Major League Baseball Rule Changes
MLB owners and the players union made big news this past week when they announced rules changes that will be going into effect over the next couple of seasons.
The changes aren’t gigantic by themselves, but they are impactful and could lead to other, bigger changes in strategy and player development down the line.
Let’s take a look at the main changes, offer some brief thoughts on each and take a look at how they should effect the Orioles as they look to build a new, competitive roster for the future.
A couple of things to note: The agreement is still subject to ratification by the 30 teams. It should also be noted that as part of the agreement, owners and players will meet to discuss potential changes to and an extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This is something the players really wanted to look at due to recent changes to how the free agent markets have played out.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
One other thing: The owners have agreed not to implement a pitch clock for the remainder of the current labor agreement. So that is one rule that will not be put into effect anytime soon, much to the relief of pitchers.
Now, let’s look at the main rule changes.
CHANGES FOR 2019
Inning breaks are being shortened: Locally broadcast games will see their inning breaks cut from 2:05 to 2:00, and national games will cut from 2:25 to 2:00.
Take: Not a huge change for local games, but national games will lose a commercial or two during each inning break. I’m sure they’ll figure out ways to make up that money via sponsored spots or in-game ads.
Mound visits: Mound visits are being reduced from six to five per game in nine-inning games.
Take: Pitchers will be increasingly asked to work through struggles on their own. Managers will have to be a little sharper about managing their bullpens. Not a big issue here.
Trade deadline: July 31 remains the trade deadline, but the waiver deadline at the end of August is being eliminated.
Take: One complaint I saw regarding this is that a contender that suffers an August injury won’t be able to acquire outside help. But I think this scenario rewards the franchise that invests more in 40-man roster depth, which I think should be encouraged, so I don’t have a problem with it.
Effect on Orioles: In this scenario, the Birds won’t be able to take advantage of a contender that suffers an August injury. So they’ll have to be working the phones hard in July as they look to shed veteran players for young talent.
All-Star Game voting: In the new system (the details of which have yet to be hammered out), fans will vote as they do now in a preliminary round. Then there will be an “Election Day” in which the top-3 vote-getters at each position will be voted on by fans to choose the starters.
Take: Not that big of a deal. It’s an exhibition game, after all. “Election Day” has the potential to be a fun deal, however.
Effect on Orioles: None, really. But the voting fans should be aware of the changes.
All-Star Game extra innings: If the game goes into extras, each inning will begin with a runner on second base.
Take: This looks like a possible effort to test for a change in games that count, though it seems like low odds that this will actually happen. You never know. If this eventually becomes a regular-season staple, it’ll at least be better than Jeff Samardzija’s idea to eliminate extra innings altogether in favor of ties.
Effect on Orioles: None likely in the next couple years anyway.
Home Run Derby prize: The winner of the derby will receive $1 million.
Take: Aaron Judge has already said that won’t entice him to compete in the event. I think his reaction will be consistent among high-paid stars.
Effect on Orioles: It’s going to be fun seeing Yusniel Diaz win the $1 million in 2021.
CHANGES FOR 2020
Active roster limit increased from 25 to 26 players: Also, roster minimum increased from 24 to 25, and teams can now carry 27, not 26, for a double-header.
Take: This is good for the players, as there are now 30 extra roster spots whose occupants will make at least the Major League minimum, a huge boost over minor league salaries. It’s also a good tradeoff for players given some of the other new rules we’ll get into.
Effect on Orioles: It’s one more roster spot for the franchise to account for while they will be trying to pinch pennies over the next couple seasons. A tiny, tiny impact, though.
Expanded September rosters capped at 28 players: The limit used to be 40, so this is a huge reduction.
Take: This is a wonderful, wonderful change. It always puzzled me that the game could be played one way for five months and then very differently in September, as contenders call up a host of useful bullpen arms, and non-contenders shuffle through a host of minor leaguers just to get experience. It made for, at times, an awful baseball experience. It should be noted that the 28-man limit is not just a limit, but a requirement. So every club will have the same numbers of players during the stretch run.
Effect on Orioles: With only two extra spots, they’ll just have to be choosy about which young players they want to receive Major League experience in September. Many of the key players might already be in the 26-man roster anyway.
An undetermined limit will be put on the number of pitchers teams can carry: A joint committee will decide what the limit will be. Teams will have to declare whether a player is a pitcher or position player when they join the active roster. There will be ways for special players like Shoehei Ohtani to be designated as two-way players.
Take: Sounds like they have to iron out some details on this, but the basic premise is sound. If you’re increasing the roster to 26 (28 in September) you don’t want to just add more pitchers. The parade of late-inning relievers slows the game down more than anything, and this is something they are trying to fix.
Effect on Orioles: Unless they find the next Ohtani, not much. This limit, however, in combination with the next two rules changes, should have an impact on the type of pitchers the Orioles develop/sign.
Limits on pitcher roster shuffling: The injured list and option period for pitchers will be increased from 10 to 15 days.
Take: This will make it harder for teams to put pitchers on the minor league shuttle, an increasingly common practice to keep arms fresh, and easy to do as long as the player has options. From 2009 to 2018, the practice of optioning and recalling pitchers doubled. The constant flow of fresh, max-effort, relief arms makes things harder for hitters. This should mitigate some of that.
Effect on Orioles: Same as above.
Minimum number of batters for pitchers: A starter or reliever will have to either finish an inning they start or face a minimum of three batters. The exception will be if the pitcher becomes ill or is injured. The union has said it does not like this rule change but will not contest it when it is enacted.
Take: Early reactions suggest that this is the most controversial rule change. Some players and managers have said they don’t like it, and you know specialist relievers hate it. Cubs manager Joe Maddon is one notable detractor. He said he’s OK with the rules that speed up the game, but he doesn’t like rules that effect strategy. He also thinks the new rule will cost some pitchers, especially left-handed specialists, their jobs.
Of course these arguments are not particularly logical. All rules govern strategy, otherwise he could just start every inning with Kris Bryant at the plate. When you have a new rule, strategies change. He’s a smart guy – he’ll figure it out.
As far as guys losing jobs, that could be true. But what about the guys who might take those jobs? They could be pitchers who are a little more versatile. Maybe they’re not lights out against one side or the other, but more solid all-around. Those guys will benefit, so that’s good for them, right?
And as an added benefit, we get to reduce those late-inning parades of relievers, which dramatically slow the pace of games. And I’m guessing hitters are OK with it, too. As Chris Davis said: “I’m looking forward to that. I’m sure I’ll see my share of lefty specialists. I guess they’ll have to face more than just me.”
I also think the impact might not be as dramatic as people think — you might simply see a few more intentional walks. In 2018, in fact, only 4.7 percent of relief appearances would have violated the new rule. And remember that a pitcher can get away with facing only one or two batters as long as he finishes the inning. So what this does is limit the number of mid-inning pitching changes, but not all of them by any stretch.
Effect on Orioles: Pitcher development! When you consider the broad effect of these previous three rules changes, I think starting pitchers are going to make a bit of a comeback. Relievers will have to be rationed a bit more, meaning starters might not get the quick hook as often. Versatile relievers will also become more en vogue. It’s not going to be as common for teams to use six relievers to get through the last three innings. I think that’s good for the game, and it should impact how the Orioles develop their arms.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!