TAMPA, Fla. — Of all of the new rules that were announced last week by Major League Baseball and the Players Association, the most controversial is the one that will force pitchers to face at least three batters per appearance unless it’s the end of the inning or the pitcher gets injured.
That rule is going to start next season.
Or is it?
The three-batter rule has been a pet project of commissioner Rob Manfred and is designed to speed up the game by ending the parade of one-batter relief appearances that can slow the sport to a crawl.
But the Players Association is opposed to the idea. MLB has the right to implement the change unilaterally for next season as part of the collective-bargaining agreement. The union can’t stop it, but it can continue to lobby MLB not to implement the change as part of their continued negotiations.
Players Association executive director Tony Clark, after his annual spring training meeting with Yankees players at Steinbrenner Field on Saturday, was asked if he thinks the union can get MLB to scrap the three-batter rule.
“I think there’s a lot of time between now and next year,” he said.
Clark said the union’s opposition mirrors what has been heard from many players, managers and others around the game: The three-batter rule will interfere with strategy.
“We’ve had dialogue about on-field issues for a number of years,” he said. “Changing the way the game is played is always a delicate proposition, which is why we don’t think the conversation should be focused in on changing the game on the field as much as it is the things off the field that are affecting what we’re seeing.”
Others have been less kind about the three-batter rule. Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “Whenever you impact strategy, I don’t like that. The pace of the game, I’m all about it. The length of the game, I don’t think it really matters. Strategy should be left alone.”
There is a recent example of MLB backing down on a rule change the players didn’t want. MLB will not impose a 20-second pitch clock over the next three seasons even though it has the right to do so. MLB has experimented with a pitch clock in spring training, but the players were opposed to it. .
Clark, accompanied by union executives including Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and former Met Bobby Bonilla, met with the Yankees’ players for about two hours. Union staff members meet with every team in spring training.
The hottest topics, according to Clark, include growing player discontent about the slow free-agent market and the number of veteran players still unsigned this close to season openers, and the belief that not every team is trying to win.
It was embarrassing to baseball and infuriating to players that young megastars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper had to wait all offseason to sign with new teams. Machado eventually signed with San Diego for 10 years and $300 million. Harper got 13 years and $330 million from the Phillies. But there are too many other players still looking for jobs for the union’s liking.
“We’re glad that both Manny and Bryce found homes,” Clark said. “But there are still a number of players out there that as we get down to under two weeks left in spring training still don’t have homes and could help teams.”
Some players have even talked about striking when the current collective-bargaining agreement ends after the 2021 season. When asked about that possibility, Clark said: “As we hear the concerns from players, we understand what our history is and what it’s looked like. But we appreciate as much as anything that the level of their concern is why you are hearing some of the things you have been hearing. But we have time before 2021 [and] the opportunity to have a conversation ahead of the expiration of the agreement with an eye on moving things forward in a way we believe is in everyone’s best interests. That’s what we’re focused in on.”