SAN DIEGO — To say there was some uncertainty among MLB managers about the potential of new rules impacting the 2020 season would be putting it mildly.
Specifically, there were questions about the proposed three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, a rule aimed at reducing pitching changes and therefore speeding up the game.
That rule, with the others, was confirmed by commissioner Rob Manfred during his Winter Meetings press conference Wednesday.
“I fully expect all those rules will be operational in the 2020 season,” he said.
Before that, though? Nobody really knew. New Angels manager Joe Maddon was asked for his thoughts on Monday
“Has that been passed?” he asked.
The reporter said he believed it had.
“It has been passed?” Maddon sounded genuinely curious.
Same thing with Joe Girardi, the new Phillies manager.
“Has that passed for sure yet?” he asked.
Pretty sure, he was told
Girardi: “Has it passed for sure?”
Again, because nobody really had heard official confirmation, “pretty sure.”
Girardi, again. “Not pretty sure — no, if it is, I think it changed for a lot of pitchers.”
Well, now we know the rule — a relief pitcher must face at least three batters, or finish an inning — will be in effect. And, again putting it mildly, managers who were asked about the minimum are not happy about it.
“I don’t like it. I haven’t liked it from the beginning,” Maddon said. “I don’t quite get it. My take on the whole thing is to — I’m all for messing with the pace of the game. I think that’s important. Having not been in the playoffs and you get to watch a playoff game, which I hate to do but I did, you notice the pace of the game, absolutely. I think the pace of the game can be messed with, I’m good. Length of the game has nothing to do with baseball or why it’s interesting or not, so I wouldn’t worry about that. The thing I would never interfere with is strategy, and to me that interferes with strategy, and that’s the part I don’t like. Pace and length of the game, I think, are interconnected, but strategy is sacred, I think.”
Well, the strategy is gone.
The rise to prominence of the LOOGY — lefty, one-out-only relievers — has ended, abruptly. Some lefty relievers will have trouble finding work. Some will make most of their appearances with two outs and a lefty at the plate. All who want to stay on a 25-man roster — well, 26-man now — will have to figure out how to get right-handed hitters out.
Some of these guys haven’t been asked to do that regularly for years. In 2016, for example, successful LOOGY Jerry Blevins made 73 appearances for the Mets, posting a 2.79 ERA. He faced 178 batters on the year, and 113 of those were left-handed hitters.
Blevins is currently a free agent.
Not every team had a LOOGY, and they’ve still survived. The Astros didn’t have a lefty reliever in the bullpen in October, and they made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. But they did use pitchers for one or two batters, to get key outs in the middle of an inning.
That option is gone.
“The thing that concerned me about it is you’re in a game where you don’t want to maybe use your eighth-inning guy or your closer, and you bring in someone that he is not used to pitching in the eighth or ninth inning and they walk the first two hitters and you can’t change?” Girardi said. “The importance of winning that game is obviously important as we see how many divisions are determined by one game, how many wild-card spots are determined by one game. So that’s the concern of mine.”
And even pitchers who are typically capable of getting multiple outs regularly have to figure out a different way to manage fatigue and their effectiveness when working potential back-to-back days.
“The only thing, the only exception I have with the rule — and, again, I don’t have a problem with it — but is the guy that comes in and says, ‘I got a hitter today and that’s it. I can get you out of an inning,'” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “That’s one of the things that I’m responsible for even at the big leagues. We know they’re there to pitch and be professionals, and our guys take the ball, but I still have the responsibility of taking care of these guys’ arms and careers and livelihoods, and bridging and being able to have that communication, which we do have, but maybe even more, to say to this pitcher, ‘Hey, I got an out in me. I got a hitter.'”
Shildt and his fellow managers will have to come back with a different question.
“‘Well, you got three?’ And knowing that we’re going to try to get him in there to get the last out of the inning, something happens, he makes a great pitch, gets it done, he’s got to pitch the next guy. The guy is a 12-pitch at-bat and he’s got one hitter. Guy (hits) one into right, and now he’s exposed not only competitively, he’s exposed physically. I’ve got to make that decision whether to expose that guy or not. So that residual effect says, OK, this guy’s got to pitch, and now I know he’s down tomorrow if he gets extended or I give him that blow.”
They’ll adjust, of course, because they have no choice.
“It will impact the strategy,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said on Tuesday. “I’ve never been a big fan of it, but at the same time, it’s not a rule that I got to vote on. So we’ll see if it comes to pass, and if we’ve got to accommodate for if it, I’ll leave him in for three batters or until the end of the inning or the other stuff I’ve read. It will impact strategy for sure.”
For right now, pretty clear that managers are not big fans of the idea.