Make relievers face more than 1 batter for faster game, more runs

The two goals seem at odds. Baseball wants to increase offense? Baseball wants to improve the pace of game? Wait, wouldn’t more offense lead to longer, slower games?

The answer seemingly is yes, but eureka! Here’s an idea that could both increase offense and improve the pace:

Require relievers to face more than one batter per appearance. Make it at least two, or even better three.

Cubs president Theo Epstein floated such a possibility at the general managers’ meetings in November during a gathering of GMs and Major League Baseball officials, according to major-league sources. No formal proposal was made, but the concept generated a mostly positive reaction, sources said.

Think how the game would change if such a rule was in effect:

An opposing manager would need to think twice about bringing in a left-handed specialist to face, say, the Red Sox’s premier left-handed hitter, David Ortiz, with less than two outs.

The specialist also would need to face a top right-handed hitter, probably Hanley Ramirez in the revamped Sox’s lineup, and then maybe another, if the requirement was three batters per appearance — be still my beating heart, possibly a full inning!

The effect would be immediately noticeable.

Fewer delays caused by pitching changes. New strategies as managers decide how to best deploy their relievers. A reduction in the importance of same-side specialists. An increased number of opportunities for the best hitters to decide games.

Where is the downside? Is there a downside? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to watch relievers be forced to deal with both left-handed and right-handed hitters, particularly when the added benefit would be quicker, shorter games?

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, in an article last May lamenting baseball’s sluggish pace, suggested placing limits on pitching changes even before Epstein broached the subject.

“This nightly game of matchup relief pitching is effective — offense dries up even more in the last three innings — but it slows the game down further,” Verducci said.

The numbers support Verducci’s contention that all those relievers throwing 95 to 100 mph in the final three innings make it even more difficult to score.

Consider the breakdown of runs per half-inning in 2014, as researched by STATS LLC:

1-3: 0.45

4-6: 0.48

7-9: 0.43

This wasn’t a one-year trend; the numbers were nearly identical in 2013. And while all of us can appreciate how Tony La Russa revolutionized bullpen usage — and how current managers such as Bruce Bochy and Buck Showalter skillfully create favorable matchups — the late innings often are interminable due to the number of changes.

Relievers faced one batter or fewer in 8.7 percent of their appearances over the past five seasons, two or fewer in 16.4 percent, according to STATS. Increase the minimum to three batters, and the minutes would melt away.

Like any proposed rule change, this one would need to be thoroughly vetted, the better to safeguard it from unintended consequences. But at first glance, everything seems in order.

Relievers would need to become more complete pitchers. Top sluggers would gain more frequent platoon advantages. More action, more runs, fewer stoppages.

Baseball already is kicking around ways to improve the game under new Commissioner Rob Manfred, but some ideas are just too radical, not to mention premature. Take the elimination of defensive shifts. Manfred raised that idea as a radical possibility in an interview with ESPN last Sunday, but quickly backed off in my interview with him on FOX Sports Live that aired Wednesday night.

“Maybe a lot of hitters went home this winter and they figured out how to go the other way against the shift and it will self-correct and we’re not going to need to make a change,” Manfred said.

The reliance on bullpen specialists, on the other hand, is not likely to self-correct, not when the trend among managers is now about a quarter-century old.

Phase out the specialists then. Force relievers to deal with all hitters. In one fell swoop, improve offense and increase the pace of games.