One of the rule changes that we saw in 2020 was the introduction of the 3-batter minimum. Unlike other rule changes, this one was planned before the pandemic hit, meaning that we will see it again for sure in 2021. Jayson Stark of The Athletic had an article on this rule change and he quoted several managers who were unified against the change. These managers felt that the rule not only handcuffed them in what they had to do but also kept them from having the chance to run a better bullpen than their counterparts.
Let’s for the moment accept on faith that the latter is true. But let’s take a look at the former. If managers were truly handcuffed by this new rule, we would expect the numbers to reflect that – with offense going up because managers either had to leave guys in the game longer they wanted or because fear of the rule kept them from bringing in a reliever in the first place. In order to check this out, we’ll need to do a preliminary look at the overall numbers, all coming from Baseball-Reference.
In 2019, the overall ERA in MLB was 4.49 and for relievers it was 4.46
In 2020, the overall ERA in MLB was 4.44 and for relievers it was 4.44
That’s pretty remarkable year-to-year consistency and at first glance it’s hard to say that the new rule was a detriment to teams or a boon to offense.
My hope was to show the numbers for all lefty relievers in both seasons but a split off of a split is not so easy to achieve. What was somewhat easy to get was all lefty relievers who did not start a game. And given that it’s not exactly what we want, it’s not awful. What we’re looking to see is if the elimination of the LOOGY guys resulted in a worse bullpen performance. And if you have a lefty reliever that you want to shield from RHB, you’re not likely to give him a start. So, here are the numbers for lefty relievers with zero starts:
2019: 4.34 ERA
2020: 4.02 ERA
The results of the full-time lefty relievers improved with the new rule.
Now let’s shift our focus away from MLB and zero in on the Mets. We know the Mets were absolute zealots when it came to chasing the platoon advantage with their lefty relievers under Terry Collins and it didn’t improve all that much under Mickey Callaway. And we know that all of that jumping through hoops did not make the Mets’ bullpen a good one. Hopefully everyone recognizes that the one year they didn’t have an established LOOGY all season like Jerry Blevins or Scott Rice is the year they went to the World Series.
Anyway, in 2019 the Mets used seven lefty relievers and they combined to allow 38 ER in 84 IP for a 4.07 ERA. In 2020, the Mets used four lefty relievers and they combined to allow 23 ER in 53.2 IP for a 3.86 ERA.
Ending the LOOGY madness and focusing on pitchers who could get all hitters out led to an improvement of nearly a quarter of run – and that’s despite the outstanding results of Justin Wilson in 2019. After posting a 2.54 ERA in 2019, Wilson notched a 3.66 ERA last season. If we take Wilson out of the equation, lefty relievers for the Mets in 2019 had a 5.40 ERA while the 2020 lefties had a 3.97 ERA.
At the heart of the matter, the Mets traded the matchup relievers of Luis Avilan and Daniel Zamora in 2019 for Chasen Shreve in 2020. Avilan and Zamora combined for 23 ER in 40.2 IP (5.09 ERA) while Shreve allowed 11 ER in 25 IP for a 3.96 ERA. And because of the rule, the Mets didn’t look to carry a guy who couldn’t get RHB out at all – like Rice – and didn’t promote lefty relievers who had no business being in the majors, guys like Buddy Baumann who in 3 IP allowed 8 ER.
Let’s look backwards three additional years and see how LH relievers for the Mets performed previously:
2018: 54.2 IP, 32 ER – 5.27 ERA
2017: 152 IP, 74 ER – 4.38 ERA
2016: 134.1 IP, 66 ER – 4.42 ERA
Most teams were moving away from the traditional LOOGY gambit but the Mets were not really one of them. They had to have the new rule make them do what they should have done at least eight years ago – look to carry their best relievers instead of worrying about which hand they used to throw.
In the Stark piece from The Athletic mentioned at the start of the piece, Indians manager Terry Francona said this about the 3-batter rule:
I just don’t like it when they tell you how to compete,” he said. “If they want to tell us that you’ve got to throw the ball within 20 seconds, OK fine. We’ll adjust. But if we handle our bullpen better than other teams, you’d like to think you can get rewarded for it.
The Mets didn’t handle their bullpen better before the rule because of the way they utilized sub-par relievers because they threw with their left hand, which also cost them flexibility in the long-term because those lefty relievers were so limited in what they could do. While Avilan and Zamora combined for 62 games and 40.2 IP, Shreve threw 25 IP in 17 games, which was on pace for 68 innings in a 162-game season. Their overall bullpen ERA dropped 39 points last year.
My preference is for the game to feature strategy over paint-by-numbers managing. My ideal is for the Mets to have a guy in the dugout who, in the words of Francona, gets rewarded for the moves he makes. But we see that the rules in 2020 that reduced strategic thinking – specifically the 3-batter rule and the implementation of the DH – aided the Mets tremendously. It doesn’t give me any joy to say that but the only way the situation improves is when you admit and fix where you have problems.