3 Batter Limit

This new rule is supposedly justified as an effort to speed up the game, which raises two questions. First, does limiting the use of relievers really save time over the course of a game? Second, why all the emphasis on speeding up baseball games?

To take the second issue first, count me as an agnostic on the current article of faith that shorter games mean better baseball. Sure, I could be happier without the extended break between each half inning for commercial advertisements on TV and radio and even at the ballpark; but we know that will never happen. Aside from that, having paid close to a hundred bucks for a good seat, parking, a hotdog and a beer, I’ve gotta feel that more product for my dollars is more bang for my buck, a good thing.  If I go to see Bruce Springsteen, and he plays three hours with two encores, I’m not complaining about the length of the concert.  I’m the guy who – in the old days – would scan the season schedule for doubleheaders, when they were actually scheduled, and not make-up games, or the dreaded day/night separate admissions. If a game goes to extra innings, that is a bonus for me (much like the Bruce encores).  If both benches and bullpens are emptied, and I get to see almost every guy on either roster, that is a triumph.

This emphasis on speed and efficiency over competition and strategy must be a Millennial thing. I don’t buy it. I’m retired now, mostly, and I have lots of time.  No rush for me.  This undue haste is a reflection of baseball’s sad transition from a family day out to a business event in a deluxe box with hors d’ oeuvres and Chardonnay. (During my infrequent visits to such facilities, I was invariably the only guest actually sitting in the seats watching the game, rather than schmoozing or watching the game on TV.  My reward for this was courtesy of Mike Schmidt, who hit a long arcing homerun that slammed into a metal auxiliary scoreboard just below my seat, with a sound like artillery…).  Of course important people on a schedule need to leave the ballpark in no more than two and a half hours for the next challenge of their important lives.  Thus the game must be confined to the constraints of the movers and shakers, and to a neat time frame for TV, packaged and sanitized.

The beauty of baseball, for any true fan, is that it does not have a clock, unlike other major sports other than golf – if you consider golf a major sport.  (Golf, in contrast to baseball, has legitimate concerns over the length of time it takes to play a round.  It puzzles me that pros can take more time to hit the ball 68 times than it takes me to find and hit the ball twice as many times.). A game takes as long as it takes. To anyone who has played, the pauses in the action are not a time when any player relaxes.  Between pitches, look at the runner edging out to a slightly more ambitious (and risky) lead, at the fielders juking in behind to fake a pickoff, at the pitcher eyeing the catcher, who is signaling him to watch the runner, at the batter wondering what is going on and guessing what the pitch might be (Hint: If the worry is that the runner will steal, an off-speed pitch becomes less likely, due to the added difficulty of throwing him out.). The outfielders are adjusting their positions based on the count, the baserunners, and the type of pitch.

Even when a new relief pitcher is brought in, in the middle of an inning, things are happening, if you care to look.  So, the manager brings in a lefty to pitch to a lefty hitter. The opposing manager has to consider pinch-hitting a righty, if the hitter can’t hit lefties, and the situation is critical. All the fielders adjust their positions based on the stuff of the reliever, perhaps after a strategy conference at the mound.  These days, that might even involve a shift of infielders to overload one side of the infield (presumably to the third base side, if the right-handed hitter pinch hits in our example). (Incidentally, if MLB really wants to monkey with the rules, a far better plan would be to bar the secondbaseman from playing the left of second base, and the shortstop from playing to the right of second base.)  As the new pitcher warms up, the batter on deck carefully checks out what pitches he is throwing, and with what apparent control, while wondering if the guy is really showing or hiding his best pitches.

As to the first issue, sure, in the short run, the three-batter minimum is going to discourage the use of the “situational lefty” who can’t get right-handed hitters out.  That means such specialists won’t be used, and either the current pitcher remains on the mound, or a different reliever is used, in anticipation of facing hitters two and three in the inning.  Inevitably, a second (or third) delay for a new pitcher is going to be avoided, in some innings of some games.  That could save a few minutes a game. More relievers will come into games at the beginning of an inning, meaning they take their warmups between innings – during a delay already present – and thus proceeding more efficiently.  So, at the cost of strategic use of the bullpen, a few minutes devoted to intra-inning walks from the bullpen and warmup itches could be saved.  Who cares?

I suspect the real motive here is not time but offense. Players say one of the most significant changes in the game over the past few decades has been the use of hard-throwing (and junk-balling) relief specialists out of the bullpen, including the elite closers.  Look at how many closers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in recent years.  Fifty years ago, most teams had four or five starters who pitched into the seventh or eighth (or ninth; or tenth) inning of most starts.  The bullpen was full of failed starters, old starters who could not pitch full games, and immature pitchers who could not be trusted to start, but could learn their craft in spots.  With the collapse in starter durability and effectiveness, and the idiocy of pitch counts, the new category of “middle relief” emerged, along with “setup” guys, and of course the mega-closers.  John Smoltz stands as the symbol of the transition, a talented starter who perhaps became more valuable as a closer. It is unimaginable that Robin Roberts would have shifted, mid-career, to a closer spot (although he was occasionally used in relief on off days, and was effective as always). That is where we are, and hitters today dread having to face a new guy, seemingly every time up.  (The ultimate – I hope – extension of this is the recent use of “openers”, covered in a recent blog post.).

Today there seem to be fewer good switch-hitters, and more players who deserve to be platooned. Thus, there are more decent hitters who are vulnerable to clever relievers, both lefty on lefty and righty on righty. Analytics make these mismatches clear, and expose the slugger’s vulnerability.  Hence the zeal of managers to advantage lefty/righty matchups in critical situations, with men on base, and the game on the line.

In addition to shamelessly juicing baseballs to prove cheap homeruns, the powers that be can further advantage the hitters by limiting the times they have to face a specialist coming firing out of the bullpen to face one hitter. Logically, such a specialist would only be used in a critical situation, against a superb and dangerous hitter.  Now, Bryce Harper may be spared facing that nasty left-hander out of the bullpen, with Rhys Hoskins batting behind him, who pounds lefties.  Regardless of what minuscule effect the new rule has on game times, it will predictably allow sluggers in crucial situations to avoid the relief specialist. Freeing hitters to avoid unfavorable matchups with men on base in the late innings is one of the best ways to splurge on offense I could imagine.

Why all the emphasis on offense over pitching and defense?  This is the cotton candy approach to entertainment.  Give the hordes a cheap and superficial show.  The booming homerun over the hit-and-run over the squeeze play.  A base-clearing double instead of a slugger tied up by a nasty screwball.  More double-digit scoring and less pitchers’ battles. All ignoring that baseball is a cerebral game based on a tight balance and small advantages that win games.  Apparently the Millennials want action, not strategy.  (Although, to be fair, Earl Weaver, not a Millennial, was the disciple of the three-run homer over the “small game”.).  More video game than chess.  The octagon instead of the boxing ring.  This is exactly why soccer has not penetrated as a major sport in the United States. If the typical scores were 11-7, the MLS would challenge the NFL.  But the game itself would be ruined.  Much like baseball in the age of offense.