How MLB's new three-batter-minimum rule will impact the game

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Baseball's owners voted to make a major rule change beginning in the 2020 MLB season, requiring pitchers to either face a minimum of three batters or complete a half-inning, a switch pushed by commissioner Rob Manfred with an eye toward quickening the pace of play and shortening the length of games by reducing the number of in-game pitching changes.

Here are some of the questions and answers you need to know about the rule change.

So how exactly will this work?

Based on reports when the rule was introduced in March, pitchers will be required to either face a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions to be made in case of injury or illness. Currently, Rule 5.10(f) states that the starting pitcher must pitch to one batter until that batter is put out or reaches base, and Rule 5.10(g) states that any reliever must pitch to one batter until that batter is put out or reaches base, or the offensive team is put out.

The new rule means no more managers bringing in a pitcher in the middle of the inning, having him face one batter, then trudging back out to the mound to make another change. Setting strategy debates aside, who could complain about that? No one enjoys the dead time of a pitching change, particularly when there is a parade of them in one half-inning.

But what about that strategy thing? Do we really want to set that aside?

There's the rub. Not allowing a manager to take full advantage of his available bullpen arms and set up his preferred matchups doesn't seem right. Strategy decisions are part of what makes baseball so much fun.

But the new rule doesn't necessarily eliminate strategy. It creates different strategy. Using the 2019 Astros as an example, an opposing manager might hesitate to bring in a lefty reliever to face left-handed hitter Michael Brantley when that same lefty would have to face righty hitter Alex Bregman, then perhaps another righty such as Carlos Correa after Bregman. If lefty Yordan Alvarez followed Bregman in the order, maybe the manager would roll the dice and go with his lefty out of the pen.

And what if there are two outs and two men on when Brantley comes up in the example above? The stakes of that at-bat would be considerably higher under the new rule. If the lefty reliever does his job and gets Brantley out, his day is done with high-fives all around. If Brantley were to reach base, the lefty reliever would be forced to face Bregman in what could be a very unfavorable matchup.

So utilizing your bullpen based on lefty-righty matchups gets a little more complicated. No more color-by-numbers managing in those situations.

How much of a difference will this actually make?

That's the money question -- and there certainly could be unforeseen implications along the way. But based on the numbers, one- and two-batter relief appearances have been on the decline over the last few years anyway.

In 2019, there were 649 appearances that would not have been allowed had the new rule been in effect, based on numbers provided by Elias Sports Research. In 2018, there were 712 such appearances, and in 2017, there were 720. The 649 appearances this past season accounted for the lowest total since 2000, when there were 647.

That figures to one would-be violation in every 3.74 games, which may not seem like a lot, but the presence of the rule seemingly would impact decision-making with regard to relievers and pinch hitters on a much wider range than that.

But will it actually shorten games?

That's debatable. Actually, it may not be debatable at all -- the answer is no, not really. If we're talking about one fewer pitching change every four or so games, that doesn't seem like it will win over any new fans, or even be noticeable. Any reduction in dead time is a plus, but is it worth making such a fundamental change to save, on average, maybe a minute per game?

Who will it impact the most?

Off the field, it could have some impact on general managers in terms of roster construction, although specialization has been on the decline anyway.

We talked about the impact on managers in deploying relievers, and they might be even more inclined to alternate righties and lefties in their batting order, while pinch hitters could play a bigger role.

But the biggest impact is on those one-batter relievers who could see their value cut considerably. In 2019, 15 relievers had at least 10 appearances that would not be allowed under the new rule, although none of the players would be considered household names.

No. 1 on that list is 38-year-old Oliver Perez, a 16-year veteran who had 22 such instances in his 67 total appearances. Perez, who has a $3 million contract with Cleveland for 2020, faced 78 right-handed batters and 95 lefties (not as lopsided as one might think), with righties slashing .286/.346/.543 against him and lefties .207/.274/.333. His usage certainly will be altered.

Others who had 10 or more appearances in 2019 that wouldn't be allowed under the new rule:

Andrew Chafin, Diamondbacks (19); Alex Claudio, Brewers (17); Adam Kolarek, Dodgers (15); Andrew Miller, Cardinals (13); Daniel Stumpf, Tigers (13); Jace Fry, White Sox (12); Tyler Olson, Indians (12); Kyle Ryan, Cubs (12); Ryan Buchter, A's (11); Tim Mayza, Blue Jays (11); Chaz Roe, Rays (11); Tyler Webb, Cardinals (11); Luis Avilan, Mets (10); Jerry Blevins, Braves (10).

All but Roe are left-handers. Avilan, Blevins, Buchter, Claudio and Stumpf are free agents.

What teams might it impact most?

Based on the 2019 numbers, the new rule would be a bigger deal in the National League -- 60% of the would-be violations were in the NL.

With Perez leading the way, the Indians had the most instances with 44. The other top teams on the list were the Cubs and Diamondbacks (39 each), the Cardinals (36), the Dodgers (33) and the Rays (32).

On the other end, the Astros had just one instance -- September call-up Cionel Perez, who walked the only batter he faced on Sept. 3. But don't forget, the Astros were a righty-dominant staff, going most of the playoffs without a left-hander on their roster.

It's also worth noting that about 30% of the 649 instances came in September, after rosters expanded to 40. With roster expansion being limited to 28 this year, some of those late-season violations probably would have gone away anyway.

When is the last time baseball made this big of a rule change?

The NBA has added and moved the 3-point line, and alters defense rules almost routinely. The NFL moved the extra point and seems to make changes every year (What's a catch? What's pass interference?). The NHL has toyed with overtime rules several times. But baseball just doesn't do this.

Other than adding instant replay, there are the slide rules at home plate (the anti-collision Buster Posey rule) and second base (where runners must make a legit effort to reach the bag). But for something as fundamental as the three-batter minimum, which seemingly would have some impact on virtually every game, you have to go back to 1973 and the addition of the designated hitter.