Major League Baseball is set to introduce a few new rules for the 2020 season, including but not limited to a 26-man active roster as well as a 28-man roster in September, the injured list going back to 15 days rather than 10 days for pitchers, and relievers will have to either face a minimum of three batters or end an inning, before being replaced. All of these rules figure to have a fairly decent impact on the game, and we’ve covered the first one already, but it’s the last one I want to focus on today.
Clearly, this is a major change to the game. In a sport that stubbornly (for better or for worse) sticks to tradition and prides itself on not tinkering with the game, this is one of the biggest changes since the DH was instituted. It might be the biggest in terms of in-game changes. It is also, at least in theory, going to eliminate one of the best acronyms in all of sports in the LOOGY.
At the same time it’s not nearly as big of a deal as many are making it out to be. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I’ve had from thinking and reading about it a little more over the last month or two. Mike Petriello outlines it well here, but the fact is there just aren’t that many situations over the course of a major-league season that will be altered by this rule. It’s sort of like the impact of a batting order in that it could alter the outcome of any given game but on a bigger scope the impact just isn’t that large.
Still, that is not to say it should be brushed off entirely. Alex Cora is going to have plenty of situations in which he is going to have to alter his line of thinking compared to years past and teams around the league are going to value even platoon splits in relievers more than they had before. The good news here is that, at least just relative to this rule and even platoon splits, the Red Sox are fairly well set up. Last season, they were basically the same against righties and lefties in terms of their rankings in the league. Against left-handed hitters, their relievers ranked 19th in the league in wOBA against. (wOBA is an overall measure of offense set on the same scale as OBP.) Against righties, they ranked 18th. Those aren’t great numbers, but A) wOBA is not park- or league-adjusted and B) we’re not talking about overall skill. We’re just talking about being as well-suited against righties as lefties.
It starts with their version of a Big Three — I tend to look at bullpens as groups of three in the back and then everyone else — which is not big on name value but has some decent-ish (high praise, I know) talent in Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes and Josh Taylor. All three were straight-up good against hitters of both handedness, with Workman and Barnes allowing wOBAs below .300 against both lefties and righties while Taylor allowed a sub-.300 mark against lefties and a .302 mark against righties. Those are very good and balanced pitchers, and there is reason to think they can continue to be just that moving forward.
Of course, that’s the expectation for a “Big Three” late-inning arm, no? You don’t see LOOGYs and ROOGYs in those roles. The real impact of this rule more generally comes from the guys who aren’t at the top of the depth chart, and most specifically a lefty who isn’t there. For Boston, that means Darwinzon Hernandez. Hernandez overwhelmingly did not have a balanced 2019, with righties posting a wOBA of .404 against him while lefties were limited to a .202 mark. It is worth noting, however, that he was generally more balanced in the minors, with 2017 being the only year he showed significant splits.
From the right side, guys like Ryan Brasier and Heath Hembree were both much worse against lefties compared to righties. With Brasier, he had big splits in 2018 as well but that was mostly because he was otherworldly (.134 wOBA against) against righties. His wOBA allowed to lefties was still lower than .300. Your feelings on the likelihood of an overall bounceback for Brasier likely align with your feelings about a bounce-back against lefties. For Hembree, he’s always had platoon splits. The good news for both is that it is a lot easier to hide righties with platoon issues simply because there are many more right-handed bats than lefties.
This Red Sox bullpen is not perfect, and it may or may not even be complete. There is still a lot of offseason left for additions, and subtractions for that matter. As things stand right now, though, they are pretty well set for the new three-batter rule set to start in 2020. That should make life at least a little easier for Alex Cora, even if the rule isn’t going to be as impactful as some may let on.