As baseball’s offseason draws to a close, with rumblings of labor strife growing louder by the day, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Assn. have engaged in discussion on rule changes with significant consequences, including the elimination of the one-batter reliever and the implementation of the designated hitter in the National League.
The discussions have occurred over the past few weeks, with the industry still waiting to see where star free agents like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Craig Kimbrel will sign. There are expected to be more talks as pitchers and catchers report to camp next week.
Any changes are unlikely to occur in major-league games in 2019, but could be tested in minor-league settings this season.
During these talks, MLB proposed a rule requiring any pitcher to face a minimum of three batters, which fits with commissioner Rob Manfred’s obsession with improving pace of play. If an agreement cannot be reached, Manfred is allowed by the collective bargaining agreement to implement a 20-second pitch clock, along with a reduction in mound visits from six to five.
As a counter to MLB’s suggestions, the union argued for the universal DH, which would alter the roster construction imbalance between the American and National leagues in place since 1972. The change might make NL teams more willing to sign aging hitters, knowing those players can take days off in the field while remaining in the lineup.
The Associated Press reported last month that MLB aimed to restore the 15-day disabled list, which had been replaced by the 10-day disabled list in 2016. The Dodgers pounced on this initial rule change, using it to keep pitchers healthy throughout the season, as they nursed relatively innocuous injuries.
The concept of requiring relievers to face a minimum number of batters has become a subject of debate as teams become more creative. Tampa Bay and Oakland used “openers,” rather than traditional starters for sizable portions of 2019, and both teams won 90 games or more. Milwaukee took the strategy to the extreme in the postseason.
In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium, Brewers starter Wade Miley faced one batter before being removed for reliever Brandon Woodruff. Milwaukee lost, but Miley came back to start Game 6 two days later. The Brewers made the move to lure coax the Dodgers into loading their lineup with right-handed batters to face the left-handed Miley, with the intention all along of inserting a right-handed pitcher in Woodruff early.
On a more mundane level, the rule alteration would also change how managers utilize their bullpens. No longer could a manager bring in a left-handed pitcher to face a left-handed hitter, then immediately bring in a right-handed pitcher for a right-handed hitter, the sort of sequence that causes games to drag in the later innings.