Grading MLB’s Rule Changes for 2019-2020

Today, it was announced that MLB and the MLBPA had agreed to a set of rule changes. Some of these rules will be enacted this season – just 6 days from now – while others will not be implemented until the 2020 season. Many of these changes are ones we are familiar with, as they have been rumored for weeks. Here is the full list of changes below, directly from the MLB/MLBPA joint statement (if you’ve already seen them, you can skip to the next section):

2019 Season

  • Inning Breaks: Subject to discussions with broadcast partners, inning breaks will be reduced from 2:05 to 2:00 in local games, and from 2:25 to 2:00 in national games.  (The Office of the Commissioner retains the right to reduce the inning breaks to 1:55 in local and national games for the 2020 season.)
  • Mound Visits: The maximum number of mound visits per team will be reduced from six to five.
  • Trade Deadline: The trade deadline will remain July 31st; however, trade waivers will be eliminated.  Players may be placed and claimed on outright waivers after July 31st, but players may not be traded after that date.
  • Joint Committee: MLB and the MLBPA will form a joint committee to study other potential changes.
  • All-Star Game:
    • All-Star Game fan voting will be conducted in two rounds.  During the “Primary Round,” each Club will nominate one player per eligible position (three outfielders), who will be voted on by fans.  In late June or early July, an “Election Day” will be held in which the top three vote-getters at each position in each League during the Primary Round (including the top nine outfielders) will be voted on by fans during a prescribed time period to determine the All-Star Game starters.  Further details on the new fan voting format will be announced in April.
    • All-Star bonus payments will be given to the top three vote-getters at each position in each League during the Primary Round (top six for outfielders).  Additionally, the prize money awarded to players on the winning All-Star team will be increased beginning with the 2019 All-Star Game.
    • Both Clubs will start the 10th inning of the All-Star Game, and each subsequent inning, with a runner on second base (re-entry substitutions allowed for runners).
  • Home Run Derby: Total player prize money for the Home Run Derby will be increased to $2.5 million.  The winner of the Home Run Derby will receive $1 million.

2020 Season

  • Active Roster Provisions:
    • The active roster limit from Opening Day through August 31st and in Postseason games will increase from 25 to 26, and the minimum number of active players will increase from 24 to 25. The current Major League Rules allowing for a 26th player for doubleheaders will be amended to allow for a 27th player.
    • Elimination of 40-man active roster limit in September. From September 1st through the end of the championship season, all Clubs must carry 28 players on the active roster.
    • The number of pitchers a Club may carry on the active roster will be capped at a number determined by the joint committee. Clubs must designate each of its players as either a pitcher or a position player prior to each player’s first day on the active roster for a given season. That designation will remain in effect for the player, and cannot change, for the remainder of the championship season and Postseason. No player on the active roster other than those designated as pitchers by the Club may appear in a championship season or Postseason game as a pitcher except in the following scenarios:
      • Players designated as a “Two-Way Player: A player qualifies as a “Two-Way Player” only if he accrues at least 20 Major League innings pitched and 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;
      • Following the ninth 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.
  • Minimum Number of Batters for Pitchers: The Office of the Commissioner will implement an amended Official Baseball Rule 5.10(g) requiring that starting pitchers and relief pitchers must pitch to either a minimum of three batters or the end of a half-inning (with exceptions for incapacitating injury or illness). The Players Association has agreed that it will not grieve or otherwise challenge the Office of the Commissioner’s implementation of the amended Rule 5.10(g).
  • Injured List and Option Period for Pitchers: Subject to input from the joint committee, the minimum placement period for pitchers on the Injured List shall increase from 10 days to 15 days, and the minimum assignment period of pitchers who are optionally assigned to the minors will increase from 10 days to 15 days.

Some of these rule changes are very good changes. Others completely fail to address the “problem” that they are meant to be the solution to. Here are my thoughts on every proposed rule change laid out today.

Inning Breaks Shortened: B

Here, Major League Baseball makes a good change that doesn’t go far enough. Everyone HATES commercial breaks, so shortening them is a good thing. But cutting 1-2 ads out of each commercial break only does so much. Like I said, it’s a step in the right direction, but it fails to completely deliver an impactful change to viewer experience. Most fans – myself included – probably won’t even recognize this change.

What Would’ve Made this an “A”: Split screen commercials – on one half of the screen you have commercials, and on the other side is a live feed of the inning break. This is an idea that arose from live streaming some Spring Training broadcasts – often times the cameras on the field are just cycled through to show the action. This would connect the viewers a little bit more closely to the game, giving them access to the field that they usually only get while at a game.

Mound Visits: NR

According to an April 2018 Forbes article, the number of pitching changes in the first month of the season in 2018 was dramatically down from about 7 to about 3-4 per game. I don’t really see the reason to decrease the number from 6-5, but I also don’t see the harm in it. It feels like a lot of “nothing” to me and neither addresses an issue nor holds the potential to create one. I guess that makes it an “A”, but I prefer “NR.” Hey, these are my rankings, you know.

New Trade Deadline: A

I personally find this to be a good change. The August 31 deadline for waiver claims was confusing for fans to understand, and a second deadline really never made a lot of sense. Forcing teams to commit to a playoff push a little bit earlier in the year is a good thing – the additional front office aggression on top of the already crazy July 31 deadline will be interesting. Plus, the month of August can now be focused on what matters – you know, the games themselves.

So, say goodbye to the days of the Astros acquiring Justin Verlander in August, or the Red Sox-Dodgers salary dump of 2012 (Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez were all involved in that one, remember?). This is definitely for the better, however.

MLB/MLBPA Joint Committee: A

Good. But please, Rob Manfred, listen to the players – don’t unilaterally make changes (we will get to this). You’re only going to make it more difficult in 2021. The good news: according to Jeff Passan, MLB and the MLBPA will soon begin discussing labor issues that focus on “the game’s most fundamental economic tenets.” Those meetings should be fun.

All-Star Game/Home Run Derby: A+

This is easily the best thing that came out of the rule changes for either 2019 or 2020. The new rules will hopefully promote more fan engagement and allow for fans to re-evaluate their choices a couple months after the original round of voting – May always felt way too soon to begin determining all-stars if there is only one round. This format also does a great job promoting the use of social media, which baseball as a whole does not do nearly as well as it should be currently.

However, for as good as the change in fan voting is, the change to the Home Run Derby is even better. The Home Run Derby has drastically improved recently with the change in format, but still felt as if it left something to be desired; namely, big players such as Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, and other players who feared getting hurt or messing with their swing. By giving a $1M prize to the winner, and increasing total player prize money $2.5M, the hope is that more big names will be more willing to participate, meaning more fans are going to want to watch.

Fan engagement is the #1 problem facing the game today. These changes directly address it. MLB and the MLBPA hit this one out of the park.

26-Man Rosters: A

This is an idea that has been tossed around for awhile, and it is nice to see that it will be implemented starting in 2020. The expansion of rosters is a good change for the players – while the talent level will only be a marginal increase, the 26th man will be able to earn a more livable wage, something that minor leaguers currently do not experience. Helping out 30 more players is better than none. Plus, it might be a good way for fans to see that prospect that is raking at AAA but maybe doesn’t have an opening quite yet with only 25 spots.

Elimination of 40-Man Roster: D-

The 2020 season changes are where things get bad. Although this isn’t the lowest grade I give out, this is easily my least favorite change. The 40-man roster was an exciting way for fans to see some new faces that they had heard about in AAA and wanted to see get some major league action. In addition, it was a good way to reward players who had a good season in the minors. Eliminating this roster expansion to 28 players – only 2 additional from what it will be all season – is an unnecessary move.

This move also promotes the same service time manipulation we have begun to see more frequently – most recently with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez. These roster reductions only encourage increased service time manipulation in 2020 and beyond.

This move doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t see the rationale in this, outside of preventing playoff-bound teams like the Dodgers or Astros from using AAA players to “rest” some of their playoff pitchers. To that extent, I understand the move of shrinking the max from 40. But 28 is way too low. Especially as a fan of a rebuilding team (White Sox), I would love to see some AAA guys get some extra action – that’s how the White Sox originally found Jace Fry.

What would’ve made this an “A”: Simply put, if it didn’t exist or was shrunk to somewhere between 30-35. Most teams don’t use all 40 spots, but almost all use more than 28. And for those who want to say, “The play was uneven because not all teams have the same number of players rostered,” remember that is a team’s personal choice to do so. The playing field is set up to be level – teams just aren’t choosing to play evenly. Most seem to be okay with that.

Capping of Pitchers on Roster: B+

I don’t exactly have strong feelings on this change. I like that the rule takes into account two-way players as well as addresses position players pitching in a blowout. I also like that a joint committee – rather than just Rob Manfred’s office – will be determining the cap on pitchers. Still, there are always teams who could use an extra pitcher or two on their roster after a few rough games or a bunch of extra-inning games.

I think a fuller story of this rule change will come about after the cap number is determined.

What would’ve made this an “A”: Allowing pitchers to be designated as “Two-Way Players” at any point throughout the year, should they eventually accrue 20 innings in the majors. With guys like Matt Davidson, who is being considered a potential two-way player for the Rangers, he will probably need about 10-15 innings to really determine if he is a legitimate two-way player. However, the Rangers can’t do that now unless they commit to giving him 5-10 additional innings. Easier said than done. This also would’ve been an “A” if the players – rather than the joint committee – were directly making the decision on the number of maximum pitchers on the roster; who knows them and their abilities better than themselves. However, there are limitations as to what the players can vote on once they are on a roster for the year.

3 Batter Minimum for Pitchers: F

The Office of the Commissioner will implement an amended Official Baseball Rule 5.10(g) requiring that starting pitchers and relief pitchers must pitch to either a minimum of three batters or the end of a half-inning (with exceptions for incapacitating injury or illness).  The Players Association has agreed that it will not grieve or otherwise challenge the Office of the Commissioner’s implementation.

What this means: Rob Manfred did this himself. And that’s not a good look.

The downsides of this are fairly obvious – one/two out pitchers and lefty specialists are going to become a rarity, which will not help any lefty FA on the market. This causes a change in strategy too for managers as to how they want to approach an upcoming inning based on the scheduled lineup. This change also takes away half of the strategy involved in making changes. Let’s say a given lineup has three straight lefties coming to the plate. Naturally, a manager might want to bring in his lefty specialist. However, the hitting team can just substitute in a couple right-handed hitters, not allowing the opposing team to make a subsequent change.

The fun of baseball is the game theory-like strategy that it inspires. This move is taking away part of that. Strategy debate is also frequent within press conferences after a tough loss or amongst fans at a bar – again, it’s part of the fun. Now, all a manager can do is say, “Well the rules said I had to stick with him, so I did.” Not as fun now, is it.

In addition, as Rich Hill said today, pitcher injuries should also be a consideration:

“Now you have relievers who have (pitched) two out of three days and you’re asking him to go that fourth day? Well, maybe they shouldn’t be facing three hitters. Maybe they should only be facing one or two.”

Rich Hill on the three-batter minimum (via J.P. Hoornstra @jphoornstra)

However, what makes this move REALLY bad isn’t the change of strategy itself: as Jason Stark pointed out, it isn’t exactly as big of a deal as we think:

The biggest problem with this is the fact that Manfred unilaterally passed this move, something that the players did not actually want, yet will not file a grievance against. That is a really bad look heading into CBA negotiations for the 2021 CBA, and for what benefit? A shortening of the game by a few minutes?

No matter which way you look at this change – whether purely strategy, purely negotiation, or a combination of both – this change makes no sense. Instead of solving a problem, it has created one: pitchers are not exactly thrilled.

What would’ve made this an “A”: Besides eliminating it? Making it a two-batter/one baserunner minimum. There’s nothing good that can come of a pitcher who throws 6-8 straight balls in a game. Forcing ineffective pitchers to stay in a game is not good.

Injured List/Option Length from 10 to 15 Days: A

I get what MLB and the MLBPA are trying to do here, and I appreciate it. Instead of shuffling pitchers around for a short amount of time or using the IL as a place to “store” a pitcher without using an option, the increase in the IL and option length force teams to commit to certain players instead of just shuffling around marginal talent at the back end of their bullpen. In reality, for this reason, the 15-Day DL should’ve never been shortened in the first place. This is a minor change, but a good one.

The only changes that really end up being “bad” for the game, in my opinion, are the three-batter minimum and the decrease of 40-man rosters. Everything else, with some minor changes, could easily be good for the game. However, the problem continues to be Rob Manfred’s insistence on pace of play inititatives.

The reality is that a lot of these “speed up the game” initiatives are going to fall flat in the end. Someone who doesn’t watch a 3-hour baseball game isn’t going to start watching baseball because it only take 2:45 now. MLB and the MLBPA need to address fan engagement. They took a positive step by the changes to the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. Yet, they continue to shoot themselves in the foot by holding firm to the need to speed up the game for people who won’t care about the game no matter what. As a result, they are frustrating the fans who are committed to the game – and those should be the people who they remain committed to.

If I could sum all these changes up into a phrase: two steps forward, one step back. – I know that’s not how the phrase actually goes, but this feels like “self- limited progress” (maybe that’s the summary phrase).

Agree? Disagree? Let me know on Twitter @jlazowski14.

Jordan Lazowski

2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and current Editor-in-Chief. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and I haven't left since. Lifelong White Sox fan, self-proclaimed nerd, and Lucas Giolito's biggest supporter. Feel free to reach out and talk baseball! Twitter: @jlazowski14

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