MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule is going to create ripple effects beyond its intended consequence, for the Cleveland Indians and everyone else.
Imagine the following scenario. In fact, don’t even worry about imagining it, because something very much like it is definitely going to happen in 2020.
The Cleveland Indians hold a 5-1 lead heading into the ninth inning of a game. Brad Hand has pitched in three of the Tribe’s last five contests, and Terry Francona would rightfully prefer not to overwork him in a non-save situation.
The pitcher who does start the ninth inning–let’s call him Nick Wittgren–walks the first hitter he faces on four pitches. None of them are anywhere near the plate. He then drills the second batter in the shin with an errant fastball on his very next pitch.
There are now two runners on base in a 5-1 game, and the Indians’ reliever has yet to throw a strike. That’s often going to be all Francona needs to see before getting Wittgren out of there in an attempt to douse the impending wildfire. Oliver Perez has been pacing in the bullpen since ball three to the first hitter. The third hitter of the inning is a lefty who routinely abuses right-handed pitching, but struggles against lefties. Perez would love the opportunity to induce a ground-ball double play.
But Francona can’t take Wittgren out of the game, and he can’t play the left-on-left matchup with Perez. Instead he has to watch helplessly from the dugout as Wittgren tries to “find it” on the mound despite clear evidence this just isn’t his night. The third hitter laces a single into the outfield, scoring the runner from second and advancing the other to third base.
Suddenly there are runners on the corners. The score is 5-2. The tying run is at the plate, and there are still no outs. And now Francona is permitted by the commissioner’s office to remove his ineffective relief pitcher, even though it was obvious two batters ago that he should’ve been pulled. (Also, my apologies to Nick Wittgren for picking him as the hypothetical reliever in this scenario. I just needed a late-game guy and he was the first that came to mind.)
Hand, who began warming up for just such an emergency earlier in the inning, enters the game in a save situation with one runner already in scoring position and another threatening to steal second in order to eliminate the possibility of a double play. Can Hand navigate his way out of the jam and keep the win intact? Stay tuned, because thanks to MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule, you’re bound to find out!
Of course, this isn’t just going to impact the Indians. Every team in the league is inevitably going to encounter scenarios similar to this one as long as the three-batter minimum remains in effect.
And that shouldn’t sit well with the commissioner’s office, considering the motivation behind the rule is essentially that casual fans are getting bored. The attention span of viewers is not a sufficient reason to fundamentally alter the time-honored managerial tradition of, you know, putting your team in the best possible position to win baseball games.
If a pitcher–specifically a reliever, who isn’t meant to be in the game for very long to begin with–doesn’t have his best stuff, why should Rob Manfred get to be the guy who decides that he has to stay on the mound and endanger his team’s chances of winning?
Any baseball fan should be open to ideas on how to improve the on-field product, but the three-batter minimum infringes upon how the sport is played with no tangible benefit other than scraping a few minutes here and there off a game’s run-time.
What’s more, the game of baseball is not meant to be some high-tempo sprint; the slow pace is ingrained in its DNA. If there are organic ways to speed it up, great. But the three-batter minimum is not one of them.
In any case, fans who have endured the excruciating escapades of the Indians’ bullpen at times over the last two seasons now have a new wrinkle to look forward to. Those late-game tightrope acts are about to get infinitely more interesting, for better or worse.