baseball has announced a series of rule changes to go into effect for the 2020 season. Some of the proposed rule changes include:

  • Injured List increased from 10 to 15 days
  • Assignment to the minor leagues increased from 10 to 15 days
  • Maximum of 13 pitchers on the Major League roster
  • Position players are not permitted to pitch unless very specific circumstances are met
  • Relievers must face at least three batters
  • Roster sizes increased from 25 to 26 players

Perusing all of these rules, you can not help but conclude it will have long lasting ramifications upon relief pitchers. In fact, you can argue the effects on relievers are damaging.

The most controversial of these rule changes is the three batter minimum. What is interesting is this is a rule change Major League Baseball had purportedly wanted to test in the Atlantic League during the 2019 season before trying to implement in the Majors. Instead, the test is going to be throw by the wayside, and it is going to be implemented anyway.

The result is the effective elimination of LOOGYs, and there will be a severe limiting of any pitcher with platoon splits. This means players like Jerry Blevins and Luis Avilan, two relievers who have one year deals, may be pitching the last year of their careers. Maybe.

Think about it, if you are a Major League team, how can you carry a LOOGY and have him pitch in critical innings know the opposing manager can just send up three straight pinch hitters to tee off on your pitcher? You have that extra batter now because of the rule change adding a hitter because, well, you are only allowed eight relievers.

This is the complete absence of strategy which is part of what makes late inning baseball so interesting. You have fans engaged during the game critiquing moves, and they create discussion points for days. Now, well, it’s paint-by-numbers baseball. You just put in relievers instead of planning out the inning to get as much leverage as possible.

That aside, remember a specialization job in baseball is effectively being eliminated.

As if that wasn’t problem enough, there is an issue with respect to the health of relievers. No, we should not expect pitchers facing three batters in an inning to cause them to brake down. That’s the case even if that would be an extra level of exertion the pitcher was not prepared to give.

The bigger issue is the mop-op games. There are times when a managers needs to lose a battle to win the war. They need to realize when his arms need a break, and sometimes, albeit rarely, he will need to use a position player. The problem is a manager’s ability to do that is now restricted.

According to the new rules, a position player can only pitch if he’s a designated two way player (right now, this only applies to Shohei Ohtani), in extra innings, or either team is up five runs. Seems reasonable in theory, but in practice, it could be much different.

Reasonably speaking, you could have had an extra inning game the previous night and had your starter knocked out early. Under the rules, if you are down just five, you have to go to your main bullpen guys, who may be exhausted, especially during those stretches in the summer. you cannot go to a position player. No, you need to stick with your tired relievers, who may have needed a real break.

Remember, this is more than asking a reliever to pitch to three batters. This is requiring him to pitch to three batters in every game. That means if you pitch three straight days, that’s at least nine batters. At a certain point, that puts a real strain on a reliever’s arm.

Of course, a team could respond by sending a pitcher down. Well, not even that is as easy. Instead of losing a tired arm for about three series, you are losing one for five. Maybe in a soft spot in your schedule, the Mets would be willing to send down a Robert Gsellman for a short stretch to call up a more rested arm like Paul Sewald or Jacob Rhame. The Mets are not doing that for five series because the hit is too prolonged.

The option for a quick IL stint also comes off the board because again you are talking five series instead of three. That leaves the option of just calling up another pitcher and use them as the 26th man on the roster. Again, that is problematic because a team is only permitted eight relievers, and in recent years, teams have been carrying that many relievers anyway. If you are carrying eight relievers, and they are tired, you’re back in the earlier predicament on time in the minors or the IL.

There’s one other consideration here. In September, teams have had the opportunity to call up every player on their 40 man roster. Now, teams only get two. Now, according to how the rules are written, that has to be two additional position players IF you are already carrying eight relievers. This further restricts a team’s ability to bring up a fresh arm, and anecdotally, a team does not get a chance to find their version of the 2002 Francisco Rodriguez, who played a huge role in the Angels winning the World Series.

However you break it down, these rules unduly affect relief pitchers. They are losing certain jobs. They are being required to do more than they previously have. Their ability to obtain a rest after a stressful game has been restricted. In total, this looks more like a plan not well thought out and pushed forward because Rob Manfred wanting to put his stamp in the game and Tony Clark not serving enough of a deterrence.

Of course, we would know more if this was tested out in the Atlantic League as was originally planned, but baseball instead opted to plow ahead without knowing the long term effects. When you break it down, it’s inexcusable for baseball to gamble with the integrity of the game and with the careers of pitchers without even having tested it.