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The New MLB Rule Changes Aren’t Big—but They Could Be the Start of Something Huge

The tweaks will affect pitcher usage, the trade deadline, roster sizes, and the All-Star Game, among other things. They won’t radically change the game, but they signal that MLB takes the aesthetics of its game seriously.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association jointly announced a series of adjustments to the game that will take effect over the next two seasons, subject to ratification by the 30 clubs and contingent on civilization surviving until 2020. The new measures span several aspects of the sport, from roster size and makeup to pitcher usage to time and pace of game. Taken together—and weighed alongside the more daring experiments MLB is orchestrating in the independent Atlantic League in 2019—the announced alterations represent a real thaw in the change-averse mind-set of a sport that’s been slow to respond to the consequences for spectators of its teams’ tactical innovations. None of these individual initiatives will dramatically reshape baseball, but the full suite of tweaks may collectively curb some of baseball’s least entertaining trends while laying the groundwork for ongoing discussions and more meaningful change.

Perhaps the most momentous of the in-game, on-field changes is the planned implementation in 2020 of a three-batter minimum for non-inning-ending pitcher appearances. In other words, managers will no longer be able to summon a pitcher from the pen and then pull him after one or two plate appearances while the inning is still in progress. This rule revision should put an end to one of baseball’s most boring sequences: the late-inning parade of relievers who enter to take on a righty or lefty and depart immediately after retiring (or failing to retire) their target, subjecting the audience to another managerial mound visit, another commercial break, and another allotment of warm-up pitches.

Maybe because this condition jeopardizes the jobs of some situational arms, the Players Association didn’t approve of the three-batter minimum. Rather, it agreed not to “grieve or otherwise challenge” the rule, which MLB has the power to implement unilaterally after giving the union warning one year in advance. MLB has been hesitant to exercise that authority for fear of further inflaming relations between the two sides, but by signaling that it would grudgingly live with the change, the PA made it feasible for the league to take the plunge.

Although MLB has been willing to make changes related to replay and promoting player safety (via the seven-day injured list for concussions and prohibitions on dangerous slides at second base and collisions at the plate), the three-batter minimum is a relatively intrusive tactical change by the league’s laissez-faire standards. That doesn’t mean it will actually alter the game on a fundamental level. For one thing, pitchers are already required to face at least one batter before being removed, so the new regulation represents an extension of an existing condition, not an instance of unprecedented tampering with team sovereignty. Regardless of what Joe Maddon might say, baseball’s strategy was already constrained by its rules.

What’s more, there just aren’t that many pitcher appearances that would actually be prohibited by the new minimum. Only a handful of starting-pitcher appearances per year—five in 2018, and no more than six in any season dating back to 1925—would have violated the minimum. Last year’s examples were all injury-related, and injured pitchers are exempt from the new rule (which could conceivably lead to an occasional lie about a phantom twinge). Relievers are the rule’s real target. The graph below, based on data provided by Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference, shows the percentage of all relief-pitcher appearances in previous seasons that would have run afoul of the forthcoming requirement, as well as the number of MLB games played per about-to-be-prohibited appearance:

Only 4.7 percent of relief appearances during the 2018 regular season lasted fewer than three batters without ending an inning, and that includes any outings that might have ended prematurely due to injury. On average, the outings in question occurred once every 3.2 games or 6.4 team games—roughly 25 times per team all season, or approximately once a week. In addition, the blue line above shows that the extra-short pitcher appearance was already on its way out, as teams have grown more willing to push certain pitchers past a single frame. As a percentage of all relief appearances, last year’s rate of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outings was actually the lowest since 1985.

The new batter minimum will have an outsized effect in October, when managers play matchups more often and games regularly grind to a halt. That’s not a bad thing, because it can’t be good for the game to have its highest-profile matchups played in a way that engenders the least watchable brand of baseball. To the extent that the new rule discourages strategy, it’s almost exclusively the least interesting type of strategy that will suffer: push-button managing to preserve the platoon effect. (The exceptions, seemingly, are the Curly Ogden–Wade Miley gambit and the rare but treasured Waxahachie Swap, which may also face extinction depending on how the rule is worded.) Restricting the ability to bring in new arms will force managers to ration their relievers and think twice about pulling starters so soon, which may force pitchers to pace themselves—thereby combating the max-effort pitching approach that’s contributed to the strikeout-rate rise—and may also restore some of the lost pleasure of watching a struggling starter try to work out of trouble. When change comes in 2020, it won’t be as noticeable as it sounds. But even a subtle change would be welcome.

Wiping away roughly 760 midinning pitching changes will also save some time, but the most important product of this reliever limitation may be the message it sends. By instituting even a modest measure to limit the profusion and power of pitchers, MLB is setting a modern precedent for lending hitters a helping hand. One minor adjustment probably won’t arrest the rising strikeout rate, which has climbed for 13 consecutive seasons, but it should shift the Overton window in a way that may allow for more active intervention in coming seasons—up to and including moving the mound (down or back), changing the size of the strike zone, or using Statcast to call balls and strikes, depending on how baseball’s bolder experiments proceed in the Atlantic League.

A few of the other announced changes are also intended to change the way pitchers are deployed. In 2020, the minimum length of a stint on the injured list for pitchers will increase from 10 to 15 days, as will the minimum amount of time a pitcher has to spend in the minors before being recalled from an optional assignment. Those two alterations are intended to address an easily overlooked but rampant and deleterious trend.

As recent research by Baseball Prospectus writer Gerald Schifman has shown, teams have grown much more aggressive in optioning players—particularly pitchers—to the minors and repeatedly recalling them throughout the season. As Schifman wrote earlier this month, pitcher option and recall transactions more than doubled between 2009 and 2018. That ceaseless shuffling at the back of the staff makes it more difficult for fans to keep track of who’s on the team; as I found last October, the number of pitchers used per season has risen leaguewide by more than 43 percent. The resulting constant supply of fresh arms also likely contributes to sky-high strikeout rates, as hitters have to face hurlers whom they haven’t seen and who haven’t been worn down by constant high-pressure work. And as Schifman noted in a follow-up piece, cycling players with minor league options between Triple-A and the majors allows teams to devote a greater proportion of playing time to players who are making the minimum salary. By decreasing the frequency with which teams can launder major league relievers through the backs of their bullpens, the new rules may make baseball a bit better in three different ways.

The same season that adjustment goes into effect, the size of active rosters will expand from 25 to 26—a long-anticipated and yet still fairly radical change, in that the 25-man roster has persisted (with some temporary deviations) for roughly a century. Crucially, the number of pitchers permitted on the roster will be capped, although that limit has yet to be determined. (To qualify for a two-way role, a player will have to pitch 20 innings and start 20 games at a non-pitching position in the current or previous season, which means that Shohei Ohtani may have to wait to earn two-way status after taking 2019 off from pitching as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.)

Obviously, increasing roster size means more major leaguers and more money going to players, but it also heralds a return of some of the offense and strategy that the expansion of bullpens and the dwindling of benches has sapped. Allowing 26 players will permit teams to keep carrying 13-man pitching staffs while also retaining room for a backup catcher, a backup infielder, a backup outfielder, and an additional position player who needn’t necessarily play several positions to earn his roster spot. The endangered pinch-hitter could make a comeback, and more teams may opt for platoons that could create more competitive plate appearances and put more pitches in play.

To balance the salary scales, the players sacrificed most of the expanded September roster, which will shrink from a maximum of 40 players to 28. Consequently, fewer players will enjoy cups of coffee and make major league money. On the positive side, pennant races will no longer play out against and between teams with unequal numbers of players and dramatically different rosters than they had for the previous five months, which has always seemed somewhat illogical and also leads to lots of extra substitutions that slow September games. Last year, nine-inning regular-season games in September and October averaged 184.3 minutes, 3-6 minutes longer than in any prior month.

Speaking of game length: To reach an accord with the players, MLB agreed to table the pitch clock until the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021. To its credit, though, MLB is putting at least some of its money where its mouth is by voluntarily reducing inning breaks from 2:05 to 2:00 in local games and from 2:25 to 2:00 in national games, while reserving the right to shorten those times by a further five seconds in 2020. Extended commercial breaks aren’t the primary culprit behind lengthening games, but they are a contributing cause. That MLB is willing to sacrifice revenue to trim game times—while players seem determined to dawdle—is a strong indication that the league considers three-hour-plus games a serious hindrance to the sport, although one wonders whether it will try to recoup some of those surrendered dollars via in-game advertising, either on uniforms or on broadcasts between pitches.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Some of the other slated changes seem more symbolic than designed to make a measurable impact. Mound visits, which were limited to six per team per nine innings last season, will be further restricted to five in 2019, but that reduction will hardly save any time; according to an MLB spokesperson, teams used all six of their mound visits in nine-inning games only 33 times last season. Similarly, a new rule put in place for 2020 will restrict position-player-pitching appearances to extra innings and games with score differentials of more than six runs. Although position-player pitching reached a record level last season, only five of last year’s 65 non-Ohtani position-player-pitching appearances would have violated the future rule. (All five featured position players pitching with their teams trailing by exactly six runs.) The intent of this rule seems to be stopping the onslaught of underqualified pitchers from bleeding into contests that aren’t already out of hand.

In another change that sounds more drastic than it is, trade waivers will be eliminated, which means that the so-called waiver trade deadline of August 31 is obsolete as of this season. The biggest beneficiaries of this move may be the members of the baseball media who will no longer need to explain trade waivers when August rolls around. In theory, concentrating all meaningful trade activity on July 31 or earlier may give teams extra incentive to be active over the offseason; it may also make the July deadline more suspenseful and significant than it already is.

Even before this move was made, though, July stood alone in trade activity. The graph below, based on Retrosheet’s transaction data for the pre-2018 dual-wild-card era, shows the total number of trades by calendar date. July’s combined trade activity more than doubled August’s, which also trailed December’s.

MLB is also attempting to make July more exciting by increasing the prize pot for the Home Run Derby (to induce more sluggers to participate) and conducting fan voting for the All-Star Game in two rounds, one of which will be an “Election Day” designed to drum up excitement for an event that has lost a lot of its luster in the era of interleague play. Ultimately, though, the most momentous changes may be the ones to come.

Two non-specific clauses in the press release stand out: “MLB and the MLBPA will form a joint committee to study other potential changes,” and “As part of the agreement, the parties will meet and discuss a renegotiation and extension of the Basic Agreement.” The first sentence indicates that these mostly minor rule changes are only the opening act in a more concerted campaign to protect a pastime that until now has been largely left vulnerable to teams’ data-driven efforts to bend baseball to their will. The second, even more encouragingly, suggests that the two sides have committed to talk about the economic and competitive issues that have turned the past two offseasons into interminable and depressing ordeals. Those discussions may not neatly resolve the intractable problems that have made players more vocal in expressing their anger at ownership, but bringing the parties together to begin negotiations so far in advance of the CBA’s expiration makes the prospect of a work stoppage seem a little less probable than before.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein characterized this week’s tweaks to the sport as an effort to “nudge it in the direction of more action and a better brand of baseball for the fans.” It is no more than a nudge, but even a nudge is an end to inertia. Last November, MLB’s official historian, John Thorn, summed up baseball’s on-field ills when he wrote, “The dilemma for owners and players and fans may be understood as The Paradox of Progress: we know the game is better, so why, for so many, does it feel worse? I submit that while Science may win on the field, as clubs employ strategies that give them a better chance of victory, Aesthetics wins hearts and minds.” In baseball, Science has scored a series of unanswered runs. But Aesthetics may have just gotten its leadoff man on.

Thanks to Jessie Barbour and The Ringer’s Zach Kram for research assistance.