Rocco Baldelli and the Three-Batter Minimum
Image courtesy of © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsThe 2020 Minnesota Twins are unlikely to carry a true matchup reliever, of either handedness. The pitchers closest to that profile, among those likely to make the roster, are veterans Sergio Romo (a righty who's tougher on righties) and Tyler Clippard (a righty who's famously tougher on lefties), but even they aren't extreme in this regard. However, despite a new rule that makes such hurlers harder to use, Rocco Baldelli might find he can occasionally escape a sticky situation by embracing platoon matchups in key moments, if he's willing to stomach a bit more risk.
With the advent of the three-batter minimum rule in 2020, the role of matchup relief arms will, inevitably, diminish. The rule requires any pitcher who enters a game to face at least three batters, or to reach the end of an inning. It's been called the death of the LOOGY (lefty one-out guy), among other things, since it was first floated last spring. Paired with a rule that will firmly cap the number of pitchers on a roster at a given time at 13, and with longer option periods when pitchers are farmed out to bring up someone fresh, the three-batter minimum does incentivize a greater emphasis on durability and versatility among relievers.
However, the rule changes have been slightly oversold as a death knell for the matchup guy. The second clause of the rule — "or to reach the end of an inning" — has been underrated as a carrot for the aggressive manager to chase. Last season, Baldelli showed that he belongs to the small class of new-age managers who are willing to take tactical risks, when the odds favor it. He could put that mentality to use to get the most out of his bullpen under new constraints in 2020.
Say there are two outs, and an exceptionally tough left-handed hitter is due for the opposing team. It's the seventh inning of a one-run game, and there are two runners on base. Behind that slugging left-handed stick (perhaps Chicago's Yasmani Grandal) lurk a pair of right-handers with similar thunder (José Abreu and Edwin Encarnación, maybe). The White Sox's bullpen is pretty sturdy, these days, so it's important to hold on to the slim lead.
In such a situation, Baldelli might be tempted to call on Taylor Rogers, as he sometimes did in 2019, and to then stretch Rogers through at least the eighth frame. That creates a long path to the end of the game, though. If he's feeling a bit more risk-averse, in light of the new rule, he might turn to Tyler Duffey or Trevor May, who are each split-neutral. Let's imagine, though, that only one of the two is available that night. That would leave someone further down the depth chart to pitch the eighth, or that same setup man to come back out, and maybe even Rogers to stretch out across multiple innings, too.
If he were willing to roll the dice a bit, though, Baldelli could try something else: inserting Clippard. It's not ideal, in the sense that if Clippard should fail to get Grandal, he'd then be stuck in the game to face two tough right-handed batters. Clippard isn't as strong against righties; that would lead to a bit of a spiral. On the other hand, outside of Rogers, there's no single reliever in the Twins bullpen more likely to get Grandal out — and, thereby, to end the threat and become eligible to leave the game before the Sox come up to bat in the eighth — than Clippard.
Managers will have to accept some risk of a snowball effect, whenever they try this kind of matchup management, from now on. However, that doesn't mean they shouldn't sometimes try it. In pivotal moments, if there's an optimal matchup against one or two particular batters, Baldelli should accept the downside in order to raise the likelihood of what is, already, the technically more likely event: getting out of the jam unscathed and regaining full flexibility for the following inning.
Ron Gardenhire won't deploy this strategy. Nor will Mike Matheny, or even Terry Francona or Rick Renteria. In the AL Central, there will suddenly be a massive extinction event for matchup baseball in the middle and late innings, at least outside Minnesota. If Baldelli can sometimes accept the risk involved — if he's willing to raise the chances of a catastrophic unwinding by one percent in order to raise the chances of the best possible outcome by three or four percent, when that was already perhaps 65-percent likely — he'll give the Twins a clear strategic advantage in close contests throughout the campaign.
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email
- mikelink45, ToddlerHarmon and LilMauer like this