Last week, Major League Baseball officially announced its rule changes for the 2020 season that we had heard about several months ago. These include the three-batter minimum for relievers (unless the inning ends), longer minimum stays for pitchers on the injured list (from 10 days to 15), a longer minimum option period for pitchers sent down to the minors (from 10 days to 15) and a 28-player roster standard for September.
The most intriguing MLB rule change, however, is the change from a 25-man roster through Aug. 31 to 26 players. I’ve long advocated for a change in roster size, an acknowledgement that pitcher usage — and the number of pitchers rostered — has changed dramatically in the last two-plus decades.
For example, in 1977, six teams maxed out at 13 pitchers used the entire season. In 1978, no team used more than 18 pitchers. In 2019, 20 teams used at least 30 different pitchers with the Mariners maxing out at 42. The Cardinals used the fewest with 23. The days of the nine-man staff are ancient history and even 11-man pitching staffs almost feel like another generation ago.
As teams increasingly carried more pitchers on the roster — most teams carried 13 for much of the season last year — that meant fewer position players on the bench. The best aspect of the new rule is that teams will be limited to 13 pitchers, so the 26th man will be an additional position player.
That means more flexibility in roster utilization and in-game strategy, which is a big positive. Here are ways teams may deploy that 26th man.
The professional pinch hitter
Past examples: Lenny Harris, Mark Sweeney, John Vander Wal, Dave Hansen, late-career Rusty Staub
Current possibilities: Matt Joyce, Matt Adams, Mike Ford, Nick Martini, Matt Beaty, Phil Gosselin
In doing some research for this, I was surprised to discover the professional pinch hitter isn’t exactly dead. In fact, Ichiro Suzuki set the single-season record for pinch-hitting appearances in 2017 with the Marlins, with 109. That year he played 136 games while batting just 215 times. In 2018, Tommy La Stella had 90 pinch-hit appearances for the Cubs. He batted just 192 times while playing 123 games. The Braves had two players last season who were primarily used as pinch hitters in Joyce (85 pinch-hitting appearances) and Charlie Culberson (58). Those two ranked 1-2 in the majors in pinch-hitting appearances.
In general, however, if you only have three or four bench players, it’s difficult to carry a player who just pinch hits because one of your bench players has to be the backup catcher and your other two (or three) had better have some positional versatility. Compare that to how Staub was used at the end of his career with the Mets in the 1980s. Over his final three seasons, he played just 90 innings in the field.
The new rules make a guy like Adams interesting. The Mets signed him to a minor league contract, which seemed like an odd move given that they have Pete Alonso entrenched at first base with Dom Smith as the backup. Maybe Adams, who hit 20 home runs last season for the Nationals in a part-time role, makes the team as a pinch-hitting specialist. Martini, now with the Phillies, has had trouble earning time in the majors because he lacks the power you want from a corner outfielder. But he can hit, doesn’t strike out much, and would be a nice bat off the bench. Beaty doesn’t have a road to much regular time with the Dodgers, but could become that lefty bat off the bench.
Of course, once the National League finally adopts the designated hitter, there will be far fewer pinch-hitting opportunities, but that doesn’t mean this type of player can’t still be used. Managers should be more willing to hit for that light-hitting shortstop or catcher earlier in the game with the extra bat available.
The pinch runner/defensive specialist
Past examples: Matt Alexander, Miguel Dilone, Otis Nixon, Mike Squires, Rafael Belliard, John McDonald
Current possibilities: Billy Hamilton, Myles Straw, Andrew Stevenson, Travis Jankowski, Roman Quinn, Tim Locastro, Jorge Mateo
The heyday of the pinch runner came in the 1970s, when the sport became obsessed with speed and stolen-base speedsters. Under Charlie Finley, the Oakland A’s actually rostered players whose only job was to pinch run. Herb Washington was the most extreme example, a world-class sprinter who appeared in 105 games for the A’s in 1974-75 without ever batting (he stole 31 bases, but was caught stealing 17 times). Don Hopkins stole 21 bases for the A’s in 1975 while batting just eight times. Alexander played in 374 games over nine seasons in the majors, but batted just 195 times.
The record for pinch-running appearances came in 1978, with 1,360. That total had dwindled to just 699 by 2019. Likewise, the pure defensive sub is a relic of the past. As a bench player with the Braves from 1993 to 1997, Belliard played in 370 games and batted just 633 times. The fewer bench spots has left fewer options to carry a speed specialist or light-hitting defensive replacement like Belliard.
Nobody is going to carry a pure pinch runner anymore, but the 26th spot will allow teams to have a hybrid speed/defensive type. Hamilton is a good example. His lack of offense has made him a marginal big leaguer — he managed only a non-roster invite to spring training with the Giants this year. But as a 26th man, he could pinch run, serve as a defensive replacement in center field or draw the occasional start when a fly ball pitcher is starting.
Straw is a perfect 26th man. He can play shortstop and outfield and stole 70 bases in the minors in 2018. His complete lack of power makes him a stretch as a regular, but as a multi-positional player with speed, he’s a nice weapon off the bench. Now you can carry a player like him. Jankowski is another speedster. He’s part of the crowded outfield picture in Cincinnati, but he’s a better defender in center than Nick Senzel or Shogo Akiyama, and that could earn him a roster spot.
An extra platoon bat
Past examples: John Lowenstein, Garth Iorg, Dave Bergman, Dave Magadan, Olmedo Saenz
Current possibilities: Domingo Santana, Ryan Zimmerman, Ji-Man Choi, Aristides Aquino, Austin Riley, Josh Naylor
Teams hit with the platoon advantage 52.9% of the time in 2019. In 2009, that figure was 55.2%. In 1989, it was 60.5%. With more roster spots taken up by relievers, managers can get the platoon advantage in the bullpen, knowing the opposing team doesn’t have as many options on the bench. The 26th man could help create more platoons and more pinch-hitting situations (especially when combined with the new three-batter minimum for relievers).
This hitter could most likely come at first base, left field or right field. Those are three positions where you used to see more platoons: guys who could hit some but weren’t exactly Gold Glovers. With fewer bench players, teams required more positional versatility.
The extra bench player should allow for more platoon possibilities this year. The Indians could look to compensate for an undermanned outfield by platooning all three positions, including new addition Domingo Santana. The Rays will love using the extra man and will have platoons all over the place at first base, DH and the outfield. With Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick already on the Nationals’ roster, there might not have been room for Ryan Zimmerman to return to Washington, but he can still hit lefties and now the Nats have a spot for him. The Braves can have a platoon at third base with Riley and Johan Camargo and still carry Adeiny Hechavarria as the backup middle infielder.
A third catcher
Past examples: Johnny Oates, Jamie Quirk, Steve Lake
Current possibilities: Willians Astudillo, Zack Collins, Russell Martin, Alex Jackson, Garrett Stubbs, Andrew Knizner, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Kyle Farmer
The third-string catcher began disappearing in the 1980s as teams began rostering more pitchers. This guy didn’t play much, usually in mop-up duty or if the other two catchers had already been used, and usually wasn’t much of a hitter. Oates played just 115 games over his final four seasons in the majors as a third-stringer with the Dodgers and Yankees and hit .218. Hey, somebody had to warm up the relief pitchers. (No, seriously. The bullpen catcher didn’t really exist until the 1980s.)
I’m not sure if many teams will deploy a third-string catcher in 2020, unless it’s a player who can fill in at another position as well, like Astudillo, Stubbs or Kiner-Falefa. It would be nice to see Martin, who is still unsigned, get a job. He could almost serve as a player-coach, helping to mentor a young staff or young catcher.
Collins is the type of player who fits here. A first-round pick of the White Sox in 2016, he’s now blocked by Yasmani Grandal and James McCann. Factor in that his defensive skills behind the plate are shaky and the bat may be a little light for first base and he’s a tough guy to roster. But as a 26th man? Maybe there’s a role for him and carrying him as a bench guy could allow the Sox to use Grandal at DH when he’s not catching and not worry about not having a backup behind the plate (although the White Sox have a full-time DH in Edwin Encarnacion).
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Kiner-Falefa is another case since the Rangers have the anemic Jeff Mathis as one of their catchers. With three catchers, you can have much more aggressive pinch-hitting for a weak-hitting backstop. Catchers hit just .238/.309/.408 last season, but managers are reluctant to hit for the catchers because they’re worried about burning the backup. That’s always been a silly philosophy. How often does the backup get in the game and then get injured? Through the end of August, teams used a pinch hitter just 356 times for the catcher — or about once every 11 games. If you carry a third catcher, you can hit for the light-hitting backstop if he comes up in a big situation earlier in the game.
The two-way player
Past examples: Brooks Kieschnick
Current possibilities: Jake Cronenworth, Jared Walsh
I’m not talking about Shohei Ohtani or Rays rookie Brendan McKay, who is one of the best pitching prospects in the game and reached the majors last year. Those aren’t 26th-man types. I’m thinking of a player who may not otherwise be rostered. Given the new rules on IL stints and minor league options, the roster churn we have seen recently for pitchers won’t be as turbulent, which means having a 14th pitcher who can soak up some low-leverage innings would be useful.
Cronenworth and Walsh are two obvious players who fit. Cronenworth was a two-way player at Michigan when the Rays drafted him in 2015. He had a breakout season at Triple-A in 2019, hitting .334 with 10 home runs as a shortstop/second baseman, but he also returned to the mound for the first time since his Michigan days and allowed two unearned runs in 7⅓ innings. He went to San Diego in the Tommy Pham trade and could make the team as a backup infielder/mop-up pitcher.
Walsh reached the majors with the Angels last year, getting 87 plate appearances and pitching five times in relief. He hit 36 home runs at Salt Lake and had a 4.15 ERA in 13 relief outings, so he’s a legit power bat who has held his own on the mound.
Sounds like the perfect 26th man.