World Baseball Classic: Pitching Rules
By Alan Schwarz
March 2, 2006
THE INFAMOUS PITCHING RULES
Nothing will determine the outcome of the World Baseball Classic more
than how managers and pitching coaches navigate the pitching restrictions.
These are the guidelines:
1) PITCH LIMITS PER GAME
Round One: 65 pitches
Round Two: 80 pitches
Semifinal and Final: 95 pitches
(A pitcher may exceed these limits to complete a batter's plate appearance.)
2) MINIMUM REST
After a game with 30 or more pitches: At least one day
After a game with 50 or more pitches: At least four days
After pitching two consecutive days: At least one day
Ever since plans for the World Baseball Classic were made known last
May, most discussion about it has devolved into a ceaseless volley of
rejoinders. One camp demands pitch limits to protect arms from overuse;
the other insists that pitchers will still return to their clubs looking
like the Venus de Milo; to which the first group responds, "That’s
what the pitch limits are for;" and so on into the night. You’d
get more enlightened consensus if you asked 30 pitching coaches if they
had no bananas.
In case you haven’t heard, the pitch-limit folks won this tête-à-tête,
and the Classic will indeed go on--with strict pitching restrictions
outlined (see chart) that are designed to appease the fearful while
staging a tournament that strikes a vague resemblance to major league
baseball. Even the insurance company underwriting the event has no idea
what injuries, if any, will nonetheless result.
But as we pass through the final, foggy vestiges of this endless debate
and the games approach, one matter is coming into focus on which most
everyone agrees: The team that best strategizes for these pitch limits,
and deftly exploits them with various personnel, will have the best
chance to win the championship. As Dominican Republic manager Manny
Acta put it, "It’s definitely the key to the tournament."
The moment Marcel Lachemann found out he would be Team USA’s
pitching coach, he says he realized the puzzle he had to solve--and
began sketching out dozens of rotations, starter pairings, long-short
relief combinations and more, while heeding various limit and rest rules.
Which pitchers would be available for a rotation? Would long relievers
be more valuable than short? As the rules began to crystallize, he would
have to redo what he called "mental gymnastics" to devise
a new setup.
Each team hatched what it considers the best plan for their team and
schedule. (Matchups will be anything but equal--Team USA’s only
real test before the final will almost certainly be Japan, while the
Dominican and Venezuelan powerhouses might face off three times.) The
mindless five-man rotation is out. The World Baseball Classic requires
thinking outside a box that, to everyone involved, is starting to feel
While starting pitchers must be removed after 65 pitches in Round One,
translating to roughly four innings, most clubs appear reluctant to
push starters that far in the first place. Many games will find two
starting-caliber pitchers paired to get through five or six innings
Take the Dominican Republic. Acta plans to have the duo of Bartolo
Colon and Miguel Batista pitch his Pool D opening game against Venezuela
March 7. (Pedro Martinez and his ailing toe probably won’t be
available that early, if at all.) Acta then would like long relievers
Julian Tavarez and Salomon Torres to pitch three total innings to arrive
at the ninth and closer Francisco Cordero. He plans to go with Odalis
Perez and Jorge Sosa for Game Two against Italy--which comes after a
scheduled day off, allowing Tavarez and Torres to return if necessary.
With each four-team pool staging a round robin of three games per team,
only clubs compiling 3-0 or 2-1 records can become the two that advance.
So winning the first game of Rounds One or Two is crucial to avoid having
to then play two do-or-die games. It also means that winning Games One
and Two both could render Game Three meaningless.
This affects Acta’s choice for his Game Three against Australia;
if Martinez is available, and required, he would be called upon here.
If Martinez is still hurt or best left rested for Round Two, then Acta
will probably ask the Orioles to spare Daniel Cabrera, or the Angels
to lend him Ervin Santana, before relying on his bullpen the rest of
"Cabrera just pitched in the Caribbean World Series, six innings,"
Acta said, "so he can go 65 pitches if we have to."
Colon agreed that pitchers from Caribbean nations might be in better
shape than some others.
"I come (to spring training) prepared from the Dominican,"
he said. "After the season, we go home and take about a month or
a month and a half off before we start with hard workouts. So by the
time we come here, we’re already prepared."
Over with Team USA, Lachemann has many more options to get him through
his considerably less imposing first-round games against Mexico, Canada
and South Africa. The United States has easily the tournament’s
deepest pitching staff, particularly among relievers (six recorded at
least 30 saves in the major leagues last year). So rather than follow
his original plan to use pairs of starters in each game, Lachemann will
help manager Buck Martinez leverage in-game matchups by using more arms
for one inning apiece.
Lachemann said the U.S. will use Jake Peavy in Game One, the combination
of Dontrelle Willis and C.C. Sabathia in Game Two and, assuming he’s
ready, Roger Clemens in Game Three. (Each will be removed after three
innings regardless of pitch count, Lachemann said, and following four
innings in the second round.) Team USA’s 10 relievers will be
split into two groups of five that will be assigned to one game or the
other, rarely if ever crossing over. Each group would include a longer
reliever such as Dan Wheeler or Mike Timlin to bridge the starters and
closers. (Look for southpaw Billy Wagner to be in the group assigned
to relatively lefthanded lineups, such as Canada’s in Game Two
and probably Puerto Rico’s in the second round.)
The one Willis-Sabathia starting combo gives Team USA greater bullpen
flexibility for the single games before and after. But in general, the
risk in using so many relievers for one inning is that an extra-inning
marathon--think the infamous 2002 All-Star Game--could leave the U.S.
even more shorthanded than an opponent who got six innings out of normal
starters, and has some long relievers coming off winter ball.
"I think early in the season, closers have a tendency to get ready
early," Buck Martinez said of his leaning toward relievers. "They
have a tendency to throw a lot of strikes. We feel the relievers will
be a little more advanced than the starters."
But Wait, There’s More
Indeed, once the games finally start, any pitcher who can’t put
the ball over the plate sends all these plans up in smoke. Should hitters
feel comfortable working counts one or two pitches deeper than usual,
pitchers will make quick and costly exits. Willis, like many pitchers,
said that in a typical March, velocity arrives more quickly than control
for him. Willis should be in good shape, however, since he is already
one of the more efficient pitchers in the majors, using about 15.1 pitches
per out. (The major league average is 16.1.)
Acta said that the Dominican pitchers he would watch most closely in
this regard are Cabrera and Sosa. "You want guys who throw strike
one," he said. "You can get to your bullpen pretty quick."
Puerto Rico ace Javier Vazquez said he had already considered this.
"I’m not going to think about whether the hitters are taking
pitches," he said. "If they’re taking pitches I’m
going to throw strikes. Let them hit it. For me, I’m going to
take it as a regular game in the big leagues--throw strikes and get
ahead of the hitters.
"Hopefully that works."
Whether balls or strikes, every pitch will be thrown with considerably
more oomph than March usually sees. Willis insisted that he always pitches
with his game face in spring training (see Page 7), but most early March
outings are little more than calisthenics with fans. Every time a pitcher
talks about the national pride pumping through his veins, his major
league team’s pitching coach imagines it also pumping through
an arm not used to such early competitiveness.
"Make no mistake about it," Clemens vowed, "when it
gets to second and third and there’s one out, we’re gonna
dial up a fastball that’s a little quicker than we’re normally
While comprehensive data is not available, various local newspaper
reports indicate that last March 7-10--the dates of the WBC first round
games in North America--many spring-training starting pitchers threw
between 40-50 pitches, lasting about three innings; only a few pitched
into the 60s and four innings. (Hence the pledge by Lachemann, a longtime
major league pitching coach, to remove his starters well before the
first round’s 65-pitch limit.) Then again, there’s the risk
of being too conservative.
"The last thing we want to do is to send a starter back to his
organization where he pitched seven innings in days when in his normal
spring he would have 12, and have him be that far behind," Lachemann
Lachemann has experience with different types of staffs before. As
Southern California’s pitching coach from 1977-1981, he avoided
the relatively common practice of having his ace pitcher start on the
Friday night of a weekend series and have him relieve on Sunday. (Lachemann
also served as pitching coach for Team USA’s 1999 Pan American
Games entry--which featured the likes of Mark Mulder, Brad Penny and
John Patterson--that qualified for the 2000 Olympics.) Particularly
at the amateur levels, pitchers are juggled with all sorts of pitch-limit
and rest considerations, as well as with the eternal quandary of whether
to save a top arm for tomorrow--if there is a tomorrow. Just another
twist for the Classic’s pitching Rubik’s Cube.
"With all the pitch counts, this and that, did the guy pitch yesterday
and now we have to give him a day off, and are we going to run out of
pitchers in an extra inning game?" Acta said with a bemused sigh.
"We’re going to have to put a computer in the dugout."