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MLB’s newest rule changes are a mixed bag

MLB: AL Wild Card-Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The buzz surrounding the Houston Astros has dominated the baseball world for months now, so MLB’s announcement last week of new rule changes for the 2020 season came and went not with a bang, but with a whimper.

You didn’t need an elaborate algorithm or a secret video feed to see these changes coming — in fact, it seemed like the Oakland A’s spent this offseason operating under the assumption that at least some of these rules (most notably, the three-batter minimum and the 26-man roster expansion) would be implemented this year. But now we have all of the new rules and their specifics.

First, the three-batter minimum. Every pitcher must now face a minimum of three batters, unless the third out of the inning is recorded or the pitcher sustains injury or illness.

I voiced my opinion on this change when it was first reported last February, and my stance hasn’t changed. The rule is clearly directed at pace of play, and I agree that it can get very tedious watching a pitcher come into a game, warm up, face one batter, and then leave for the next (usually opposite-handed) pitcher.

But in my brief research, I found that the LOOGY/ROOGY were already a dying breed anyway. In December, Ben Clemens of FanGraphs took a much more thorough look to draw basically the same conclusion. This rule probably won’t change all that much about the game, and it definitely won’t fix pace of play on its own.

I still think this rule is too drastic. A two-batter minimum likely would have accomplished the same results without drastically changing in-game strategy to the point where pitchers like Ryan Buchter are out of a job entirely. I won’t be the slightest bit surprised if, at some point in 2020, this rule forces Jake Diekman to face a right-handed hitting superstar like Mike Trout with the game on the line. And I can tell you, we won’t be happy about it.

Next are the roster adjustments. Teams will now be allowed 26 players on their active roster through August, of which a maximum of 13 can be pitchers. In September, those numbers expand to 28 and 14, respectively. As usual, teams will be allowed an additional player for designated games such as doubleheaders (and that player can be a 14th pitcher).

In the original proposal, the pitcher limit was going to be set at 12 through August. I thought this was too harsh, and I’m glad it’s been increased to 13 to allow for the now-standard five-man rotation and eight-man bullpen. The 26th roster spot is a welcome change that allows for a more flexible bench and creates 30 more MLB jobs going forward.

But I’m not a fan of the 28-man limit in September. I understand the motivation — the 40-man rosters of old often led to unreasonably long games thanks to a seemingly never-ending supply of available pitchers. But shrinking that number down to 28 is too extreme. That’s up to 12 minor leaguers that now miss out on a month of MLB pay and experience. Going forward, it isn’t as likely we’ll see veteran minor leaguers like Corban Joseph rewarded for strong performance; instead, teams will have to use those two spots wisely, likely to add one depth arm and one hitting prospect they want to get an MLB look.

Even worse, there was an easy solution staring MLB right in the face: allow 40-man rosters in September, but require teams to designate only a set number (could be 26, 28, 30, whatever) as “active” for each game. You can maintain the new pitcher limits to avoid marathon games, and maybe impose a limit on roster changes each week (to avoid teams subbing out starting pitchers after each game to create an extra roster spot). But this would allow teams some flexibility and help minor leaguers get their well-earned September cup of coffee.

This change is just another example of a solid idea with disappointing execution, as is the next new rule — two-way player designation. MLB now defines two-way players as those who have pitched at least 20 MLB innings and started 20 games as a position player or designated hitter with at least three plate appearances in those games, in the current or previous season. These players are not counted as pitchers against teams’ roster limits.

Again, you can see MLB’s thought process here. They knew a savvy team like the Rays or Dodgers would circumvent the new roster limits by letting one of their pitchers stand in right field every now and then and calling them a two-way player. But this definition is way too strict, and was clearly designed with only one player in mind: Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani.

Not the incredibly entertaining Michael Lorenzen. Not former top draft pick Brendan McKay. Not a single minor league prospect. Only Ohtani.

Two-way players are incredibly fun. Almost every single thing guys like Lorenzen and McKay do on the field is highlight-worthy. Teams should be rewarded for employing players like that, who make the product on the field more enjoyable. Instead, MLB has made it nearly impossible for any team other than the Angels to truly benefit from the flexibility these players bring to the roster.

The Reds already have a crowded outfield; Lorenzen will probably appear in 20 games as a defensive replacement or pinch-hitter, but he isn’t making 20 starts. The Rays have a similar logjam at first base/DH; McKay is buried behind at least five players on the depth chart. Neither have met the two-way requirement for 2020, and neither is likely to meet it for 2021.

The league went way too far with this one, and I hope they strongly consider walking it back in future years. In an attempt to create a rule that was impossible to circumvent, they instead created a standard that is nearly impossible to meet.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the new rule regarding position players pitching. Going forward, MLB will allow any player to appear as a pitcher in extra innings, or earlier if his team is winning or losing by more than six runs when he enters.

If the two-way player rule was too strict, then this one is far too lenient. Very rarely would a team ever let a position player pitch in a game that was closer than six runs; and if they did, it would likely be deep into extra innings, which this rule allows!

Last season was the peak of position players pitching, and at this point the market is saturated. It used to fun to watch the back-up catcher throw a few knuckleballs in a blowout, but now that it happens multiple times each week, it’s gotten out of hand.

But the thing is, position players pitching isn’t the problem — it’s a symptom. The number of non-competitive games is rising, and teams are using their position players to pitch more often in response. So MLB has two choices: either ban position player pitching entirely (which wouldn’t work; teams need that ability in emergency situations), or address the core issue and try to deter teams from tanking. As usual, the league took the easy way out.

The last two rules are welcome changes. The first, regarding injured list reinstatement and option limitations for pitchers, switches the minimum IL stint and option time for pitchers back to 15 days. This is a natural change that, along with the new roster limitations, will help prevent teams from abusing the IL and shuttling fresh arms back and forth between Triple-A and the majors. I’m all for it.

Last is a reduction in manager challenge time from 30 seconds to only 20. While I do think instant replay has ultimately improved the game, the process still usually takes way too long, between the manager waiting on the field with his arm up, the umpires trotting in toward home plate, and the New York replay officials taking their sweet time to make their decision. Any change that speeds up that process is a welcome one.

We’ve already seen the impact some of these changes have had on the A’s roster this offseason. I’m curious to see how they will affect Melvin and co. once Spring Training games begin later this week, and whether they will ultimately play a significant role in the 2020 season.