World Baseball Classic: Pitching Rules
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
2) MINIMUM REST
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 very tight.
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 combined.
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 the way.
"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 throwing."
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 noted.
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."