Rob Manfred has ideas about changing baseball. You have opinions about his ideas, I’m sure, but I don’t care. I don’t hate you, it’s just that this article is not about Rob Manfred’s ideas, it’s inspired by Rob Manfred’s ideas.
Well, one of his ideas: the three-out minimum for pitchers.
I’m not going to stake out a position on this for the sake of a take. Rather, I have an alternative: instead of forcing pitchers to face a minimum and killing the LOOGY, what if managers could select one player per game that could be substituted at will.
This is pretty abstract, and I’ll spell it out in detail below, but the gist is that baseball needs to have its best players affecting the action when it matters. As it is now, when a dominant pitcher has been removed from the game, he’s done; when a good hitter is stranded on base, he’s not likely to impact the game again for at least another inning. As a matter of entertainment, this is suboptimal. There’s no question, with the game on the line, that Lebron will be running the offense, that Tom Brady will be leading the two-minute drill, Alexi Ovechkin will get a shot off, and so on. Baseball needs this for entertainment, for marketing, for strategy, for the players, for the fans.
Now, how the hell would this actually work?
The way I envision it, before each game the manager gets to designate one player as his unlimited sub. There would have to be rules for this player, of course. Only one player may be designated; the designation may not go to another player even in the event of injury. Any player taken out for the unlimited sub may not be re-inserted at any point, following the traditional substitution rules, and it seems fair that the unlimited sub be used only once per inning. In addition, unlimited substitutes will get no warm-up time on the field. Pace of play is an issue because of specialized pitchers and whatnot, so if we’re going to introduce more substitutes it has to be done in an expedient matter. Thus, if you’re the unlimited substitute, you had better be ready to go as soon as the move is announced. Beyond that, however, let the managers run wild. This rule is meant to be taken advantage of, to allow creativity and strategy to flourish, and, most of all, to be exciting.
It follows then, that there should be no rules on what players could be designated. It could be a specialist, it could be a starter, it could be a batter, it could be a defensive specialist, or it could be a runner. Let’s break down these scenarios with the Indians’ roster in mind.
Before a game against the Twins, Terry Francona designates Oliver Perez as his unlimited sub and pencils him in as the starter. Perez, who held lefties to a wOBA of just .213 in 2018, fills the opener role perfectly and retires Max Kepler for the first out and makes way for Corey Kluber, who finishes the next six innings without much drama. Perez then comes back to with one out in the seventh to retire Nelson Cruz, then hands the ball to Adam Cimber, who sets down Eddie Rosario. Cimber continues in the eighth, striking out CJ Cron, before Perez comes back to get Jorge Polanco. Brad Hand then completes a four-out save for the Tribe to end the game.
Trevor Bauer is slated to start against the Yankees and he is named the unlimited sub prior to the game. He starts and allows a pair of runs over the first four innings before Francona makes a move to the pen. With no outs in the fifth inning of 1-2 game and the bottom of the Yankees lineup due, the leverage index is pretty low, allowing the Tribe skipper to call on one of his younger arms. Tito brings Jon Edwards in and the righty does alright, but loads the bases with two outs and Aaron Judge striding to the plate, prompting Francona to re-insert Bauer. The rubber-armed starter punches out Judge and eliminates the threat. In the sixth, Francona does the same thing, this time inserting Adam Cimber to retire Giancarlo Stanton before sending Bauer back out for the last two-thirds. In the eighth and ninth Bauer is not needed, but always ready to come back in should drama arise.
I have two distinct ideas on how a batter might serve as the unlimited sub. The first is a bit more straightforward, and that is to name a player like Francisco Lindor the unlimited sub. Obviously Lindor is valuable on defense as well as offense, so he’s going to start the game at shortstop. But let’s say he is stranded on second at the end of the sixth in a tie game and his spot in the batting order is not due for another six batters, to get him back to the plate Francona could simply switch his spot in the order with someone else. Let’s say Leonys Martin is hitting sixth, due up third in the seventh inning; in this scenario, Lindor takes Martin’s spot and vice versa, guaranteeing Frankie an at-bat the inning after being stranded on base. First and foremost, this gets the best batters more trips to the plate, but it also changes the strategy for managers, as they then have to decide how to pitch those talented hitters. On the flip side, Francona could counter a LOOGY by swapping Lindor with the batter the specialist came in to face, forcing that pitcher to face a hitter with a 168 wRC+ versus lefties (2018 numbers).
Another way the unlimited sub could be used with a batter is as a reusable pinch hitter. The Indians do not really have a bat-only type player on the roster any longer, so let’s pretend Edwin Encarnacion is still around and is named the unlimited sub but starts on the bench in a game against a lefty starter. Kipnis, who hits lefties a fair bit worse than righties, is dropped to ninth in the order and subbed out for Encarnacion in the third inning. After batting, Francona inserts Yu Chang defensively at third, sliding Jose Ramirez to second. Leonys Martin also fares better against righties, so when his spot comes up in the fifth, Encarnacion is once again subbed in and then Tyler Naquin assumes center in the sixth. Because the bench is only so deep, the use of the unlimited sub as a reusable pinch hitter would have limits, but it would certainly force some creative decisions from the manager.
Roberto Perez didn’t hit worth a lick in 2018 and in 2019 Steamer projects him to be worth -6 runs. However, those same projections peg Perez to be worth 6.2 runs on defense and Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted framing runs continues to love the Puerto Rican backstop (12.1 FRAA in 2018). So, what if he only had to play defense? On a day Bauer starts, Francona names his preferred catcher, Perez, the unlimited sub, batting eighth. When Perez’s spot in the order comes up, he swaps him with Jake Bauers, who made the last out the previous inning. The next time it comes up, Perez is swapped with Carlos Santana, who was stranded at first the inning prior. It’s easy to imagine that a manager could tag a defensive specialist as the unlimited sub and then swap that player in the lineup so that they never have to hit (unless, of course, the team bats around, in which case the rally’s big enough it won’t make a big difference).
Terrance Gore is a fun player to dream on, and the same can be said for Billy Hamilton. But, in reality, it’s hard to find them a home on the baseball field. Unless they could be the unlimited sub. Say the Indians had signed Gore this offseason to be used as an unlimited sub, he could come in any time a slow runner (of which the Indians don’t have many!) and immediately change the game. If Perez gets a hit in the third, Gore could come on to run and then Kevin Plawecki could easily come into the game for defense. Or Gore could spell Santana in a late, close game when the need for speed is great. The unlimited sub could make baserunning a bigger part of the game and inject more excitement into the proceedings, not to mention create more jobs for track athletes.
These examples are far from an exhaustive list of ways an unlimited substitution could be used in Major League Baseball, but I think it’s a good start. And I truly believe this is an idea that would change baseball for the better. It may not speed up pace of play (though it couldn’t hurt) and it may not lead to owners paying players better during their free agent years (though it could make specialists more valuable), but I really think it would make the game more entertaining.
It’s not hard to imagine a rule change like this having a big impact on a very impactful game. For instance, bottom of the tenth in game seven of the World Series — rather than Michael Martinez, unlimited sub Francisco Lindor strolls to the plate. Lindor’s still going to fail to get a hit about 70% of the time, but that’s an upgrade over the >80% fail rate of Martinez.