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Commentary on the New Rule Changes

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

We have heard for almost a year now that the MLB Commissioner’s Office was planning to institute rule changes for the upcoming season. Although the 2020 editions of the Major League Rules and the Official Baseball Rules have not been released as far as I can tell, MLB did issue a press release on February 12th announcing the changes and confirming that the new changes will be in operation. One rule change will begin operation in the middle of spring training. In this article, I will outline the current rules, explain how they are being changed, then offer my opinions on the changes.

Active Roster Limits

Old Rule: Since the 1968 season (with the exception of 1978, 1986-1989 and the opening of the 1990 and 1995 seasons) MLB has operated under the same basic Active Roster rule. By Opening Day, clubs were required to submit a 25-man Active Roster, which constituted the maximum number of players that were available to play in any given game. This number was enlarged to 40 beginning on September 1st and stayed at 40 for the rest of the regular season (including any tiebreaker games), but teams were not required to add any extra players during this period. The Active Roster was reduced to 25 for any postseason games. The 1977 CBA between the owners and the union set a 24-man Active Roster minimum, and the most recent CBA requires that if, due to an unforeseen circumstance, the active roster falls below 24, a club must restore it to 24 players within 48 hours. For certain doubleheaders and special games, a 26th player was available. There were no restrictions on roster construction in terms of pitchers or position players.

New Rule: The Active Roster from opening day until September 1st (as well as the postseason) is now 26 players, with a maximum of 13 pitchers. The Active Roster from September 1st through the end of the regular season (including tiebreaker games) is now 28, with a maximum of 14 pitchers, and all clubs are required to roster 28 players during this period. The “26th man” rule will now be the “27th man rule,” and the 27th man can be a pitcher.

Commentary: The enlargement of the Active Roster to 26 was almost certainly offered to the union as a carrot to induce the union to agree to other changes that I will outline later. Most clubs, especially in the National League, have a roster of 13 pitchers on most days. The limit to 13 pitchers will cause most clubs to just add 1 extra bench spot, although the possibility remains that clubs could use only 12 pitchers and a 6-man bench.

The most interesting part of the rule is the forced 28-man limit from September 1st through the rest of the regular season. This is a major change. One complaint among baseball people, especially managers, was that essentially teams played under a different set of rules for 30 days or so of the regular season. Teams involved in a series had different numbers of players and some complained that the September games were longer due to additional pitching changes, which were already a concern. This change will put all teams on an equal playing field with the same roster size, as all clubs must have a 28-man roster during this period.

While there is a lot to be said for this normalization, there is an argument that both the clubs and the players lose in this deal. For one thing, for at least the past 40 years, the Cardinals have almost always had between 30 and 32 players on their Active Roster in September, with that number increasing to 36 in 2018 and 35 last season. It only takes 43 days of active service to get a pension and one day of active service for medical benefits. While it is true that the 26th roster spot being available all year will result in more service time and more money in the aggregate for players, with fewer “September cups of coffee” available, fewer players in the aggregate will accrue MLB service time to earn pensions.

Clubs will also lose out on the opportunity to look at younger players for future seasons. It is true some of the September callups go unused. Last year a couple of the Cardinals’ callups practically rotted on the bench, only getting into two games for the month. The Cardinals, however, were in a heated pennant race. Clubs that are out of the race have typically taken advantage of this period to test several of their younger players in a major league environment.

There is another consideration that bears mentioning which I have not heard anyone speak about. Clubs better be careful who they call up on September 1st. The rules on minor league options, specifically Major League Rule 11(e), set forth a closed period that prohibits optioning a player to the minors after the optionee club’s minor league season (including playoffs) is over. The latest end date for a minor league regular season in the Cardinals’ system in 2020 is September 7th. Let’s assume, for the sake of this conversation, that in 2020, no Cardinal minor league affiliate makes the playoffs. That means that after September 7th, no options will be available. The club could get a 6-day look at a player that was recalled on September 1st (or any other player for that matter), and during that period, they could make a change. At that point, they would be stuck with the 2nd player unless they could come up with a move to use the injured list. If they needed extra pitching or wanted to get a look at someone else, they will be out of luck if they don’t make a move before September 7th.

With the entire 40-man roster available, there was no need to option players in September or use the 10-day injured list during that month. The only time you might have seen the injured list used was when the club used the 60-day injured list to add another player to the 40-man roster. Now, you’re likely to see some injured list shenanigans to swap players in and out during September. And if minor league affiliates make the playoffs, you might see crazy transactions like a player being optioned to some place like Short-Season A State College because that’s the only available place to send someone if the Cards want to swap additional players in.

In all, the roster uniformity is a desirable change, but the reduction in September callups is a bad thing for fans, clubs that want to give their younger players some major league experience and for players that might not otherwise earn a pension.

Two-Way Player Designation and Limits on Position Players Pitching

Old Rule: There were no restrictions at all on where anyone was employed on the diamond.

New Rule: Now, all players will be designated as pitchers or position players on their first day on the active roster. A two-way player designation is also available. A two-way player is someone who, during the current season or the previous season, has (a) at least 20 major league innings pitched AND (b) at least 20 major league games started as a position player or DH, with at least 3 plate appearances in each of the 20 games. For the 2020 season only, players can reach back to the 2018 season to meet the requirement. A player designated as a two-way player does not count against the 13-pitcher limit from opening day through August 31st and postseason, or the 14-pitcher limit from September 1st through the end of the regular season. Once a player is designated as a two-way player, the designation may not change for the rest of the year, including the postseason. Players not designated as pitchers or two-way players may not pitch UNLESS (a) the game goes into extra innings; or (b) the player’s club is either ahead by 7 runs or more or behind by 7 runs or more when he enters the game as the pitcher.

Commentary: The only player that the Cards will likely encounter who has any chance to be a two-way player is Michael Lorenzen of the Reds. Primarily a reliever, he started 6 games in CF last year, which is not enough under the rule. The Reds will designate him as a pitcher because there is no restriction on players designated as pitchers starting in the field. Until he gets 20 starts in the field with 3 plate appearances in each start during the 2020 season, he will count against the pitcher limit, but if he meets the criteria this season, his designation can be changed and he will not count against the pitcher limits. The 20-start requirement is strict and it is unlikely that many players will be given the designation. The possibility of a player looking back to 2018 to meet the requirements for this season only was almost certainly designed to allow Shohei Ohtani to be designated as a two-way player immediately this year. He met the requirements with 51.2 IP and 82 starts at DH in 2018, but was limited to DH duties last season because of late-2018 Tommy John surgery. Because of the strict requirements, only Ohtani will qualify immediately as a two-way player for 2020, and it would be funny to go to the trouble of creating the rule without having someone able to take advantage of it.

I’m in the camp that the two-way player rule is dumb. For one thing, the requirements are so restrictive that almost no one will ever meet it in the National League. The Cardinals haven’t had a player since Eddie Dyer (who managed the club from 1946-1950) who was even close, and he maxed out at 22 IP with 3 starts on the mound, but only 6 starts in LF in 1923. While it can be conceived as a reward for a team to get an extra pitcher in the case of a player with rare ability, why can’t they just let managers play their players where they want to play them? If a manager decides that he wants to go with 14 pitchers and only a 4-man bench, or 15 pitchers and a 3-man bench, I don’t see why he should be stopped. Yeah I know, length of the game. We’ll get to that later, but I don’t buy it. It’s so restrictive it’s not going to matter for the most part.

Equally silly are the restrictions on position players pitching. Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs offers a treatment of the issue here, and he does outline that the instances of position players pitching has increased exponentially over the past 10 years. There were less than 20 such instances in 2010, and last year’s 85 position player pitching appearances were almost as much as the amount from 2015-2017 combined (87). While position players to the man almost always pitch poorly, it’s not like managers are doing it just for fun. We’re not talking about Bill Veeck sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate with a toy bat here. The managers do it to save pitcher arms, and that can be a valid concern no matter the score. Of the 85 instances last year, Jaffe estimated that only 15 of the appearances would not have been allowed under the new rule, 10 of which would have been disallowed because the score differential at entry was six runs, not the required seven. It doesn’t sound like much of anything is solved by this.

For what it is worth, the Cardinals have had very few position players pitching over the years. While it used to be common in the early days of baseball for players to pitch and play the field, my research shows that the Cards have had position players come in to pitch only 32 times since 1934. After outfielder Vic Davalillo made 2 pitching appearances over the course of 4 days in 1969, no Cardinal position player pitched until Whitey Herzog brought Jose Oquendo in to pitch in an August game in 1987. Position players have only come in to pitch 24 times since 1987, including that appearance. How many of those appearances since 1934 would have barred under the new rule? Only six. Since 1969, only Aaron Miles’s pitching appearance in a meaningless September 28th, 2010 with the Cardinals out of the race would have been barred because he only came in when the Cardinals were down by only 5 runs.

One of the pitching appearances that would have been barred was on September 28, 1952, the last game of the Cardinals’ season that year. After Harvey Haddix walked leadoff man Harvey Brown, Stan Musial ran in from CF to the pitcher’s mound, Haddix went to RF, and Hal Rice moved from RF to CF. This was a stunt, as Musial and the next batter Frank Baumholtz had been fighting for the batting title that season. The lefty-swinger Baumholtz turned around and batted right-handed and reached on an error by 3B Solly Hemus, after which everyone went back to their normal positions.

Good thing Manfred swept in and put a stop to things like this. Seriously, who cares if position players pitch? Let the manager use his roster as he sees fit.

Injured List Reinstatements and Option Period for Pitchers

Old Rule: Major League Baseball went to the 10-day injured list for all players in 2017, down from what had been a 15-day injured list for all players since the 1991 season. With a couple of exceptions (replacing an injured or traded player), all players optioned to the minor leagues had to spend 10 days on option before they could be recalled.

New Rule: The 10-day injured list will still apply to position players, but pitchers and two-way players must now stay on the injured list for 15 days before being activated, effectively creating two separate lists: a 10-day IL for position players and a 15-day IL for everyone else. In addition, pitchers must now spend 15 days on option before being recalled. The 10-day option rule will still apply to everyone else.

Commentary: Clubs, most notably the Dodgers a couple of years back, have apparently been playing games with the 10-day IL to get fresh pitchers on a regular basis. Since the 10-day IL was instituted the number of Cardinal transactions had grown over the years. I’m not too worked up about this change because at least MLB is attempting to implement a solution that directly attacks a real problem. Of course, another option would have been to more closely police the standard diagnosis forms that the team doctors submit, but that would have been problematic because pain is subjective and it would be impractical for MLB’s medical director to look at every single player’s medical record before an injured list move.

With respect to the change to the option rule, I don’t really see why pitchers and position players should be treated differently. I can understand the 10-day rule. Neither the players nor the union wants folks to be yanked back and forth between the minors and the majors every other day, but 10 days struck a nice balance. This only serves to make things more complicated for the clubs and more interesting for transaction nuts like me, but probably will not have much of an impact, because an injury can always be manufactured to get the pitcher back before the 15 days. If a club was going to abuse the 10-day IL, they could abuse the option rule.

Reduction in Challenge Time

Old Rule: Managers had 30 seconds to challenge a play.

New Rule: They now have 20 seconds.

Commentary: Meaningless in the grand scheme of trying to speed up the game. If they were really worried about game speed, they would have everything done by a booth review in New York and impose some kind of limit on how long the umpires have to make a ruling.

Three Batter Minimum

Old Rule: Other than barring players re-entering a game they had already exited, and players switching spots in the order they occupied, there was basically no limit on how a manager could use his roster or make in-game moves.

New Rule: A starting or relief pitcher is now required to pitch to at least 3 batters or retire the opposing side (meaning end the inning), whichever comes first, UNLESS the pitcher entering the game sustains injury or illness which, in the judgment of the umpire crew chief, incapacitates him from further play. This Rule will become effective on March 12th during Spring Training to give teams time to get used to it.

Commentary: I get that Tony LaRussa “six pitching change blue collar specials” were not part of the historical record, but this rule change is ridiculous. Implementing this to try to shorten the length of games is a preposterous solution. First of all, MLB has done nothing to enforce rules that are already in place that are designed to stop wasting time. Batters feel like they are entitled to timeout from the umpire after every pitch, and hold their hand up waiting to dig in. Umpires liberally grant it almost every time. There are pitchers that take forever between pitches, but MLB agreed with the union as part of these changes not to implement a pitch clock until the CBA expires after the 2021 season. Although batters are supposed to be ready to receive the pitch immediately, they obsessively step out of the box and adjust their batting gloves after every pitch and the umpires let them get away with it.

Second, as Tom Verducci pointed out in this piece, relief appearances of just one or two batters dropped 16% from four years ago, representing an 11-year low. One batter relief appearances are down 21% from four years ago, representing a 13-year low. Based on current patterns, Verducci estimates that the rule would eliminate one mid-inning pitching change every three or four games, shaving about 44 seconds off of the total time. Verducci also included tables from Fangraphs to demonstrate that the real culprit of games taking longer than some people might like is the players simply screwing around.

Third, let’s suppose that MLB ignored all of the other rules in place designed to speed up the game, implemented and enforced this rule, and it shaved 10 minutes off of the average time of MLB games in 2020. What difference would that make? Manfred and his associates must have done some studies and focus groups, but you will never convince me that an appreciable number of people who don’t watch baseball now on the grounds that it’s too boring of a game and does not hold their attention span will all of sudden watch now that the average time of the game is 10 minutes shorter. I will never believe that. If people don’t watch because they think the games take too long, this will not help.

Because pitching changes are not the culprit for games taking too long and because the rule will not save much game time, AND because even if it did, people wouldn’t decide to watch baseball as a result of this change, I see no need to restrict the manager’s use of the roster how he sees fit. If Mike Shildt thinks the best thing to do is to bring in Tyler Webb to pitch to Joey Votto to start the top of the 9th, and then bring in Giovanny Gallegos to pitch to Eugenio Suarez immediately following Votto’s plate appearance, he should be allowed to do it. But hey, you might say, shouldn’t LOOGYs be thrown out of the game on the grounds that you should be able to get both lefties and righties out and you should get out of baseball if you can’t? That’s arrogant and easy to say, as most clubs don’t have their bullpens stocked with relievers that are powerhouses against both lefties and righties, and if they did, the job of LOOGY would never have come into being. If a lefty is the best on the squad at getting lefties out, he shouldn’t be out of a job just because he struggles against righties. If the union acquiesced on this to avoid the pitch clock and to get a 26th man roster spot, they should be ashamed. I don’t like the rule, and although I try as hard as I can to keep an open mind to learn things I may not have considered, I can’t imagine anything anyone could say to convince me that this was an appropriate change.