How baseball’s new pitching rule could change the Rays and the game

Requiring relievers to face at least three batters will change how bullpens are built, lineups are made and more.
Tampa Bay's Kevin Cash and every manager in baseball will spend this season adjusting to baseball's new three-batter rule for relievers. The rule is intended to speed up play by limiting pitching changes.
Tampa Bay's Kevin Cash and every manager in baseball will spend this season adjusting to baseball's new three-batter rule for relievers. The rule is intended to speed up play by limiting pitching changes. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 10, 2020|Updated March 11, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — The introduction to baseball’s latest rule revolution begins Thursday, as teams can start getting familiar with the impact of pitchers being required to face a minimum of three batters unless they end the inning first.

Also, the considerations, conversations and controversies that the change will entail.

“It’s really poorly designed,’’ said Joe Maddon, the new Angels, and former Rays and Cubs, manager. “The purpose of it is, I guess, to speed up the game, and the pace. I don’t quite understand how they put it together. …

“But now you’re messing with strategy. And that makes it so much more difficult.’’

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Realistically, the consequences — intended and otherwise — won’t fully be known for at least a few months of regular-season play, if not the full season.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions about it,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Here are some of the many, certainly more than three, points of conversation:

How will it impact bullpens?

First, in how they’re constructed.

Not that there are too many still around, but the lefty (and occasional) righty specialists to face one batter are no longer that valuable. (One-batter outings were down to 5.9 percent of all appearances pre-September last season, per ESPN.)

What teams are looking for even more now are relievers who can handle both lefties and righties and pitch through an inning plus. Or the “reverse-split” type, such as the Rays Oliver Drake, a righty who is more effective against lefties. Also, teams will benefit from having at least two lefties so, in theory, they can have one available each game.

Second, in how they’re used.

Because relievers can’t be brought in with the assurance of a short stint, they’re likely to pitch longer each outing, and thus less frequently. No longer can a manager count on limiting a reliever one day so he can have him available to come back the next game to face one batter.

More strategically, a specific reliever is less likely to be brought in to face one certain hitter, given the potential for less appealing matchups, especially left-right, to follow.

To avoid that trap, Maddon said managers instead will need to think “in blocks” of who they want each reliever to face. But Cash warns that also could backfire, too.

“If you overvalue that third guy lurking, you might be down 2-0 before you can blink an eye,’’ he said.

Will the Rays, who rely so much on their bullpen, be more heavily affected than other teams?

Not necessarily. They had 603 relief appearances last season (second-most in the majors), and, in an analysis by Neil Solondz on his RaysRadio blog, only used a reliever for less than three batters 34 times, and just 24 before the September roster expansion. (Righthander Chaz Roe had the most, and has been working on a cutter to give him another weapon against lefties.)

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How will it impact lineups?

Construction again will be key.

Managers like Cash and Maddon, who preferred previously to alternate left- and right-handed hitters, may now clump some, going more left-right-right- left-left, for example.

Say the Rays wanted to discourage a team from bringing in a lefty to face lefty Ji-Man Choi. So Cash might put two right-handed hitters behind him, forcing the other manager, even with two outs, to risk having that lefty face two righties. Or maybe he sticks with a righty, and that gives Choi a better chance.

Teams also may be less likely to plan lineups days in advance as they do now, instead waiting until after the preceding game is over to see which relievers threw enough pitches that they likely can’t work the next day. Especially if that’s the other team’s only lefty reliever.

Teams may be more aggressive pinch-hitting often and early, or in the case of the Rays, who last year used an AL-most 130 pinch-hitters, even more so. And especially with the potential for an extra bat to use given the 26-man rosters.

Say the opposing team starts a righty, so the Rays have Jose Martinez on the bench. With the game at an early high-leverage moment, the other manager is contemplating bringing in a lefty to take advantage of the platoon matchups. Cash could go right then to Martinez, who bashes lefties, and either regain the advantage or force the other manager to reconsider.

“I think a lot of people are underplaying how much it’s going to mean to the offensive side,’’ said Pirates manager Derek Shelton.

What else might look different?

If seems likely you’ll see more intentional walks, which have been in decline, as teams avoid those more dangerous matchups, such as the lefty between two righties, plus the free pass counts as a batter faced.

And maybe even in higher leverage situations, like in 2008 when Maddon walked Texas’ Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded.

You may even see more mid-at-bat pitching changes, as the one loophole to the rule (besides a pitcher coming out for incapacitating injury or illness), is that the pitcher who finishes the at-bat, even if it’s an intentional walk, gets credit for facing the batter. So in essence, that reliever could only have to face 2½ batters. (Though the manager may have plenty of explaining to do to the pitcher he took out.)

Give it time, and there are sure to be more concerns and complaints.

“There’s all this stuff we’re not going to know until the end of this year,’’ Maddon said. “But it’s going to be different.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.