Pitching changes are a common sight in baseball – way too common depending on who you ask. Because of this, Major League Baseball (MLB) instituted a three batter rule.
So, what exactly is the three batter minimum rule in baseball?
The three-batter minimum rule requires every pitcher to face at least three batters before a new pitcher can enter the game, in an effort to speed up the game. The only exceptions to this rule are if the pitcher completes an inning or if there is an injury or illness that obligates an earlier change.
This article will explain what the three batter minimum is and why the new rule is in effect. We’ll also look at how fans, players, and coaches have reacted to the rule and how the rule has changed the game. Finally, we’ll discuss if the rule has changed the speed of games and if this rule is in effect during the playoffs.
Why Is There a 3 Batter Minimum?
The main goal of the three batter minimum rule is to speed up baseball games. The number of younger people who watch MLB games is declining, and it is believed that the main reason is that games are longer and slower compared to other sports.
Ideally, the three batter minimum rule would decrease the number of pitching changes that take place each game and therefore decrease the length of each game. Each pitching change takes a few minutes and leads to a commercial break for people watching the game on T.V., and a lull for people watching the game in person.
The league wants to eliminate some of these breaks so that people don’t lose interest and flip to different channels. If there are too many breaks in the game, fans, especially the younger generation of fans, may get bored and lose interest in the game. This is less than ideal for MLB, which wants to create lifelong fans out of kids from around the United States and world.
Another reason MLB implemented the three batter rule is because the number of pitchers coming into the game to face only one or two batters was continuing to increase. According to Minor League Baseball, seeing a pitcher coming into the game to face only one or two batters was pretty rare in the 1920s.
By the 2010s, the number of appearances by pitchers who only faced one or two batters was around 2,500, and it was continuing to rise each year. MLB didn’t welcome this increase since it was contributing to the slow pace of games.
MLB’s 3 Batter Minimum Rule
Major League Baseball implemented the rule at the beginning of the 2020 season.
Here is the official rule that Major League Baseball follows:
In an effort to reduce the number of pitching changes and, in turn, cut down the average time per game, MLB instituted a rule change that requires pitchers to either face a minimum of three batters in an appearance or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions for injuries and illnesses. If a pitcher faces one batter to end an inning, he may be removed, but if he is brought back for a second inning, he must still face two more batters for a total of three.
Before the rule change, all pitchers, starters and relievers, were only required to pitch to one batter before a pitching change. There was still an exception to this rule for injuries and illnesses, just like the new rule.
As stated in the official rule, the goal of the rule is to cut down game times since they have slowly increased every year. If there are fewer pitching changes during each game, game times could start to decrease back to an average of three hours.
What Does Baseball Think of the 3 Batter Rule?
A majority of baseball players and fans dislike the three batter minimum rule. There are a few main reasons for this which are the lack of strategy, the disadvantage of a bad pitcher, and the indifference regarding the pace of the game.
First, people dislike the strategy aspect that it takes away from the game. There used to be a purpose to putting relief pitchers in for one or two batters and then changing pitchers. Now, that piece of the game is gone, and pitchers will have to pitch to batters that they normally wouldn’t pitch to.
Next, watching a pitcher throw bad or even reckless pitches makes the games difficult to watch for fans and not as fun for players. If a pitcher is struggling, they’ll have to remain in the game until they have thrown to three batters.
Not only is this hard to watch for teams and fans alike, but it’s also a disadvantage for the team in the field since they have to let a pitcher throw even if he’s struggling.
Finally, many fans don’t care about the pace of the game; but the speed of games is a possible reason that new, younger fans are not watching them. However, the rule has not sped up games, and even if it did, the difference in game length would likely not be significant enough to bring in the new fans that the league is targeting.
Furthermore, fans who watch baseball games know that the sport isn’t as fast-paced as some others, so the speed of games doesn’t really matter to them. While some fans and players don’t mind the new rule, most people dislike it and wish it would be reversed since the rule hasn’t increased the pace of play.
Has the 3 Batter Minimum Sped Up the Game?
So far the three batter minimum hasn’t led to significantly shorter games.
In fact, it may have done the opposite because managers can’t pull a pitcher who is struggling unless they’ve pitched to three batters. A pitcher throwing a lot of pitches to three batters can oftentimes take longer than changing the pitcher. While this isn’t always the case, it has happened enough that the criticism of the rule and the longer games, as a result, do happen.
According to Baseball Reference, the average length of baseball games between 2012 and 2019 has been at least three hours long, and it was as long as three hours and ten minutes in 2019. It was after 2019 that MLB created the three batter minimum rule for the 2020 season.
Although it was a shortened season, the average game time was three hours and six minutes in 2020 despite the new rule being put in place. And, so far in the 2021 season, the average game time is three hours and nine minutes.
There is no evidence that the three batter minimum rule has impacted the speed of the game since its inception. However, it could speed up games once managers and players get used to the new pitching strategy that the rule requires. While this likely wouldn’t lead to a huge decrease in game times, it could happen; it’ll take a few more seasons to see if this is the case.
How Does the 3 Batter Rule Affect Players and Managers?
The game and its strategy have changed as a result of the new rule in multiple ways. Most of these changes have been seen as negative, but there may also be one positive.
No More Bullpen Specialists
First, there are specific pitchers that each team has in their bullpen who are meant to face special batters. These pitchers, called bullpen specialists, usually come into the game to face just one or two batters. They are typically left-handed pitchers who face a left-handed batter or two and then leave the game.
Having fewer specialists is a big factor of bullpens that are affected by the new rule. Now, these relief pitchers need to face one or two more pitchers than normal. Having pitchers face more batters can even slow down the game if they are facing right-handed batters, and the at-bats take longer than average.
No More One-Batter Pitchers
Another way that the rule has affected the game is that managers are limited in who they can use to face certain batters. For example, they can no longer bring in a certain pitcher to face a specific batter, then switch them before the next batter. They’ll need to choose a pitcher best suited for the next three batters at a minimum (unless they end an inning).
They’re also limited in choosing whether a right-handed pitcher or a left-handed pitcher would be better for the next three batters instead of only one or two batters. Having a certain handed pitcher face a left-handed batter versus a right-handed batter is a big part of pitching strategy in baseball.
Confusion Between Innings
Additionally, if pitchers play multiple innings, they still need to face a minimum of three batters. For example, if a pitcher only faces one batter, an inning ends, then they return to the game for the next inning. They’ll need to face at least two batters to complete their three batter minimum. This aspect adds another layer to who a manager puts in the game to pitch.
Managers may also need to consider multiple batters entering the next inning. And, if they’re going to pull a pitcher after three batters, the cycle repeats itself because the next pitcher will also have to meet the three batter minimum. The rule covering multiple innings has been a big criticism since it takes away some of the strategy behind pitchers and when they’re put into the game.
Good Bullpens Are Important
One way that the rule may positively affect the game is that teams will be under pressure to have a good, diverse bullpen. Relief pitchers who used to only face certain handed batters will have to be more versatile since they’ll pitch to new batters that they normally wouldn’t face before the rule.
Needing a more diverse bullpen will make having experienced pitchers in bullpens more important than having specialized pitchers for specific situations. This will create more competition among relief pitchers and bullpens in general, making the later innings more fun to watch, which could in turn bring in more fans.
Is the Three Batter Minimum Rule in the Playoffs?
Yes, the three batter minimum rule still applies for all playoff games. The rules from the regular season regarding pitchers and the minimum number of batters that they face are always in effect for playoff games.
Opponents of the rule have suggested that it should at least be removed for playoff games, even if it needs to stay in effect for the regular season. This would give all playoff teams more options in later innings when they’d need to use relief pitchers to get one or two outs. The strategy component that was removed would be re-implemented in the most important games of the season.
However, doing this could have the opposite effect as teams in the playoffs wouldn’t be used to the “new” rules. If a team doesn’t have any specialists in the bullpen during the regular season because of the rule, they’ll probably not have any for the playoffs either, and the rule addition may not have a big enough effect.
While they’d probably still take advantage of putting in pitchers for only one or two batters, it may not be as important as it was before the rule. This could actually help get the rule removed for the playoffs, though, since there likely wouldn’t be as many pitching changes as there were before MLB implemented the rule.
People who are in favor of the rule think it helps in the playoffs since the goal of the rule is to speed up games. A lot of people tune in just to watch the playoffs, so if they can keep playoff games short and entertaining, more people might be compelled to watch regular-season games, thus accomplishing the goal of bringing in more fans.