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Giants used this strategy to help win 3 World Series, but now it’s banned

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 7/1/2020 By Bruce Jenkins

Save a spot for rule books in the dugouts this year. They’ll be coming to life as never before, making decisions that defy a manager’s best instincts. Behold the three-batter minimum, baseball’s latest attempt at innovation and, once again, a topic of heated controversy.

The rule comes with good intentions. Nobody likes to see three or four relief pitchers in a single half-inning, especially when the hitters aren’t stirring up a rally, so forget the idea of, say, Jeremy Affeldt coming on to face a left-handed hitter, then quickly departing so Santiago Casilla will have a righty-righty matchup, then turning to Javier Lopez against a lefty.

It was exactly that kind of strategy, masterfully orchestrated by manager Bruce Bochy, that helped the Giants win three World Series titles in five years. Who’s complaining when the Champagne flows? Bochy made those moves because he had the necessary talent and his own aura of high authority. It’s not so fascinating during the regular season when the tedious procession means little more than a few extra TV ads, so here’s the latest attempt by Major League Baseball to speed up things a little.

As one frames a reaction, the phrase “fraught with peril” comes to mind.

Simply stated: If Bob Melvin has seen enough of a relief pitcher after two batters and desperately wants to bring somebody else out of the A’s bullpen, he can’t do it. Forbidden. Once entering a game, relievers have to face at least three batters or end the inning (in which case it could be just one hitter).

Can you imagine the consequences? Right out of the gate, your new pitcher issues a four-pitch walk to load the bases, and he’s alarmingly wild. Without great effort by the catcher, two of those pitches sail off the backstop. The next batter hits a 478-foot grand slam that rattles the counter at a distant concession stand, tying the game. Now it’s time for one of the best hitters in the league, and he’s 11-for-15 lifetime against this pitcher.

You’re going to leave him in? We’re afraid the rule book will have to insist.

It’s entirely possible that MLB has arrived a bit late to the discussion. One-batter relief appearances have been on a steady decline in recent years. Sports Illustrated research determined that if this rule had been in effect last season, “it would have prevented, at most, 691 of the 16,573 pitching changes — a paltry 4 percent.” And talk about a backfire: In certain situations where a struggling pitcher hangs around interminably, perhaps preventing a replacement from settling things down, the game could last longer because of this rule.

So where’s the benefit? Start with the restoration of faith. Far too often, a reliever is forced to leave the game — based strictly on percentages or analytics-driven data — when he just struck out a respected hitter with the best stuff he’s had all year. “Hey, you did your job” doesn’t cut it for a prideful athlete having to walk off the field in the middle of an inning, having done not one thing wrong.

“I have no problem with this rule at all,” Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow said. “I’ve always felt, why would you take out a guy who’s throwing good? Just because there’s a left-handed hitter coming up? Why take the risk that the lefty you’re bringing in has got his s— that day? You’re watching a guy out there on the mound who’s got his s—. It just never made sense to me. I’ve got a real attitude about it. A guy in the big leagues should be able to get both sides out.”

Some other things to keep in mind:

• There’s always the possibility of teams creating fake injuries for struggling pitchers, as in, “His arm’s killing him. He’s got to come out right now.” Do the umpires buy such a claim or just wave it off?

• Intentional walks, bound to be more of a factor than in recent years, count toward the three-batter minimum, but picking off a runner does not. There might also be an increasing need for pinch-hitters — another good argument for expanded rosters. (In a perfect world, even with the universal designated hitter coming into play, teams would employ 27 players with a 12-man limit on pitchers.)

• Filling out their lineup cards, managers are likely to alternate left- and right-handed hitters more than ever before — but it could work the other way as well. If Angels manager Joe Maddon anticipates a situation in which a lefty reliever comes in to face Shohei Ohtani (in a DH role), wouldn’t it be nice if his next two hitters are (right-handed) Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon?

• Could a team lose the decisive game of a World Series because a manager’s preferred strategy was handcuffed by the three-batter minimum? Don’t let that happen. Go with traditional rules in the postseason.

• Here’s a toast to you, Mr. Bochy. For so many reasons, you left baseball at exactly the right time.

Bruce Jenkins is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: bjenkins@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Bruce_Jenkins1

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