It is February 7, and despite teams not seeming to realize it with regards to free agency, baseball season is less than two months away (no, it isn’t “baseball season” once the Super Bowl ends–watch basketball or hockey or soccer or NASCAR or something, guys). And what better time than now for Major League Baseball to propose major rule changes?
As first reported on Tuesday by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (story is here/is paywalled), Major League Baseball is considering various rule changes with regards to game play for the 2019 season. Some are sensible, once you get past the haste with which the changes may be instituted, but others would have a fundamental enough change on the game that they are bound to invite controversy.
Probably the least controversial of the five in-game changes proposed is one in which a baserunner will be automatically placed on second base in extra innings during Spring Training and the All-Star Game. This would be a very controversial measure if instituted in regular season games, but for exhibitions, it’s not likely to be viewed as a major alteration in the sport. A proposed 20-second pitch clock, to combat concerns about the length of baseball games, probably wouldn’t be noticed by most fans. And a rule in which a team’s mound visits per game go from six to five wouldn’t come into play too terribly often, either, as most teams come nowhere close to exceeding their permitted visits throughout a game.
From the perspective of the St. Louis Cardinals, the first two would have almost no impact on the team on the field. The runner on second rule would shorten Spring Training games, which would help preserve players while also depriving younger players of repetitions, but it’s not as though the Cardinals, especially through their Spring Training rosters, would be impacted meaningfully more or less than other teams. A pitch clock wouldn’t cause major disproportionate disruptions (I suppose the presence of Miles Mikolas, an especially fast-working pitcher, might create some neglible benefit for the Cardinals, but not enough that it merits discussing further). And while perhaps the presence of a veteran catcher like Yadier Molina who is noted for his preparation might make mound visits less necessary, this is probably not a game-changer either.
The two most discussed proposed rule changes, however, could have more dramatically varying effects from team to team. And each could benefit the Cardinals.
Of the two remaining rules, the one which I find by far the dumbest of all of the proposed changes is one which requires pitchers to pitch to at least three batters per appearance. Presumably there is some stipulation for if a pitcher is injured, and presumably teams would abuse this exception and pitchers would fake injuries and…okay, long story short, I don’t think baseball has thought this rule out at all. I hate this rule. I hate the idea that Major League Baseball, like when they’ve suggested banning shifts, is meddling in teams having the audacity to implement strategies, and is trying to stop the natural evolution of the sport. I’ve never been bothered by the presence of LOOGYs, the left-handed relief specialists who face a single left-handed batter and are then replaced, and often find their existence charming. I’m not bothered that fewer pitchers than ever are throwing over 200 innings as starters; if anything, it makes the Justin Verlanders of the world all the more special and more valuable to their teams. This rule sucks.
But on the bright side, from a Cardinals perspective, the team is pretty well-suited for it, even though it is an awful abomination. The Cardinals bullpen, shaky as it was last year and uncertain as it inherently is this year, is not built upon specialists, such as the team’s mixed results three-year run with proto-LOOGY Randy Choate, but rather pitchers who should be able to pitch multiple innings. Of the team’s left-handed relievers–new acquisition Andrew Miller, embattled veteran Brett Cecil, and 2018 deadline acquisition Chasen Shreve–the former two are former starters, none of the three has particularly pronounced lefty/righty splits, and Miller in particular has been acclaimed for his ability to go multiple innings in relief, most famously in the 2016 postseason. The righties in the bullpen, such as former starters Jordan Hicks and Mike Mayers, are similarly equipped to handle three batters. Some pitchers may be negatively impacted, but it’s not as though there is anybody here whose careers would be destroyed by this rule change.
One of the big beneficiaries of this rule are teams whose starting pitchers go deeper into games, as there is less incentive for teams to jump into mixing and matching relief pitchers early. Last season, the Cardinals had MLB’s 10th most used starter, Miles Mikolas, one of the rare breed of modern starters to clear 200 innings in a season. Carlos Martinez was hampered by injuries, and his innings total from last season looks less impressive because of time spent in the bullpen, but he averaged over 200 innings per season from 2016 through 2017. And despite being treated with the requisite kid gloves of a rookie pitcher, Jack Flaherty averaged over five innings per start last season and figures to shoulder a heavier innings load in 2019. The Cardinals may not be the Houston Astros nor Cleveland Indians in terms of workhorse starters, but their situation does seem to be stronger than most.
Of course, part of the reason the Astros and Indians are projected to tally so many innings from starters is that they are in the American League, and thus starters aren’t susceptible to being pulled for a pinch-hitter. But with the proposed institution of the designated hitter in the National League, a rule which I’ve already written about enough, that wrinkle would no longer apply only to AL teams. And the Cardinals are well-suited for a National League which implements the DH.
The Cardinals already have what is effectively a DH playing in a non-DH league in Jose Martinez. Martinez had a 125 wRC+ in 590 plate appearances last season, which would put him in the upper half of leaderboard-qualified designated hitters in 2018. Meanwhile, Martinez’s defensive deficiencies mean that he is probably on the outside looking in on a full-time starting role with the 2019 Cardinals. Not many people would prefer Martinez at first base over Paul Goldschmidt (nor should they), but the argument could be made for him over Dexter Fowler or Tyler O’Neill in right field. But if he doesn’t field at all, it makes giving him playing time even easier.
Additionally, the presence of the DH would give the Cardinals a backup plan in case Marcell Ozuna’s lingering arm injury remains a problem entering 2019. An outfield of Martinez in left field, Harrison Bader in center field, and Dexter Fowler in right field may not sound great, especially defensively, but this could happen regardless of the DH–it just assures that if Marcell Ozuna is able to hit, he will be able to hit. Most NL teams don’t have a ready-made DH answer waiting in the wings–teams with that extra player are usually looking to trade it to fill a position of need, and while the Cardinals have been said to be shopping Martinez all off-season, contending AL teams which would be most inclined to make a move for him are largely set at the position. It’s impossible to know whether this was a matter of foresight on the part of the Cardinals or perhaps dumb luck, but either way, the result is the same, and that result seems to be advantageous for the Cardinals.
The one potential drawback for the Cardinals is that their starting lineup is very righty-heavy, with the notable exceptions of Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong, and left-handed hitters, suddenly much more LOOGY-proof, should see a boost in their relative value if this rule is enacted. Rumors are there is a left-handed batter at a position of uncertainty for the Cardinals available on the free agent market. But generally, this is a team that is well-equipped to handle these awful potential changes to the rules of baseball.