Requiem for a LOOGY: The problem with baseball’s latest pace-of-play solution

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

Let’s say you worked your entire life as a car mechanic. It’s been a good gig. The pay was enough to make rent and save for the kids’ college. There were laughs and friendships at the garage. You were a decent mechanic, too — from bumper to bumper could do it all with a reasonable level of skill and efficiency.

Only, a few years back, you discovered you were really good at fixing clutches. You understood clutches. They understood you, too. So you specialized and got even better. Maybe you even invented new stuff for clutches that only you got, so you were kind of irreplaceable. Promotions came and with them raises. The kids might not have to go to State after all. Little Becky is whip smart and you can afford the private school a couple states over. All because you were a whiz at clutches.

Then, one day, there were no more clutches. They were gone. Technology or tariffs, or something. And seeing as cars had changed a bunch over the past decade or so, you didn’t really know much about the rest of them. You were a clutch guy. All the garages in town already had plenty of regular mechanics and nobody needed a clutch specialist anymore.

So you thought it over. You could go back to school, learn about the other parts of cars, but that would take years, and rent’s due in three weeks, and Becky’s a sophomore at Holy Something or Bryn Something, and nobody ever promised clutches would be around forever but why wouldn’t there be clutches when there are still cars, and now what?

Well, whether you’re good at it or not, before you leave the garage you are going to have to fix at least a few smashed cars, that’s the new rule. It’s called the three-battered minimum.

That got me to wondering why we couldn’t keep the clutches until all the current clutch specialists are gone. It would not only make the clutch specialists more valuable, but be the humane thing to do.

Specialist Joe Smith was very good for the Astros in the postseason. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

So, the coming rule in baseball will require pitchers to face a minimum of three batters in an appearance or to pitch until the conclusion of the half-inning. Spearheaded by commissioner Rob Manfred, this is an effort to quicken the pace of play, much like limiting mound visits, a rule instituted before the 2018 season. A mid-inning pitching change chews time with wood-chipper efficiency. In the event of several mid-inning pitching changes, fans are often moved to climb into the wood chipper.

Because of the new rule, there will be less need for one-batter specialists, a species of pitcher — usually left-handed — whose job it is to get one hitter — also usually left-handed — out. Managers call these “situational matchups.” Given that starting pitchers are not pitching as deep into games as they once did, the opportunity for these situational matchups has grown (if not the actual usage), and the result is longer games and huge mounds of sawdust made of nachos, spray charts and impatience.

The number of instances in which a pitcher faced one batter has decreased in recent seasons, from 1,182 times in 2016 to 1,100 times in 2019. It is possible you didn’t notice the difference. Same goes for the frequency of lefty-on-lefty, one-batter instances, from 763 in 2015 to 542 last season. And yet the commissioner has neither the desire nor life expectancy to simply allow these pitching changes/matchups to peter out entirely. Therefore, the new rule. Also, therefore, a niche of pitcher, generally left-handed and referred to as a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out Guy), no longer will carry the same significance as he once did, and indeed might be out of a job.

In this instance, you see, the LOOGY is the clutch specialist. His vocation is disappearing.

Last season, nine relievers faced exactly one batter at least five times each. Lefty Adam Kolarek of the Los Angeles Dodgers did it a league-high 10 times in the regular season, then three more times in the postseason. Andrew Chafin of the Arizona Diamondbacks was one-and-done eight times. Fernando Abad of the San Francisco Giants and Luis Avilan of the New York Mets, seven times each.

Because it would seem unfair to put folks out of work because of a pace-of-play plan, or to reduce their effectiveness at a skill they’ve spent a good amount of time honing, and in the names of Randy Choate and Javy Lopez and Mike Myers, I offer:

While the new rule would apply to the huge percentage of relievers, the upper tier of one-batter pitchers over the past decade should be grandfathered into their previous and usual jobs. A team would be allowed to use those pitchers for one batter. They would be designated as the LAROOFGY class, or Left- And Right-handed One Out Forever Guys, for whom the rule is waived until they retire.

There are 26 active pitchers who, since 2010, have made more than 45 one-batter appearances. The list starts with left-hander Marc Rzepczynski, who made 45 appearances last season with the Triple-A Reno Aces, with 144. It ends with Bryan Shaw, a right-hander, Josh Osich and Andrew Miller, with 46.

Twenty-six seemed a good number, as that’s about one per team. Twenty are left-handers. Six are right-handers. One is Peter Moylan, who did not pitch in 2019, but is invited to make a comeback, because he’s sort of a left-hander in a right-hander’s body and fun to be around. The prize could be Joe Smith, the right-handed side-armer who pitched exceedingly well for the Houston Astros last season, was unscored upon in eight of 10 postseason appearances, and is a free agent.

Jerry Blevins is a LAROOFGY, as are Oliver Perez, Sergio Romo, Shawn Kelley and Jake Diekman. Nine are free agents.

Of course, it’s all very weird, but so is telling managers when they can and can’t remove pitchers from games. The notion of editing out some of the dead time in a baseball game is not unreasonable, and neither is requiring pitchers to develop a pitch that gives them a chance against a right-handed hitter. It does seem a touch abrupt, however. There are plenty of professional pitchers who could use a softer landing, and who will be appreciated — both competitively and, perhaps, financially — for having served the LOOGY role with distinction. Twenty-six, in all. This is not to suggest that any of them could only perform in the LAROOFGY model, only that they would be allowed to. Their reward is the opportunity to continue their jobs as clutch specialists for as long as they can, until the only people they’re fooling are themselves. One batter at a time.

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