Barely two weeks ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks began the bottom of the seventh inning at San Francisco with what seemed like an innocuous pitching change: Left-hander reliever Matt Grace replaced starter Zac Gallen in a game that was tied, 1-1.
But a new rule adopted this season before the pandemic would prove to be the D-backs undoing that night–and may have begun the downward spiral that altered their 2020 prospects. Barring an injury, Grace had to face at least three Giants batters.
Never mind the temporary COVID-inspired rule changes like the universal designated hitter in both leagues, a runner on second base to start extra innings and seven-inning games at both ends of a doubleheader: the new three-batter rule may be the most controversial.
“I don’t even know how to evaluate it,” said veteran Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, pointing to a similar situation his team faced against the Seattle Mariners recently at Angel Stadium. “I would have just had a lefty pitch to [Kyle] Seager and then move on again once they pinch hit. So, that’s a classic example of how it could impact a game.”
Instead, to start the sixth inning this past Monday, Maddon put in right-hander Matt Andriese to face at least three batters, the first two of whom were left-handed hitters. Maddon had no choice but to go against a tenet of “the book,” which states a lefty reliever shall face a lefty hitter late in a game. Andriese struck out Seager, but Jose Marmolejoes homered, scoring what proved to be the decisive run in a 2-1 Angels loss. Damage done.
Back at Oracle Park against Grace, on Aug. 22, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford walked, and Joey Bart doubled. San Francisco manager, Gabe Kapler, went to his bench and pinch-hit the right-handed Mauricio Dubon for the lefty-swinging Steven Duggar.
Last season and in every season before that, the countermove by D-backs manager Torey Lovullo would have been to replace Grace with a right-handed pitcher. But the new rule, put into place in an effort to speed up the game in the later innings, prohibited him from that traditional move.
“It impacts strategy,” Maddon mussed. “That’s one of the things I’ve been talking about right from the beginning: I prefer rules that don’t impact strategy.”
Grace walked Dubon to load the bases. Lovullo was finally able to replace Grace with right-hander Junior Guerra, who walked the first two batters to force in a pair of runs. The manager’s hands were still tied. The third batter drove in another run with a fielder’s choice grounder. Lovullo was then able to make another pitching change.
But the carnage wrought by the new rule was there for all to see: Two relievers, six batters, four walks, one hit, one out and eventually four runs. Lovullo was left helpless, and the D-backs lost, 5-1.
“There are some new normals, and the three-batter rule is definitely one of them,” Lovullo said. “There’s definitely a strategy to it. You’re right. It was tough to watch. We just had to sit there and wear it. But it’s part of the game. We have to figure that out. It’s been a little bit of a challenge.”
The D-backs went on to lose eight of their next nine, and at Monday’s trade deadline they unloaded the clubhouse, sending away crucial players like starter Robbie Ray, closer Archie Bradley, injured reliever Andrew Chafin and center fielder Starling Marte, in what proved to be a significant salary dump.
The D-backs anticipate losing $100 million this season and $30-$50 million next season, depending on whether fans can return to stadiums in some proportion.
Ray and Chafin are free agents, and Bradley is in his final year of arbitration this offseason. Marte had a $12.5 million club option with a $1 million buyout that’s now the problem of the Miami Marlins, who almost certainly won’t exercise the option. The D-backs saved about $4 million for the remainder of the season by dumping these four players.
To be sure, the three-batter rule has worked well in many cases, like Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium when New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone brought in left-hander Zack Britton to pitch the eighth inning, and he retired all three Tampa Bay hitters, a pair of righties and one lefty.
In another wrinkle, a pitcher coming in during the middle of an inning can be replaced afterward even if he doesn’t face three batters as long as he completes that inning. Despite all the chaos the rule can bring, Lovullo said recently he’s a proponent of it.
“I like the rule. I definitely like the rule,” he said. “It adds a whole new component and a whole new strategy. And I love strategy. It’s one more thing you have to really dig in and pay attention to.”
The unintended consequence of the rule is how baseball teams build their rosters. Prior to COVID halting play on March 12, MLB and the MLB Players Association had agreed on rosters of 26 players with no more than 13 pitchers. For the 60-game season, that number has since been adjusted to 28 players to compensate for those testing positive and a rash of injuries.
If MLB can get back to a 162-game schedule next season—and there’s no certainty of that right now—teams are going to have to target relief pitchers who are multi-dimensional. The era of the left-handed specialist with the job of getting out one left-handed hitter is over if the rule is memorialized for the long-term.
“Quality left-handed pitchers just don’t need to work on getting left-handed hitters out,” Lovullo said. “They’ve got to strategize and figure a way to get right-handed hitters out. And I like that part of it.”
Chafin was one of those pitchers. Last season, he faced 135 left-handed batters and 90 right-handed, with lefties batting .258 against him. This year it was more balanced: 11 left-handers, eight right-handers. But overall, he allowed four runs, nine hits and four walks.
Chafin, who’s been out since Aug. 19, was traded to the Chicago Cubs with a finger sprain on his left hand and is still inactive. If he doesn’t pitch again this season the D-backs will be liable for the remaining $471,324 on his contract.
Lovullo knew back in February that he would have to make some adjustments. There’s also the matter of a how many times a pitcher can be used on consecutive days if it takes as many as 30 pitches to get through at least three batters. Grace and Guerra combined to throw 30 pitches that night vs. the Giants. Grace never pitched again for the D-backs and was sent to their alternate site. Guerra didn’t appear until three days later.
“I used Chafin in spurts,” Lovullo said, referring to bringing the lefty in during 2019. “If I used him for one-plus batters I was probably going to be able to use him tomorrow. If I used him for one-plus innings I probably couldn’t. There are just new things I’ve got to learn.”
He just didn’t know at the time that his learning curve would be this acute.