Major League Baseball announced on Wednesday the implementation of several rule changes that will take place in 2020 — most notably the previously reported three-batter minimum for pitchers, the expansion of standard roster size from 25 to 26 players, a two-way player designation rule and a longer injured list/optional assignment minimum for pitchers and two-way players.
From the league’s official release:
- Three-Batter Minimum: 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 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. The three-batter minimum will become effective in 2020 Spring Training beginning on Thursday, March 12th.
- Rosters through August 31st and Postseason: Active Roster limits from Opening Day through August 31st and including Postseason games shall be increased from 25 to 26. In addition, Clubs will be permitted to carry a maximum of 13 pitchers from Opening Day through August 31st (plus Postseason games).
- September Rosters: From September 1st through the end of the Championship Season (including any tiebreaker games), all Clubs must carry 28 players on the Active Roster. In addition, Clubs will be permitted to carry a maximum of 14 pitchers during this period.
- Two-Way Player Designation: Players who qualify as “Two-Way Players” may appear as pitchers during a game without counting toward a Clubs’ pitcher limitations. A player will qualify as a “Two-Way Player” only if he accrues both: (i) at least 20 Major League innings pitched; and (ii) at least 20 Major League games started (as a position player or designated hitter) with at least three plate appearances in each of those games, in either the current Championship Season or the prior Championship Season (for 2020 only, this will include 2019 as well as 2018). The Club must designate that player as a “Two-Way Player” in advance of that game. Once a Club designates a qualified “Two-Way Player” that designation will remain in effect, and cannot change, for the remainder of that Championship Season and Postseason.
- Position Players Pitching: Any player may appear as a pitcher following the 9th inning of an extra inning game, or in any game in which his team is losing or winning by more than six runs when the player enters as a pitcher.
- Extra Player Rule: The previous “26th player rule” will be replaced with the “27th player rule” for all applicable Championship Season games prior to September 1st. The 27th player shall not count toward any pitcher roster limits described above. Thus, a Club may designate 14 pitchers in games under circumstances where the Major League Rules would permit a 27th Active player.
- Injured List Reinstatements and Option Period for Pitchers: Clubs may not reinstate pitchers or Two-Way Players from the Injured List until 15 days have elapsed from the date of the initial placement for such injury – an increase from 10 days. In addition, the option period for pitchers will be lengthened from 10 days to 15 days.
- Reduction in Challenge Time: Managers will now have up to 20 seconds to challenge a play instead of 30.
Most of these rules were known in advance, but the league’s announcement today formally brings them into MLB canon. The three-batter minimum is perhaps the most controversial of the bunch, as it’ll greatly reduce the presence of left-handed relief specialists — commonly referred to as LOOGYs (“Left-handed One Out Guys”) — and place a considerably greater emphasis on relievers who lack substantial platoon splits. The usage of left-handed specialists, though, had generally decreased in recent seasons.
The newly implemented three-batter minimum is yet another “pace of play” initiative from commissioner Rob Manfred — put in place in an effort to reduce the average time of games and decrease the downtime within. To date, however, games have yet to see any meaningful decrease in average time, while walks, strikeouts and home runs are at an all-time high. Fewer pitching changes could theoretically reduce game times, but there’s no guarantee that the rule will have that effect and any reductions figure to be rather minimal. It’s certainly possible that the new rule results in fewer time-consuming pitching change and additional balls in play, but the increase of balls in play could also have an adverse impact on a given game’s overall length.
The two-way player designation — sure to be referenced as the Shohei Ohtani Rule — will impact players such as Ohtani, Michael Lorenzen and Brendan McKay while also perhaps slightly reducing the frequency with which position players appear on the mound. It’s certainly possible that additional players will eventually qualify for such designation, but few will be impacted up front.
As for the return to a 15-day IL minimum and an expanded 15-day option minimum for pitchers and two-way players, that rule has been put in place to reduce the frequency of phantom IL stints that have been used to effectively carry extra arms in the bullpen. The Dodgers have paced the game with regard to usage of that tactic, and the Giants, under former L.A. GM Farhan Zaidi, were more regularly employing the move as well.
Managers have long bemoaned the previous iteration of roster expansion, which allowed MLB clubs to carry anyone from their 40-man in the Major Leagues. It was common to see teams nearly double the size of their bullpen under that rule, thus greatly increasing the number of pitching changes and generally making it more difficult to gameplan. The new rule will still afford teams some additional flexibility — but on a much smaller scale.
Broadly speaking, today’s announcement does little to impact the fabric of the game — particularly relative to prior rule changes (e.g. the advent of instant reply) and proposed rule changes (e.g. pitch clocks, beginning extra innings with a runner on second base, etc.). It’s a further reminder, however, that Manfred and his charges aren’t afraid to implement changes they deem best for the sport. Larger-scale changes — be it the implementation of the DH in the National League, the recently reported alterations to the postseason structure, expansion to new markets or something that has yet to come to light — feel inevitable down the road.