Here Comes the Ohtani Rule and (Sigh) the Manfred Man

© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Shohei Ohtani returned from a string of injuries and put together a season for the ages, excelling both on the mound and at the plate en route to a unanimous American League MVP award. On the days he pitched, however, he left the Angels vulnerable, because his exits from the mound generally meant his removal from the game, costing the Angels the services of their best (active) hitter and placing the team’s relievers in the batting order. That problem is no more, as last week Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association formally announced a handful of rule changes going into effect for 2022, one of which allows a starting pitcher who also serves as his team’s designated hitter to remain in the game in the latter capacity after he’s done pitching.

That rule, and other more mundane ones, had been proposed earlier in March and tentatively agreed to later in the month. They weren’t part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, so implementing them required a separate vote of the owners, which did not happen until last week. MLB did utilize the “Ohtani Rule” in last year’s All-Star Game; after Ohtani threw one scoreless inning as the AL starter, he stuck around to bat out of the leadoff spot a second time and then was replaced by other DHs.

In theory, the Ohtani Rule encourages other teams to develop such two-way players, but the ones who showed promise in recent years such as Ohtani’s teammate Jared Walsh and 2017 first-round picks Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay, eventually wound up on one track or the other. Thus in practice the rule is very specifically targeted at a single player — and an international superstar, at that. In baseball, the closest precedent for such a singularly oriented rule dates back to the 19th century and is linked to three-time batting champion Ross Barnes, though in that case, the change was designed to hinder his play, not aid it.

From 1871 through ’76, a batter could reach base safely on a ball that first landed in the infield and then bounced or rolled into foul territory. Barnes, a second baseman first with the National Association’s Boston Red Stockings and then the National League’s Chicago White Stockings, particularly excelled at hitting balls (not all of them bunts) that landed fair and went foul, making them nearly impossible to defend against. Via such tactics, he topped a .400 batting average four times, leading the NA in both 1872 and ’73 with marks of .430 and .431, and the NL in ’76 with a .429 mark. After the 1876 season, the NL adopted a rule defining balls that went into foul territory before passing first or third base as foul balls.

As MLB official historian John Thorn told FanGraphs, “Ross Barnes may have been the principal target of fair-foul hit change but the bunt (or ‘baby hit’) game had long been criticized as unmanly … or worse, a remnant of cricket.”

Barnes never hit higher than .272 after the adoption of the rule, though to be fair, a debilitating malaria-like chronic disease limited him to just 22 games in 1877, and 146 over the next four seasons, two of them washouts, before he retired in ’81. Notably, he lost a court case over whether the White Stockings had to pay him while he was sick.

Thorn offered the 1893 change of the pitching distance — from 50 feet at the front of the box (and 55 feet 6 inches at the back) to home plate to the now-familiar 60 feet 6 inches — as another example of a targeted rule. “It could be argued that the retreat of the pitching distance in 1893 was designed to muffle the speed of Amos Rusie and Cy Young.”

Indeed, the fastball velocities of Rusie (who had to that point led the NL in strikeouts twice and walks three times) and Young, the league leader in wins and ERA in 1892, were said to strike such fear into the hearts of batters that they insisted the league increase the distance. Peter Morris’ A Game of Inches traces the change to a more generalized aesthetic concern regarding the restoration of the equilibrium between batter and pitcher in the wake of the legalization of overhand pitching in 1884, and a distaste for the proliferation of strikeouts (does this sound familiar?). While Rusie and Young continued to flourish at the new distance, many of the game’s most accomplished hurlers to that point, such as John Clarkson, Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, Tony Mullane, and Mickey Welch, retired just before or shortly after the distance change.

In the past decade, MLB has introduced two rules that have been closely identified with individual players, namely the “Posey Rule” that protects catchers from collisions and the “Utley Rule” that protects middle infielders from egregious takeout slides, but both of those are generalized rules, and oddly enough, they’re linked to those players from opposite directions — and, in Buster Posey’s case, perhaps the wrong player, at that. The former was adopted in 2014, three years after Posey suffered a season-ending broken leg on a collision; its advent was more directly preceded by Alex Avila’s knee injury in the 2013 ALCS, but one way or another, it protects all catchers. The latter was adopted in in 2016 after Chase Utley broke infielder Rubén Tejada’s fibula while attempting to break up a double play the previous season, and it protects all middle infielders. (Where do Avila and Tejada go to claim their royalty checks?)

Anyway, the Ohtani Rule should help the Angels by granting its namesake extra plate appearances. By my count, players batting in his stead in games from which he was removed as a pitcher — including the dud in the Bronx that I attended, where he took a first-inning exit — totaled 22 PA last year, about one per start; he also made three starts in April and May where he did not hit and the Angels used a conventional DH. At the level at which Ohtani played last year, an extra 30 to 35 PA would have worth something on the order of two runs relative to a replacement level hitter. Not nothing, but hardly season-turning (have you seen the Angels lately?), and a good way to showcase a singularly talented superstar.

The Ohtani Rule does not preclude other teams from using their pitchers as DHs, but the likelihood of, say, the Diamondbacks using Madison Bumgarner in that capacity seems vanishingly small as even they can surely offer a better hitter than one with a 44 wRC+ (21 since 2018) to bat four times a game. Incidentally, one previous candidate for two-way duty, Michael Lorenzen, is now an Angel himself, and a starting pitcher at that, though he’s lost interest in the double-duty exploits he pursued with the Reds. Lorenzen made 34 appearances in the outfield from 2018-21, starting six times (all in 2019). He owns an 84 wRC+ for his career; last year, the Halos gave over 2,000 PA to non-pitchers with lower marks, including David Fletcher, José Iglesias, Juan Lagares, Kurt Suzuki, and Albert Pujols.

The Ohtani Rule is in place for the life of the new CBA, while the other new rules to which the league and the union have agreed — the ones that weren’t part of the CBA (which you can read about here) — are applicable to 2022 only, under the health and safety protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic. What follows is a quick rundown of those.

Roster Sizes

As in 2020, the abbreviated spring training has not allowed starting pitchers enough time to build up their pitch counts to where they would typically be at the start of the season. Thus, teams will be allowed to carry 28 players instead of 26 from Opening Day through games of May 1, with an extra player added on days in which teams play doubleheaders.

For those first few weeks, the limitation on the number of pitchers on the active roster — 13 out of 26, per a rule put in place for 2020 that has yet to be enforced — will be relaxed as well. Which, alas, means some very bloated pitching staffs. The Dodgers, who open their season against the Rockies at Coors Field, are apparently planning to use 16 of their 28 roster spots on pitchers:

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. The good news (?) is that they’re probably going to carry five left-handed relievers, so we can really watch Roberts dig into those matchups. The Yankees, who don’t even have the Coors Field excuse, are “leaning towards” carrying 16 pitchers into their opening series against the Red Sox as well.

May 2 can’t come soon enough.

Injured List

For the 2017 season, MLB reduced the minimum number of days for a player to be on what was then the disabled list from 15 to 10 (not including the 7-day concussion list); the next year, they renamed it the injured list. Given the general consensus that some teams were using the IL as yet another means to expand their pitching staffs, the league planned to implement a rule lengthening the minimum stays for pitchers and two-way players to 15 days in 2020, but that one fell by the wayside with the COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Now, it will be implemented as of May 2. Until then, pitchers, position players, and two-way players can be placed on the 10-day IL, but from that point onward, only position players can use the 10-day IL. The various other ILs (COVID, 7-day concussion and 60-day) will continue to function as they did last year.

Minor League Options

The minimum number of days that a pitcher or two-way player must remain on option or outright assignment prior to being recalled or re-selected is 10 days until May 2, and 15 thereafter. This is another throwback from 2020 that’s finally going into place, designed to reduce the amount of churn in bullpens.

Additionally, those option assignments before May 2 don’t count against the seasonal limit of five, which was put in place by the new CBA.

Extra Innings

As was the case in 2020 and ’21, each extra inning will begin with a runner on second base, namely the player occupying the spot in the batting order preceding that of the inning’s leadoff hitter (unless it’s a pitcher, which is much more unlikely now with the universal DH). As of last summer — hell, as recently as early March — the Manfred Man (or zombie runner) was presumed to be a relic of the past, but according to The Athletic’s Matt Gelb and Jayson Stark, it returned as part of the league’s health and safety protocols.

This one isn’t a popular rule among fans; when I polled FanGraphs readers after the 2020 season, just 23.6% favored keeping the rule, an even lower percentage than favored retaining seven-inning games for doubleheaders (32.9%). Gelb and Stark cited a March 2021 Seton Hall Sports Poll in which just 17% of the general population approved, with 28% of sports fans and 41% of avid fans approving. Here’s the thing, though: the players like it, as pitching staffs don’t get burned out as often by epic contests and pitchers with options remaining aren’t “rewarded” for emptying the tank with another trip to the minors. Managers favor it, too, with the likes of the Yankees’ Aaron Boone, the Brewers’ Craig Counsell, and the Diamondbacks’ Torey Lovullo among those speaking up on the rule’s behalf.

Speaking of doubleheaders, if and when they’re necessary, games will be of the nine-inning variety. The seven-inning ones have been sent back to the minors, where they belong.

Beyond those changes, a few others have been made that will persist beyond 2022, but merit mention here. The first concerns rookie qualification. As before, a player is still considered a rookie if he hasn’t exceeded 130 at-bats (not plate appearances), 50 innings, or 45 days on the active roster (time on the IL doesn’t count). Amid the abbreviated 2020 season, the powers that be decided that September (and October) days on the active roster would no longer be excluded from the 45-day count, and last year, with September rosters limited to 28 players instead of 40, that rule was retained. Now it looks as though it’s becoming permanent.

Shortly before this article was published, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that MLB will allow teams to use wearable PitchCom signaling devices during the regular season as a means of countering sign-stealing efforts and improving pace of play. Several teams have tested the devices this spring and they’ve drawn glowing reviews. We’ll have a closer look at the ramifications of that in a separate article soon.

As for the other changes you’ll see in 2022, from the universal designated hitter and the five-option limit to the expanded playoffs, those are part of the new CBA. So is the 45-day notification window for the league to implement new rules, which will likely introduce a pitch clock, larger bases, and some kind of ban on infield shifts next year. There will be ample time to yell at those clouds, I promise.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

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1 year ago
Reply to  tz

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Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
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1 year ago

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1 year ago

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1 year ago

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