The Three At-Bat Minimum: A Crazy Idea to Up Interest in Baseball (its different than the three batter minimum)

A lineup card from Game 6 of the 2017 Word Series. It will all make sense in a second.

Watch enough well-pitched baseball games and eventually you will hear something similar to:

“Mike Clevinger was stellar today, pitching a complete game shut out. He allowed just one hit and one walk over 9 innings, but was the benefactor of two double play balls. He faced the minimum.”

“The minimum.” For those that may not already know, the minimum refers to the fact that at the very least a baseball team will bat through its lineup three times during a nine inning game. The context above is when you will currently here about it; when a pitcher completes a game in such a way that he faces no more hitters than may be required, but does not pitch a perfect game. You can also hear that the pitcher faced “x number of hitters more than the minimum”, usually to emphasize he didn’t face that many more.

I have an idea that I think could potentially make baseball a more popular game in America, and it focuses around this idea of “the minimum”.

Before I go any further, I want to be very clear. If baseball were a political spectrum I would likely be considered a baseball moderate. I love that the American League and National League deviate on the designated hitter rule. I enjoy that baseball has unwritten rules that so many find to be antiquated, but at the same time think the game could sometimes afford to get with the times. There’s nothing wrong with some moderate show-boating on a home run, but at the same time, I understand if the pitcher feels a certain type of way about said show-boating.

What I am about to suggest is far from a moderate point of view. I like the rule I am about to propose theoretically, but might feel differently in practice. Its radical, but I think its worthy of suggestion despite the fact that I am still also work-shopping it as a concept. At this point, I want to reveal it even though maybe I’m still not fully confident in it.

As of this season, whenever this season happens to start, we will have a three batter minimum for pitchers. As such, pitchers are required to pitch until they at least face three batters, or the inning ends, except in cases of injury. What I suggest today is the three at bat minimum.

Currently, Rule 6.01 of the MLB rule book reads as follows:

(a) Each player of the offensive team shall bat in the order that his name appears in his team’s batting order.

(b) The first batter in each inning after the first inning shall be the player whose name follows that of the last player who legally completed his time at bat in the preceding inning.

I suggest we change the rule to what is below. The actual changes are in bold.

(a) Each player of the offensive team shall bat in the order that his name appears in his team’s batting order. For a minimum of three trips through the batting order.

(b) The first batter in each inning after the first inning shall be the player whose name follows that of the last player who legally completed his time at bat in the preceding inning for the same three trips, after which the offensive team may create a new batting order for any subsequent inning. This order may be altered on an inning by inning basis.

To put it more clearly, once a team hits through your batting order three times they may change their batting order to whatever they would like at the beginning of any following inning. A new inning means the opportunity for a new batting order.

I will await the vitriol from baseball fans that are more purist than me. How could I possibly suggest such a thing?

Its a rather quite simple equation of excitement and marketability.

Baseball today finds itself often playing third fiddle to both football and basketball in the United States in terms of popularity. One major reason suggested by fans, players, and experts is that MLB needs to do a much better of job marketing its players. This is true. There are many great talented personalities in this game coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. MLB and the players themselves could do well to sell their talent much better than they do today.

I believe though that there is an inherent problem in the game that its more popular brethren don’t contend with. Part of the game itself is its own Achilles heel. A simple comparison will bring it to light.

Game 7 of the 2019 NBA Eastern Conference Semi-finals between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers may have been the best basketball game of last NBA season. In a winner-take-all match-up neither team led by more than 4 points in the last 4:30 seconds of the game and with the exception of a deep 2-point basket by Philadelphia’s JJ Redick (a prolific shooter from deep) and a missed three pointer by Toronto’s Serge Ibaka each shot attempt in the final stretch was taken by an All-Star level player. Stars controlled the close game late. This culminated in the most memorable moment of the season, then Toronto star Kawhi Leonard’s fall-away from the right baseline that hung on the rim for what seemed like eternity before falling through the net. Toronto won in dramatic fashion, 92-90 and would go on to take the Larry O’Brien trophy.

This is the brunt of my argument. Basketball puts itself in a position where when the game is on the line you know the ball is going to a team’s best player. Michael Jordan was made Michael Jordan in part by “the shot”. In short, if there is the possibility for a memorable moment down the stretch, the fans are going to get their money’s worth. The opportunity to make a difference is going to find its way into the hands of the game’s stars. The same can be said for football. If the Kansas City Chiefs are down four points late, best believe the ball is going to be put into the hands of Patrick Maholmes. For better or for worse, the fans get to see greatness work under pressure at every opportunity.

Now imagine if “the shot” never happened because it wasn’t Jordan’s turn to shoot. What if it was Fred VanVleet’s turn to have the ball in his hands for Toronto with the clock running down? What if the Chiefs were required to run the ball every other play? Think about how many memorable moments we would miss if such rules existed. This is how baseball works.

Going into the top of the 9th of Game 6 of the 2017 World Series the Los Angeles Dodgers faced elimination at the hands of the Houston Astros. The Dodgers led 3-1 that night as the Astros took their last turn at bat from Chavez Ravine with the bottom third of their order, including the pitcher’s spot due up. Rather than have the privilege of being able to bring the eventual World Series MVP (George Springer), a two time All-Star (Alex Bregman) and reigning Most Valuable Player (Jose Altuve) to the plate, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen faced Marwin Gonzalez, a utility-player having a career year, Josh Reddick, a defensive-minded outfielder also having a career year, and Carlos Beltran, a 40 year-old pinch-hitter in the last at-bat of his career.

Game 6 0f the 2017 World Series featured no losing team highlights in the 8th or 9th innings of this highlight reel. Would that be the case with the three at bat minimum?

All of the now apparent Astros cheating aside, think about the lost opportunity for baseball that was this 9th inning. The Dodgers, with one of the best closers in the game on the mound were able to avoid facing some of the best hitters in baseball with the tying run on the on-deck circle. This could have been a magic moment of epic proportions for the game of baseball, or at the very least Houston could have increased the drama of the moment by bringing their best to the plate. Instead, the Astros went down without a whimper, even if they would eventually go on to win the Series.

In short, marketing of stars is inherent in basketball and football. In baseball it isn’t. The three at bat minimum would both use the game to promote its stars and manufacture the type of drama that could bring more interest to both its biggest stages and random evening games in June.

Yes, there is a bit of inherent democracy in the way baseball is currently played, and yes, there is value to that. I am not suggesting this concept is something that should be absolutely abolished and that is the reason why teams would wait until they have hit through their order three times to re-start their lineups. Everyone still gets at least three at bats. This allows us to avoid a ridiculous amount of stat-padding that would entirely throw statistics out of whack in comparison to historical context, and would still cause managers to have to weigh offensive value against defensive prowess for their starting lineup.

In relation to the pitcher’s spot in the National League, I think that while the rule should not require the starting pitcher to hit three times, it would require a pitcher in general to hit three times. This, along with the fact that a team will more often want to save its best relievers for late in games, will encourage managers to have their starting pitchers pitch deeper into games. Not only will this increase the profile of prolific starting pitchers, it will also keep the continual parade of fire-throwing middle relievers from turning the game into a slog, and will increase offense. Further, offense will also be inherently increased by having the games best hitters hit more often. If offense really is tied to fan interest, we will ultimately prove it this way.

Additionally, with relief pitching becoming more prominent over the past five decades, defenses have benefited from specialization. We have seen that advantage continue to increase over time while the rules have continued to restrict offense. Rather than secretly juice the ball or players, what better way to even the playing field and draw more attention to your game than ensure the best players hit with the game on the line? The average MLB game last season saw about 38 plate appearances per team. With 27 being “the minimum” that would suggest that teams could start re-ordering lineups in the 7th inning on most occasions. Good offensive play would provide more opportunities and and poor play lead to less.

Lastly, strategy, which is always worshiped by baseball purists, could also see an increase under this new system.

Its the 8th inning and your team is down by 1 run. Do you send your best three sluggers to the plate and hope just one of them can run into a pitch over the middle of the plate? Do you send your best on base guy to the plate to lead off and try to get him around the bases? Do you have your speedster lead off and try to wreak havoc? What if you are the team nursing that one run lead? Then what strategy do you use for insurance runs? What does the opposing team try to do with their pitching in order to counteract these varying lineups? How important is alternating left handed and right handed batters in these late inning situations? What about bigger deficits? What provides the best opportunity to come back from three runs down? The questions barely have an end!

I understand this is a big change to implement that alters a large part of the spirit of baseball, but a change of this magnitude isn’t unprecedented. Another bat and ball sport, cricket, created a variation of itself, Twenty20, in the face of complaints about its pacing. The changes have made faced much popular fanfare all over the globe. Also, basketball has toyed with the “Elam Ending”, even having this year’s NBA All-Star game not end based on an arbitrary clock, but by playing three timed quarters and then playing the fourth quarter until a predetermined score is exceeded. It received rave reviews.

This could be baseball’s opportunity to modernize itself while still keeping its soul. This is the opportunity for Mike Trout to reach his full potential as an American sports mega-star. This is the opportunity for starting pitchers and closers all around the game to make themselves into some of the biggest names in the league. Interest abounds in this 3 at bat minimum rule.

One hundred years ago in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball by becoming the first player to try to drive the ball in the air and hit home runs. This game has always evolved with the times, and kept itself relevant in the lexicon of American history. Maybe my suggestion is just the nudge it needs to stay there.

Or maybe I’m completely out of my mind.

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