On October 30, 2019, Astros reliever Will Harris became the answer to at least two trivia questions. On his second pitch after entering World Series Game 7 with one out and one on in the seventh, Harris surrendered a Series-deciding homer to Howie Kendrick, one of the 10 most impactful postseason hits of all time. And although no one knew it in the moment, he made more history when he exited the game after allowing a single to the Nationals’ next batter, Asdrúbal Cabrera. As he handed over the ball and trudged toward the dugout, Harris became the last healthy pitcher ever to be pulled after facing fewer than three batters and not ending an inning. (We might as well make it a trio of trivia answers: He’ll also be the first pitcher to lose the last game of a World Series and then play for the victorious team the following year.)
Through 2019, pitchers were required to face only one batter per appearance, but in an effort to speed up the pace of play and shorten game times, MLB has instituted a new rule for the 2020 season that mandates a minimum of three batters faced in outings that don’t end an inning. The 2020 rule book has yet to be published, but an MLB spokesman sent along the following language: “The Official Baseball Rules have been amended to require the starting or any relief pitcher to pitch to a minimum of three batters, including the batter then at bat (or any substitute batter), until such batters are put out or reach first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire crew chief’s judgment, incapacitates him from further play as a pitcher.”
In most respects, the new rule really doesn’t matter, especially compared to provisionally temporary, pandemic-driven developments like the NL adding the DH and extra innings starting with a runner on second. As I noted last spring, the three-batter minimum would have affected only a small subset of the thousands of relief appearances we’ve seen in recent seasons: 4.2 percent in 2018, and 3.8 percent in 2019. Those newly extinct outings occurred only about once a week for the typical team, so it’s not as though one would notice a difference in most games. And while the announcement of the rule seemed to spell the end for a class of limited lefty relievers, a mass LOOGY layoff hasn’t happened yet.
Seventeen pitchers made at least eight of the now-prohibited appearances last season, and all but two are still employed by big league teams. Granted, the new minimum may have forced a few southpaws with sizable platoon splits (such as Ryan Buchter) to settle for minor league deals with invitations to spring training instead of guaranteed big league contracts. Thirteen-year veteran Jerry Blevins, who received a spring invitation too, was released by the Giants in April. A few more marginal arms (Daniel Stumpf? Tony Sipp?) may also still be searching for homes as a result of the rule change. But ultrashort outings and extremely specialized relievers were growing rarer before MLB instituted the three-batter minimum, and the rule doesn’t reduce the value of a decent lefty reliever by as much as one would think.
2019 Leaders in Now-Banned Relief Appearances
|Name||Throws||Disallowed Appearances||2019 Team||Current Team|
|Name||Throws||Disallowed Appearances||2019 Team||Current Team|
Even if the new minimum won’t be deeply disruptive, though, there isn’t much to recommend the rule. At most, it might trim 30 seconds or so from the average game, and as The Athletic’s Cliff Corcoran wrote, any hitters who reach base because the opposing manager is unable to bring in a new pitcher who’d have the platoon advantage will eat into those small savings. Corcoran also confirmed that the now-prohibited outings tended to happen in high-leverage situations. Meager gains in game length may not be worth tying managers’ hands at moments that matter.
Blevins, who hasn’t signed with a team since San Francisco released him, may have the most cause to complain. Of the 275 pitchers who’ve made at least 100 relief appearances in the past five seasons, his rate of disallowed appearances (24.3 percent) ranks fifth, more than five times higher than the 4.5 percent MLB average in the same span.
Relievers With Highest Rate of Disallowed Appearances (Min. 100 Relief G, 2015-19)
|Name||Relief Appearances||Disallowed Appearances||Disallowed Rate|
|Name||Relief Appearances||Disallowed Appearances||Disallowed Rate|
The 36-year-old says he has received some feelers from teams, but because of the pandemic, the presence of an eight-month-old son at home, and the lack of a guaranteed role, he decided not to try to play this summer. Although his age and recent performance have contributed to his status, he attributes the absence of appealing offers partly to the three-batter minimum. “It’s definitely a factor,” he says. “One hundred percent, it’s playing a significant role. This rule has definitely limited my options.”
Blevins, whose 20 disallowed appearances in 2018 trailed only Andrew Chafin’s 22, isn’t an unbiased source, but he believes most players disapproved of the rule, which was proposed by MLB. “It just feels like a dated change just to make change,” he says, adding, “I understand certain aspects of what they’re trying to do conceptually. I just think the implementation of this particular rule, I don’t think serves that purpose.”
Blevins, who had a long and lucrative run in relief, doesn’t sound bothered by the possibility that the three-batter minimum could close the book on his career. “I’m just enjoying my first summer with my family,” he says. But there is one confirmed casualty of the three-batter minimum that’s worth taking a moment to mourn: the age-old tactical quirk that’s come to be called the Waxahachie Swap.
Dating back almost to the beginning of baseball, enterprising managers have occasionally moved a pitcher to another position, brought in an opposite-handed reliever to face a hitter or hitters who otherwise would have had the upper hand, and then returned the original pitcher to the mound, thereby preserving the platoon advantage without burning multiple arms. In the process, they treated us to the spectacle of highly paid professionals doing jobs for which they were woefully underprepared. These sporadic Swaps were not only markers of managerial ingenuity, but welcome comic relief (literally!) that reminded us how whimsical, silly, and surprising sports can be. Thanks to the three-batter minimum, we won’t see one again.
The root of the Swap’s demise is one innocent-sounding word in MLB’s detailed introduction to the rule: “consecutive.” Per MLB’s spokesman, “If the offensive team is put out prior to any substitute pitcher completing his first three consecutive batters, the pitcher may be removed from the game between innings; but, if he returns for the subsequent inning, he must complete pitching to as many batters as necessary to satisfy the three consecutive batters requirement, which total would include any batters that completed a plate appearance with that pitcher the prior inning.”
Because the rule specifies that the pitcher must face at least three batters consecutively, a manager can no longer hide a pitcher in the field for one or two batters and then bring him back to the mound to face one or two additional batters. Considering the demand in most cases for an extended stint at a nonpitching position, the need for a Swapped pitcher to face at least six batters in total spanning multiple frames, and the unlikelihood of opposing righties and lefties lining up in a way that would make that worthwhile, there’s almost no conceivable case (two-way players aside) in which the Swap would be both feasible and desirable.
Rays manager Kevin Cash has been the league’s highest-profile proponent of the Swap in the past two seasons, employing it twice in 2018 (with José Alvarado and Sergio Romo) and twice in 2019 (with Adam Kolarek), but even Cash concedes that the dream is over. “That’s done,” Cash told The Athletic’s Jayson Stark in a piece published in March. “Done. What’s the benefit of doing that, unless I want Kolarek to play for three batters at first base?”
If we can’t look forward to a future with the Swap, we can at least relish its long past. The Waxahachie Swap moniker was popularized by former ESPN writer Rob Neyer, who adopted the nickname from a commenter in 2009. “Waxahachie” is a tribute to longtime manager Paul Richards, “The Wizard of Waxahachie” (his hometown in Texas), who Swapped four times in the 1950s when he helmed the White Sox and Orioles. Although Richards—in a successful attempt to retire Ted Williams—restored the Swap to the majors in 1951 after a prolonged drought, he didn’t devise it.
Baseball-Reference’s Retrosheet database, which contains complete box scores back to 1908, includes 78 instances of a pitcher pitching and playing another position in the same game. (The complete list, which includes all of the entries on the curated index that Neyer compiled, is available here.) The archive includes some false positives—in 2017, for instance, Padres quasi-two-way player Christian Bethancourt loaded the bases, moved to second in a triple switch, and never returned to the mound—but most of the entries are legitimate Swaps, although some stemmed from injuries or extra-inning roster crunches and a few featured Swaps in which the game ended while the pitcher was still stationed in the field.
The earliest example in that dataset occurred on July 25, 1908, a few months before Richards was born, when New York Highlanders player-manager Kid Elberfeld moved right-handed future–Hall of Famer Jack Chesbro to first base for one left-handed batter, then brought him back to the mound. According to contemporary accounts, including an item in the Chicago Tribune, Elberfeld made the move after Chesbro had allowed two singles and a bases-clearing triple to Ty Cobb in the inning, “the object being to have a left-hander fling to a left-hander.” (Yes, humanity discovered the platoon advantage before it found the North Pole—decades before, in fact.) With lefty pitcher Doc Newton unavailable, Chesbro’s temporary replacement was first baseman Hal Chase, in his lone major league pitching appearance. Chase induced a sacrifice fly, and Chesbro ended the inning with a strikeout. The Brooklyn Citizen said the Swap was “an unheard thing in baseball.”
It wasn’t. As Peter Morris documented in A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, the Swap dates back at least to 1880, four years after the National League was founded and Alexander Graham Bell theoretically made calls to the bullpen possible. Frank Bancroft, manager of the NL’s Worcester Worcesters—one of the worcester names for a franchise—twice tried the tactic with right-hander Fred Corey and left-hander Lee Richmond, the latter of whom had just thrown the majors’ first-ever perfect game. This was so close to the beginning of organized baseball that a walk required eight balls, beer wasn’t yet sold at ballgames, two-way players (like Corey and Richmond) were common, and the Worcesters rostered players with names like Buttercup Dickson and Tricky Nichols. Yet the Swap was already present, and it wasn’t due to die for another 140 years.
As Morris explained, various rule changes periodically prohibited or discouraged the Swap at points in the decades to come, but ever since Richards brought it back to the fore, it’s never lain fallow for long. And even as a more analytical approach to in-game management endangered other age-old tactics such as sacrifice bunts, hit and runs, intentional walks, and pitchouts, the Swap received the stamp of sabermetric approval. The authors of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball estimated the average benefit to be 0.014 runs per plate appearance, and more recently, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus upped that to 0.02 runs. As Carleton noted, though, those modest figures, the roster-construction trend toward expanding bullpens and contracting benches (which made churning through multiple pitchers more appealing than burning a bat), and the tactic’s disruptiveness to routine kept it from becoming common. “As cool as it is, it’s going to have to be a once-in-a-while thing,” Carleton concluded.
That was one quality that kept the Swap special. Position players pitching was fun for a while, but those formerly infrequent outings have become so common that they no longer merit mention. Other now-extinct occurrences—such as batters swinging at intentional balls (a victim of the automatic intentional walk) or the bait-and-switch Curly Ogden–Wade Miley maneuver (another casualty of the three-batter minimum)—were so rare that they fell off fans’ radars for years at a time. The Swap found the sweet spot, recurring just often enough to renew the relationship but not too often to wear out its welcome. And whenever it reappeared, it gave us a glimpse of the mind of a manager who was willing to buck convention for an incremental edge. A long line of free thinkers and loophole hunters found spots for the Swap: Richards, Eddie Stanky, Birdie Tebbetts, Sparky Anderson, Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox, Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon.
The Swap also reliably raised the stakes for spectators, who were thrilled at the sight of each swing. Players have gotten so good that with rare exceptions—such as pitcher hitting, which may be gone for good—they rarely look out of their element. With the Swap in effect, though, the right batted ball could expose an out-of-position pitcher’s inexperience, making him mortal and relatable to nonathletes like us. In 1909, the Sporting News described a Swap by Senators manager Joe Cantillon involving righty Tom Hughes and lefty Dolly Gray. “When he wanted to use Gray, he shunted Hughes to right field so that he could call Tom back to the box later, which he did,” the story recounted. “While Thomas was in right, though, there was many a prayer offered that no ball would be hit out that way.”
That same sentiment persisted more than a century later, according to former Astros pitcher Wesley Wright, who was Swapped to right field twice under Houston manager Brad Mills in 2011 and 2012. Wright, who now scouts for the Twins, hadn’t played the outfield since high school, but he still had some skills. “I would always pretend like I was still playing the outfield during BP, so I’m guessing Brad, being the observant guy that he is, took notice,” Wright says.
That low-stakes shagging didn’t fully prepare him for taking the field in front of fans and live pitching. “I was definitely nervous, because I knew if the ball was hit to me and I didn’t catch it or throw to the right base there would be egg on the face of both myself and Brad,” Wright continues. “It’s a tough situation for both the manager and the player—when it works, everyone looks good, but when it doesn’t, it could follow you forever.”
Wright says the scariest part of the experience was watching batter Troy Tulowitzki try to hit one his way in 2011. “I could tell Tulo was making a conscious effort to hit the ball to me,” Wright says. “He even fouled a couple balls down the right-field line.” If that was the shortstop’s plan, and not a projection of the pitcher’s anxious mind, it didn’t come to fruition: Tulo grounded out to short.
“There was definitely a sense of relief when I was back on the mound,” Wright says, “even though you’re facing guys like Todd Helton” (whom he struck out after his sojourn in right). Although he says the Astros’ position players didn’t adopt him as one of their own after his outfield cameos, he took pride in passing the tests. “It’s cool to say I know what it’s like to stand in the batter’s box, the pitcher’s mound, as well as the outfield, in a regular-season game.”
The video of Wright’s first outfield adventure reveals how stimulating the Swap could be:
Wright was smiling and laughing. His teammates were, too, and the broadcasters were tickled. The Swap made many more moments like that. In 1970, Cleveland manager Al Dark Swapped Sam McDowell, whom he described as one of baseball’s best pitchers and worst fielders. As Dark later wrote in his memoir, “I brought in Dean Chance, just for the one batter, and moved McDowell to second base. I had to think the chances of [Rick] Reichardt hitting the ball to McDowell, or of McDowell having to catch the ball at second base, were nil. Sure enough, Reichardt hit the ball to third—but the third baseman threw to second. To McDowell. I about choked. It was not even a good throw. But somehow McDowell came up with it for the force-out. In the ninth he set down the Angels one-two-three.”
In 1986, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco Swapped for the final few frames of a 14-inning game that featured a brawl and two Mets ejections, with McDowell holding down both outfield corners.
In 2016, Travis Wood made a Gold Glove–level catch amid Wrigley Field’s outfield ivy:
In 2017, the Yankees’ Bryan Mitchell flubbed a foul pop at first base …
… but redeemed himself by catching another later in the inning.
And in 2018, Romo survived playing third base:
The weirdness went on and on. It just won’t extend any further. “You get so specialized in today’s game that you kind of lose that ability to play a position, when all of us grew up doing a little bit of everything,” Blevins says. “You’re losing a small anomaly part of the game that’s really fun if it happens.”
As Stark and FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards have noted, the three-batter minimum may compensate for destroying the Swap by adding tactical complexity in other areas: more difficult decisions about when to lift pitchers and issue intentional walks; more opportunities for pinch-hitting; more gamesmanship involving phantom injuries; different righty-lefty looks for lineups; and a personal favorite, mid-plate-appearance pitching changes. Change demands sacrifice, and some vestigial structures the sport has excised—the fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff, for one, which contrary to its reputation did work once in a while—don’t deserve more than a brief backward glance. But the loss of the Swap will still snap a cherished (albeit esoteric) tether to the sport’s primeval era. The game will go on a little less flexibly, with one of its most endearing and enduring rough spots finally sanded down.
“I’m going to miss the Swap because it was so rare; because nearly every manager seems to have thought it was a stupid idea, while just a few seemed to think it was a brilliant one,” Neyer says. “I’m going to miss the Swap because it was one of the few managerial moves that gave us a clear, utterly unvarnished window into a manager’s thinking. Mostly, I’m going to miss the Swap because you never knew when one would pop up; for me, it was like getting the news that a Siberian sparrow has taken up residence a few miles from my house in Oregon. Which actually happened this spring! And was thrilling!”
It’s nice that Neyer found a different rare bird to console him. Sadly, the Swap is as dead as the dodo.
Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference and Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.