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MLB implements more rules aimed at pace of play

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred

Major League Baseball, as expected, finalized a new set of playing rules modifications for the 2020 season that in part renew the league’s push to improve pace of play.

The new rules are highlighted by a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Those relievers must face at least three hitters or complete an inning. The rule can be waived by an umpire crew chief in the event of an injury. But the long-discussed move is designed in part to reduce the number of mid-inning pitching changes that can serve to elongate games.

Over the years, situational relief pitching in baseball has grown to the point where LOOGY (left-handed, one-out guy) became a widely used acronym within the game for the common occurrence of a left-handed reliever entering a game to face just one batter. The new rule will eliminate that, with the exception if that one better represents the final out of an inning.

MLB also has changed a series of roster size provisions. Active rosters between Opening Day and August 31 each season will increase from 25 to 26, with the extra player aimed at allowing for greater rest and recovery throughout each club. The 26-man roster rule will be used for the postseason, and also carries a limit of 13 pitchers within those 26 players.

From September 1 to the end of the regular season, active rosters will reduce from 40 to 28, with a maximum of 14 pitchers on those 28-man active rosters. The end-of-season roster expansion was originally designed to give top prospects a taste of major league play following the conclusion of their minor-league seasons. But more recently, the expanded rosters have been used as a tool for highly specific and situational pitching changes, again helping serve to drag down pace of play. 

The expanded September rosters, and resulting in-game machinations involving pitching changes and double switches, were also being increasingly called into question around the game as negatively impacting the integrity of late-season races for the postseason.

Club managers now have just 20 seconds to challenge a play on the field, down from 30, another move designed to force decision making and move games along.

The changes, particularly the three-batter minimum for relievers, will likely anger purists among baseball fans. But MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was quick to move toward improving pace of play upon ascending to the post in early 2015, making an initial set of rules changes among his first acts.

Since then, average game times have stubbornly hovered around three hours, and the increased role of analytics in baseball operations has made situational changes even more prevalent. The latest changes have long been anticipated after being agreed to last March by the league and MLB Players Association.

Part of the intent in curbing dead time in game is to address a multiyear attendance decline that has been tagged in part to lagging pace of play.