The biggest takeaway from the announcement of new rules might simply be that there’s an open dialogue.
Baseball has approved several rule changes which are set to take effect in 2020, with one notable being a three batter minimum for pitchers. The change was approved to speed up the game, in the ongoing desire to improve pace of play and speed up the game a bit. How much will it effect game times, though, and is the expansion to a 26-man roster necessary if we are essentially doing away with specialists?
Looking at the number of one-batter appearances over the years, the modern game unsurprisingly dominates the landscape, with the top 18 seasons all coming after the year 2000.
Despite that, according to this FanGraphs graphic, 2018 ranks ninth overall in one-batter appearances for pitchers at 1,159. The top ranked season was 2015 with 1,410 single-batter appearances.
Since 2015 the use of these specialist relievers has mostly been on the decline. In 2016, the number dropped from 1,410 to 1,188, and deployment of specialists dropped again the following year, down to 1,125 before coming back up a bit in 2018.
The fact that the number is still well above 1,000 means an awful lot of additional mound visits, pitcher warm-ups; and, of course, game stoppage. That said, the craze of the same-handed match-up has cooled a bit over the last four seasons, especially with the rise-and-fall of the rostered and deployed use of a LOOGY. Over the course of 2,430 regular season games, we are taking away less than one of these appearances per game. In the end, it’s not going to make that much of an impact on pace of play, it seems.
Moving on to the implementation of the 26-man active roster, this change was likely thought up as a way to expand a team’s bench depth, as teams were carrying larger bullpens with more specialists.
If we are essentially trying to do away with those bullpen specialists, couldn’t teams just carry one less reliever and one more utility man? The move to add an extra player, of course, will have a lot of union support, as it adds 30 big league jobs across the league. The ripple effect of the batter requirement for pitchers, though, really kind of makes the extra roster spot pointless from a strategic standpoint. Not to mention, while 30 jobs are being created, how many are becoming obsolete (those of several lefty relievers)?
That said, baseball also wants to dampen the pitching dominance of recent years and temper the ramped-up number of strikeouts. Personally, I’d blame an increased obsession with launch angles and home runs as much for increased strikeouts as I would any spike in pitching dominance.
Taking a look at 2018 splits, left-handed batters versus lefty pitchers hit .234 with a wRC+ of just 82. Right-handed batters hit southpaws a bit better (obviously) at a rate of .253 with a wRC+ of 100.
If we’re doing away with one-batter outings (which are predominantly lefty versus lefty), it stands to argue we should see a slight increase in offense across the league. Lefty pitchers might come in to get lefty batter out, but then have to face a couple of right handed batters, who should stand a better chance of success. The numbers above definitely support an increase in offense, but how much difference will it make for just a couple of at bats per game? Probably not much.
In the end, I’m not sure how much difference either of these rules really make. The most important aspect of the agreed upon changes is that both sides—players and owners—are talking, and that’s never a bad thing. With a collective bargaining agreement coming sooner rather than later, constructive communication in encouraging, even if the current results aren’t all that impactful.
Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC