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MLB Handicapping: How 2020’s Rule Changes Will Impact Bettors


MLB has implemented a handful of rule changes for the upcoming season. They include batter minimums for relief pitchers, roster limits, and injury lists. Let’s take a look at how we should approach them from a betting perspective.

Three-Batter Minimum All pitchers must face at least three batters or pitch until the inning comes to an end before they come out of a game. This will have a large impact on specialist relievers who are often used for only one batter (i.e. lefty vs. lefty matchups). Take for instance a pitcher like Arizona’s Andrew Chafin. Chafin made 77 appearances last season but compiled only 52.2 innings. It will significantly decrease the numbers of pitchers used across the MLB which goes against the trend of increased usage each of the last eight seasons. Teams with better starting rotations with pitchers that can go deep into games stand to gain an advantage from this rule.

Meanwhile, teams with weaker bullpens will be at a disadvantage. If a reliever comes in and struggles to get out any of his three batters, they’ll need to make a switch and burn through another reliever with the damage perhaps already being done. This should also serve as an advantage for the hitters, and could likely increase the offensive output of teams across the league. If a lefty specialist is brought in against Houston to face lefty Michael Brantley, that reliever would have to potentially stick around to face a right-handed hitter like Alex Bregman.  

Take for example Washington’s starting rotation, a unit that FanGraphs projects to throw 971 innings this season with a WAR of 19.1. They are much better suited to deal with this change than a team like Baltimore with a rotation projected to throw 933 innings and a WAR of just 6.0. There aren’t many starting pitchers who effectively chew up innings these days meaning rotations with multiple “workhorses” have extra value. As do teams with strong bullpens who can take on a heavy workload. The Yankees’ bullpen is loaded with talent and depth and as a result has a projected MLB-best WAR of 5.9. Seattle’s pen is light on premium arms and pegged to be heavily taxed (523 innings) and thus not very effective (1.6 WAR). Identifying teams that have the necessary bullpen arms and those that don’t will be paramount this season.  

An opportunity will exist in the live-betting sphere for those willing to do their homework as well. Bettors will now have the chance to know further in advance of how relievers fare against either side of the plate and pitcher vs. batter specific matchups. Cleveland’s Adam Cimber is typically a righty vs. righty specialist. Cimber only completed 13.0 IP against lefties last season compared to 42.0 IP against righties. Cimber could find himself in a situation of have having to get out Minnesota’s Miguel Sano but then facing a lefty such as Max Kepler. Cimber’s FIP against lefties was 6.52 compared to 3.72 against righties last season. 

Roster Limits Teams’ active rosters are being increased from 25 to 26 players for the regular season (originally scheduled through August 31st) and during the postseason. Teams are limited to carrying a maximum of 13 pitchers. However, there will be smaller rosters in September. MLB is adjusting the size of September rosters to 28 players, including a max of 14 pitchers. In prior season’s, any player on the 40-man roster could be added to the Major League club. Most teams would not use all 40 spots, but it would become common to see 30-plus players active for a game down the stretch in September. That would often result in teams using more relief pitchers or pinch-hitters in certain situations than they would have been able to do with normal roster sizes. While it may not make for a big impact, it again creates a disadvantage for teams with weaker depth and weaker bullpen arms. A bullpen such as Kansas City’s that is projected to have a WAR of 1.3 will not be able to rely on added arms to help what projects to be a mess of a relief corps.  

Injured List and Challenge Time Pitchers and two-way players will now have to spend 15 days on the injured list; up from the 10-day requirement previously used the last three seasons. The old format created a loophole for teams to exploit as 174 more players were sent to the injured list in 2018 compared to 2016 when the injured list was still 15 days. The ability to manipulate rosters in such a way helped teams with solid depth over the course of the season; the Dodgers being a notable example. This perhaps has the biggest impact on the futures market with win totals as those teams with a quality amount of arms won’t be able to navigate that loophole. 

Lastly, managers now only have 20 seconds to decide to challenge a play instead of 30. This won’t have much of an impact from a handicapping perspective. If anything, it could result in a bit more human error as managers may not be able to have the replay and decision making done in time to challenge calls successfully.