Major League Baseball will implement a game changing rule this season that requires the starting pitcher, or any substitute pitcher, to pitch to a minimum of three batters. The rule is officially named: Three Batter Minimum, OBR 5.10(g), 5.10(i) and 5.10(m). Since first hearing rumors of this rule the baseball world has speculated how it will affect the game, especially the strategies of MLB managers as they use relievers late in games. It has also raised a number of questions to the specifics of the rule and how the rule could be manipulated to the benefit of the defensive team.
IN A NUTSHELL
The starting, or any substitute, pitcher is required to pitch to a minimum of three batters, including the batter then at bat (or any substitute batter), until those batters are put out or reach first base; or until the offensive team makes three outs. The exception is if the pitcher sustains injury or illness which, incapacitates him from further play as a pitcher.
If the team at bat makes the third out prior to the pitcher facing three consecutive batters, he may be removed from the game. In other words, he doesn’t have to start the next inning to complete his three batter minimum. But, if that pitcher comes out to start the next inning he must pitch to as many batters as necessary to satisfy the three batter minimum. For instance, if he faced one batter in his first inning, he must face two batters in the next inning before he can be removed.
- Intentional Walks Count
An intentional walk counts towards fulfilling the three batter minimum.
- Pick-Offs Do Not Count
Picking off a runner does not count toward fulfilling the minimum. This includes pick-offs by a catcher, the runner caught stealing, or any other type of runner out, such as intentional interference. So, if a relief pitcher comes into the game with two outs and he promptly picks off a runner (or the runner is caught stealing) for the third out he may be removed from the game. But if he starts the next inning, he must pitch to three batters to fulfill his requirement.
- Pitchers Already in the Game Starting a New Inning
If a pitcher already in the game (who has pitched to at least three consecutive batters in the previous inning) crosses the foul line on his way to take the mound he must pitch to the first batter of the inning, unless the batter is pinch hit for or the pitcher sustains an injury. If the pitcher already in the game ends the inning on base or at the plate and does not return to the dugout after the inning is complete, he is not required to pitch to the first batter of the inning unless he toes the rubber to begin his warm-up pitches.
The substitute batter exception does not apply to a substitute pitcher who returns for a subsequent inning without having satisfied the three batter minimum. Thus, if a pitcher who has not completed his three batter requirement at the end of an inning returns for the subsequent inning, he must complete his three batter minimum even if the opposing team elects to pinch hit for the first hitter to start the inning.
- Mid At-Bat Pitching Changes
If a new pitcher is brought into the game in the middle of the at-bat, regardless of the count, the batter he faces counts as one of his three batter minimum.
- Switching to a Fielding Position
A pitcher may not be removed from the mound and inserted to another position unless he has first fulfilled the three batter minimum.
- If a Manager Gets Away with a Fast One
The umpire crew and the crew chief are responsible for enforcing the three batter minimum rule. If there is a mistake made and a pitcher does not fulfill his three batter requirement, there is no penalty to the team.
- Keep Track of Mound Visits
A manager or coach who crosses the foul line on his way to the mound after his team has exhausted its mound visits must make a pitching change, unless during the at-bat of a starting or substitute pitcher’s first three batters, in which case the pitcher shall continue to pitch to a minimum of three consecutive batters in accordance with Rule 5.10(g). In this case the manager is subject to ejection from the game
What if the Pitcher is Injured?
The rule states that if a pitcher “sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief’s judgment, incapacitates him from further play as a pitcher” he may be removed from the game.” One of the early versions of the rule required that a pitcher who is removed from a game prior to fulfilling the Three Batter Minimum rule be placed on the Injured List, a move that would make the pitcher inactive for 15 days. Most teams balked at this idea because not all pitching injuries require a trip to the IL. What if the pitcher is hit in the leg by a batted ball? He limps around the mound, unable to finish the inning but might well be able to pitch the next day.
According to many MLB sources, the defensive team’s manager, not the Crew Chief Umpire, will ultimately determine whether his pitcher can continue pitching or must be removed due to illness or injury. So, a pitcher might be removed due to injury and be available to pitch the next day. This opens the rule to abuse by managers and teams who will use the “injury” to mesh with game strategy. MLB will scrutinize these injury situations and act if they feel that a team is violating the rule but in the meantime the manager got the match-up he wanted all along. There has been no determination of what penalty could be imposed on a team who abuses the injury loophole. Worth keeping an eye on.