The three rule changes that baseball is most likely to make very soon
By Dan Holmes February 7, 2019
This week it was revealed via The Athletic that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union have exchanged a set of rules changes that they will kick around this season.
While most of these rules changes will not be put into effect this year, a few might, and three of them seem inevitable because the time is right. In fact it’s a bit of a perfect storm time for these changes to be made in baseball.
The league is very concerned about (1) pace of play and (2) the decrease in balls in play. Three of these rules changes will help them address those two thorny issues. Meanwhile, the MLBPA is interested in higher-paying jobs and security for the players.
Here are the three rules MLB is most likely to make very soon.
Rule Change: Universal DH
The Rule: The designated hitter will be used in the National League just as it has been used in the American League since 1973. Every professional league in organized baseball uses the DH except the NL.
Why the league wants it: The league want more offense, more balls put in play, and they want to silence the critics who keep pointing out the silliness at each league having different rules.
Why the players want it: The DH is a high-paying job for a major league hitter, it creates one more starting position on each team. It will also help extend the careers of some of baseball’s best hitters.
How it will change the game: NL fans will not see the double-switch, which happens an average of 55 times per season, per data from FanGraphs. NL starting pitchers may pitch deeper into games, relieving stress on the bullpen. In 2018 pitchers hit .113 with only 103 extra-base hits in more than 4,800 games. If DHs hit what they did in 2018 (.250 with a .450 slugging percentage) that will add roughly 400 extra-base hits and 1,000 hits overall to the offense. In all, a DH should infuse about 1,400 more baserunners into National League baseball.
Rule Change: Three Batter Minimum
The Rule: Pitchers must face three batters, unless as a reliever they finish an inning before facing three batters.
Why the league wants it: The league wants to halt the string of pitching changes that happens in the late innings of games, to manage the pace of play. This rule would also seemingly help offense, since one-batter specialists won’t be able to come in to start an inning or face only two hitters.
Why the players want it: The players probably don’t care too much about this rule change, even though it would eliminate the LOOGY (lefthander only one guy) from the bullpen. Some teams may still carry those specialists, but at their own peril, since they will only be able to use them with two outs to ensure they don’t face too many hitters.
The players are most likely willing to exchange the lost bullpen jobs for the DH job, which is more high-paying. That’s why this one is a win-win.
How it will change the game: No more back-to-back-to-back pitching changes, those long, Tony Larussa-inspired chess moves that bring the game to a grinding halt.
This rule will also lead to more plate appearances for batters where they hold the platoon advantage, which should theoretically lead to an increase in offense. It may also result in slightly fewer defensive shifts.
Another impact of this rule change could be the emergence of durable relief pitchers, or what used to be called “the long man.” Since teams will want relievers who can face more batters per outing, they won’t be able to focus on the one-pitch, high-intensity types, which should lead to fewer strikeouts. That would please the league, which craves more balls in play.
Rule Change: 26-Man Roster
The Rule: Teams can carry 26 players from the beginning of the season through September 1, when rosters expand as usual. Previously the roster size was 25.
Why the league wants it: The league doesn’t love the idea of one more roster spot at the major league pay rate, but they’d be willing to take it in the current economic climate, which increasingly favors the owners.
A 26-man roster allows teams to carry an extra bat, which could result in more pinch-hitting and more runs. With 12 and 13-man pitching staffs the trend, teams usually only carry three or four bench players. The 26th spot may increase offense through speed, or bolster defense through a good glove.
Why the players want it: A 26th roster spot at at least MLB minimum, that’s one more union member making big league money. In addition, the union is eager to address player control and MLB service time issues, since for years teams have been manipulating the rules to keep MLB-ready talent in the minor leagues. That way they can control the rights of players longer into their prime. An extra roster spot would hopefully accelerate the track to the majors for many young or “on the bubble” players.
How it will change the game: This rule has more potential downsides than the other two. Teams could use this spot for another pitcher, to assist with the three-batter minimum and to give their managers even more bullpen flexibility, Teams could even carry an “opener” who pitches only the first inning. That won’t help pace of play and won’t help get more balls in play. More games with an “opener” would irritate traditionalists.
But the positive side is the infusion of more position players that can be used as pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, or defensive specialists.
It could also signal the decline of the “jack-of-all-trades” player that we’ve seen in the last ten to twelve years. These are the Shane Halter types, guys who are probably not major league caliber, but have a job because the bench is short and they can adequately play 6-8 positions.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.