Major League Baseball will again limit teams to carrying thirteen pitchers on the active roster when the 2022 season begins, reports Bob Nightengale of USA Today. MLB instituted a 13-pitcher limit in February 2020, but the rule has been waived in each of the past two seasons as part of the MLB-MLBPA agreements on COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Interestingly, the 13-pitcher limit may just be the beginning. The league is open to capping the number of hurlers on an active roster at twelve or perhaps eleven further down the line, per Nightengale.
Teams have become more aggressive in deploying relievers in recent seasons. Fresher arms have contributed to increased velocity across the board. The league is averaging 93.4 MPH on fastballs, 84.5 MPH on sliders and 79.5 MPH on curveballs this season, per FanGraphs. In 2002- the first year for which FanGraphs has pitch data- those offerings averaged 89.0 MPH, 80.4 MPH and 75.0 MPH, respectively.
More frequent reliever usage isn’t the only reason pitch speeds have dramatically accelerated in recent years; teams are also selecting for and training velocity in a more targeted way than ever. Nevertheless, there seems to be merit to the belief that shorter per-game stints for pitchers has some role in the uptick. By limiting the number of relievers a team can carry at any given time, the hope is teams will be compelled to stick with pitchers (predominantly starters) longer in games, thereby leveling off or decreasing the continued improvement in the quality of pitchers’ repertoires.
That’s all done in an attempt to curb the strikeouts that have become so prevalent in today’s game. Hitters are punching out in 24.2% of plate appearances this season, a 0.8 point increase relative to last year. Some of that is a result of the return of pitcher hitting in the National League after a 2020 season with a universal DH, but it’s certainly not a new development. The leaguewide strikeout rate has risen every year since 2006, setting a new all-time high each time. (Again using 2002 as a reference point, the strikeout rate is up more than seven points from that year’s 16.8% mark). The lack of balls in play has led to concerns about the quality of the on-field product, with the game more static than ever before.
Pitchers’ widespread use of foreign substances on the ball is another potential driver of the uptick in whiffs. Grip enhancers have been shown to increase pitchers’ ability to spin the ball, leading to sharper movement and more swings and misses. MLB has suggested in the past they planned to crack down on foreign substance usage, and Nightengale reports the league has now ordered umpires to be “vigilant” in that effort, with increased enforcement expected in the next two weeks.
Earlier this week, umpire Joe West confiscated the cap of Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos based on a belief the righty had applied a foreign substance to the brim. That drew the ire of St. Louis manager Mike Shildt, who called foreign substance use “baseball’s dirty little secret” and argued the decision to single out Gallegos for such a widespread practice was “the wrong time and the wrong arena to expose it” (via Ryan Wormeli of NBC Sports Chicago). With the league now pushing umpires to intervene to limit foreign substance use, it wouldn’t be a surprise if similar situations arose in the coming days.
It also seems electronic calling of balls and strikes will be in play in the not too distant future- Nightengale suggests it could be in the majors within three years from now- with a corresponding modification of the rulebook strike zone. “When (the electronic strike zone) comes, it’s really easy to make adjustments in the strike zone,” MLB consultant Theo Epstein tells Nightengale. “We’re trying to optimize contact. So, the way the strike zone used to be a little bit wider and a little bit shorter, which was better for contact. Now, it’s really tall, but narrow. So you can shrink the zone a little bit, especially the upper boundary, which might be better for inducing more contact.’’
Nightengale’s piece is well worth a full read for those interested in the state of the game. Epstein explains his perspective on why the sport has trended the direction it has, offering some hypotheses about ways to incentivize a more traditional, contact-oriented style of play. The former Red Sox and Cubs executive also explains the thought processes behind the experimental rules changes currently being tested at various levels of the minor leagues and in independent ball.