Sports

M.L.B. Creates ‘Ohtani Rule’ to Keep Star’s Bat in Games

TEMPE, Ariz. — Shohei Ohtani’s ascent through the majors has moved from winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2021 to, essentially, having a major rule changed for him in 2022.

Major League Baseball and the players’ union reached a tentative agreement on a few rules changes for the upcoming season, one of which allows a starting pitcher who hits for himself to remain in a game as the designated hitter even if he is pulled for a relief pitcher.

And with that, the Ohtani Rule was born.

In addition to that change, rosters will be expanded from 26 to 28 players through May 1 as a protective health measure following the shortened, three-and-a-half week spring training. Games that go to extra innings will begin with a runner on second base each inning after the ninth for at least one more season, and doubleheaders will go back to nine innings, rather than seven.

The rule changes were confirmed by a person familiar with the agreement who was not authorized to discuss them because they have not been ratified by the 30 club owners.

As for the so-called Ohtani Rule, it came up in relation to the universal D.H. rule that will be implemented in 2022, with the National League finally adopting the position that had been in use by the A.L. since 1973. Before this Ohtani-inspired change, the D.H. position had been the one spot in the batting order in which substitutions and double-switches were not permitted.

Under the previous rules, if Ohtani was pitching, he could not have become the D.H. once he was removed as a pitcher. When that happened last year, and the Angels wanted to keep his powerful bat in the lineup, Manager Joe Maddon would move him into the outfield. But that necessitated the Angels losing their D.H. and the pitcher having to bat.

Now, in deference to Ohtani’s superstardom, that will change. Ohtani can shift from a starting pitching assignment into the D.H. role, and the Angels will keep their extra lineup spot and not be forced to bat a relief pitcher or use a pinch-hitter for him. The move could also encourage other players to attempt two-way play.

“I’m hoping that happens,” Maddon said of the proposed changed last week when talking to reporters in Arizona. “And the American League West is not.”

Clubs are expected to use the extra roster spots in April to carry more relief pitchers. The person familiar with the changes said that M.L.B. will not stipulate how clubs use the extra spots, but with an abbreviated spring training, general managers across the game are concerned that pitchers will not have enough time to build their arms up before opening day on April 7.

“Pitching is going to be decimated this year,” said a high-ranking club official who has been among those lobbying behind the scenes for expanded rosters.

The new rules, aside from the extra-innings “ghost runner,” are expected to be implemented for the duration of the five-year collective bargaining agreement reached this month. The last step is for the M.L.B. club owners to ratify them, but that is not expected to cause an issue as they changes need only a simple majority to pass.

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