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Are rule changes for relief pitchers in store for Major League Baseball?

Commissioner Rob Manfred would like to speed up game and give offense a better chance late in games.

Donnie Hart
Could Donnie Hart and other lefty specialists be required to face more right-handed hitters?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

To the dismay of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the off-season’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the players’ union resulted in only a few rule changes designed to speed up the game. The most talked-about one is that intentional walks are now allowed by a manager’s hand signal instead of pitchers’ throwing four balls on purpose.

The rule change is being received with mixed results at best. It isn’t expected to save much time – on average, a whopping total of 1.5 pitches a game. Through Wednesday’s games, MLB teams had given up a total of 47 intentional passes.

But Manfred was quick to point out that the CBA also gives his office unilateral powers to make other rule changes for the 2018 season. Something he may do if he doesn’t get more cooperation from the players’ union.

That has to be possible given that Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Players Association, has been quoted as saying “I think the game itself is pretty sexy the way it is.”

But what rule changes could be next?

Manfred has mentioned several ideas, but has stated that tweaking how relief pitchers are used is under “active consideration.”

Last summer on ESPN’s Mike & Mike, he said, “The problem with relief pitchers is that they're so good ... they do two things to the game: the pitching changes themselves slow the game down and our relief pitchers have become so dominant at the back end that they actually rob action out of the end of the game.”

Could we possibly see a change in the minimum number of batters a pitcher must face? Think about how the game would change if a reliever were required to pitch to a minimum of two batters instead of just one. It could lessen the effectiveness of relievers who perform much better against hitters from one side of the plate.

Most teams carry a lefty in the pen, like the Orioles with Donnie Hart, whose main job is to get left-handed hitters out. Hart has a career .700 OPS vs. righties as compared to .422 against lefties. Under the new scenario, he would be forced to face a second batter – likely a right-handed hitter who would be much more of a threat to a pitcher like Hart.

This would certainly help address Manfred’s concern about relievers robbing action late in games, but wouldn’t more offense extend the time of the game too? There is a lot to ponder when considering rule changes like these. Here’s hoping that MLB and the players’ union make wise and collaborative choices.