Washington Nationals and the Three Batter Minimum Rule

jmoynihan
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Howie Kendrick #47 of the Washington Nationals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Howie Kendrick #47 of the Washington Nationals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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The new “Three Batter Minimum” rule will create more options and production for the Washington Nationals.

MLB will implement a “Three Batter Minimum” rule for relief pitchers in 2020. The intent of the change is to cut down the length of games and avoid numerous pitching changes in the same inning.

The new rule states that; pitchers will be required to either face a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions to be made in case of injury or illness. Previously, pitchers were required to pitch to only one batter and once the hitter had been retired or reached base safely, the pitcher could then be removed from the game.

The change will limit the number of “specialist” relievers who have become prevalent in MLB over the last few decades. Now-retired San Francisco Giants manager once famously used five relief pitchers in a single inning during an NLDS game.  This meant fans had to endure pitching change after pitching change during, what should have been, one of the most exciting moments of the game.

While the new rule will certainly impact how managers use their bullpen, but it will also impact the way that lineups are set.  Managers typically like to avoid starting back to back left-handed hitters in their lineup so that the “specialist” pitchers don’t have an opportunity to pitch to multiple batters. But now this becomes even more important as teams could avoid specialists entirely with bench depth and a well balanced lineup.

The rule change could play an interesting role in the construction of Davey Martinez’s lineup. Juan Soto, Adam Eaton and Eric Thames should be daily starters when a right handed pitcher is on the bump.  Soto hit in the four hole for most of last season, but he could be moved into the three spot this year. Eaton either led off or hit second in all but one of his 137 starts. And Thames bounced all over the Brewers lineup last season, but most often found himself in the fifth or sixth spot.

With the new reliever rule forcing managers to leave pitchers in for at least three hitters, It would be ideal if Davey Martinez could find a way to split up these left-handed bats.  Martinez has indicated the possibility of moving Turner into the third hole, which would help to break up the left handed hitters. If that is the case, Eaton or Victor Robles, who is entering his second full season, would be obvious choices to serve as the lead off hitter.

One potential lineup is;

Robles

Eaton

Turner

Soto

Kendrick

Thames

Castro

Suzuki/Gomes

Last season, the Nationals used the second fewest pinch hitters in the NL and the their Pinch Hit Leverage Index (determines the importance of the context in which the pinch hitter was used) was one of the lowest in all of baseball. This is primarily because the starting pitchers went deep into games and were expected to hit several times, but I suspect each of those numbers will increase in 2020.

Mike Rizzo has done a terrific job of creating depth within the Nationals lineup. Kendrick, Cabrera, Castro, Thames and possibly Kieboom all have the ability to play multiple positions.  This depth will allow Davey Martinez can get creative with pinch hitters and double switches in order to avoid lefty-lefty matchups.  The National’s depth will enable Martinez to be strategic in deploying the likes of Ryan Zimmerman as a pinch hitter in a high leverage situation, regardless of the inning.

I could see Davey Martinez using his bench in a similar fashion to how Joe Maddon targeted specific matchups for his Chicago Cubs hitters in recent years.  Martinez,  served under Maddon with the Cubs prior to joining the Nationals, and the construction of the Nationals roster has similar depth to the rosters that Maddon has historically preferred.

While the new three batter minimum rule is designed to speed up the game, it will also add to the offensive production.  Teams will be reluctant to bring in specialists and managers will construct lineups that actually create more options for their offense.   Depth was clearly a point of focus for the Nationals entering 2020 and I have to think this rule played a role in that mindset.

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