Over the last several years, Major League Baseball has worked hard to expedite its games, and in and of itself, I’m glad they’re doing this. Baseball games do take too long, and unlike the spikes in game time which happened at the turn of last century, it’s not because there’s this sudden offensive explosion. This doesn’t make me not watch baseball, but that doesn’t mean the sport can’t be improved.
I don’t care for the new rule which puts a runner on second base during extra innings, but I will concede that the rule does what is purports to do. My personal preference would be to just have regular season games end in ties, but that’s an aesthetic preference. This speeds up games, and while I’ve seen plenty of baseball writers opine their love for extremely long baseball games, these people also aren’t working regular nine-to-five hours, so any rule meant to curb those games isn’t really being designed for them.
Prior to the 2020 season, Major League Baseball decided that relievers pitching to one or two batters and then being removed was a problem, so they instituted a rule that a pitcher must pitch to three batters in a game before being removed, unless their removal comes between innings. This is by far my least favorite of baseball’s new rules because it is the least comprehensible. In a way, the rule conflicts with the sport’s inevitable shift to a universal designated hitter. Whether you like or dislike the DH, it’s impossible to argue that the rule does not improve the quality of play, because a designated hitter is, non-Ohtani division, a considerably better hitter than any pitcher in baseball. “The DH makes baseball more watchable” is far and away the best argument for the designated hitter. But the three-batter minimum makes the composite strength of a batter-pitcher matchup weaker. Consider Randy Choate, the former St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher who (prior to his final season in St. Louis) was lights-out against left-handed batters but was awful against righties (and because his manager was Mike Matheny, there’s a shockingly large sample of the latter from which to draw). Choate would be borderline unemployable with the three-batter minimum rule, but he was also really good in his very niche role. A matchup of Choate with Joey Votto was legitimately compelling.
But at least with Randy Choate, a team can reasonably plan around the rule, even if I still think it’s stupid. What unfolded last night with Génesis Cabrera was a special circumstance, and it may not be the kind of thing Major League Baseball foresaw being a problem, but considering it unfolded because of a rule which does not contain any actual upside, I don’t think blaming Major League Baseball is the least bit unfair.
Génesis Cabrera does not have a reputation as a headhunter (though he does have a reputation, while his numbers have been better in 2021, for having control issues). Last night, Bryce Harper and Didi Gregorius became the first two batters Cabrera has hit this season. While some of the dumbest people on the internet have alleged that Cabrera must have been headhunting (a few truly galaxy-brained white guys with car selfies have blamed Yadier Molina, who is of course on the Injured List, of being behind the whole operation, but that’s a whoooooole other topic), there isn’t much reason to assume this was the case. Cabrera doesn’t have a known existing grievances with the Phillies at large nor Harper/Gregorius specifically. And if Cabrera was trying to hit them, it was a tied game and the winning run was scored by Matt Joyce, Harper’s pinch-runner, so I’d be pretty outraged at Cabrera.
Joe Girardi was furious after Gregorius was hit. The rules indicate that Mike Shildt, who later stated that he would have removed Cabrera after the Harper HBP (Cabrera was visibly shaken after it because, again, he wasn’t trying to break Bryce Harper’s face), could not make a pitching change until after Andrew McCutchen’s plate appearance, but the umpires did have the authority to eject Cabrera. It bordered on a safety issue that they didn’t. But then that opens a whole can of worms, as this would seemingly be a case of an umpiring equivalent of judicial activism. The umpires clearly did not believe that Génesis Cabrera was intentionally hitting Harper nor Gregorius. Girardi probably didn’t think so, either, but Cabrera’s lack of ill intent doesn’t mean getting hit by a Major League fastball isn’t still extremely dangerous. If Cabrera were ejected and the Cardinals’ bullpen then managed to withstand runners on first and second and nobody out, did the umpires just do the Cardinals a favor? Would Cabrera then be assumed to be guilty of ill intent and subjected to a potential suspension with greater regularity than if he weren’t ejected?
Ultimately, what the umpires did–letting Cabrera pitch to McCutchen, who notched an RBI single–was both the correct move and the least satisfying move for all involved parties. I can’t imagine a single person involved in the moment–Cabrera, McCutchen, Shildt, Girardi, home plate umpire Chris Segal–was happy with what happened.
A moment like what happened last night is very rare, but even if it happens once every few seasons across Major League Baseball, that’s still too often for a rule that doesn’t provide any upside. The three-batter minimum was and is a solution in search of a problem. It should have never been instituted and it should go away immediately.