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Spring training ‘mercy rule,’ explained: MLB teams take advantage of ‘rolling the inning’

In the early portion of spring training, MLB teams can simply end innings if their pitchers get into a jam. (Curtis Compton/AP)

Boston Red Sox right-hander Garrett Richards’s first spring training start could not have started off any worse Monday: He was able to record only one out, loaded the bases and walked in a run in just 23 pitches against the Atlanta Braves.

That last number is important, because it allowed Red Sox Manager Alex Cora to invoke a spring training rule put in place this season that gives defensive teams the right to end an inning before recording three outs, so long as the pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches. Cora ended the first inning after just one out but then sent out Richards again for the second, and he retired the side in order.

“It was great to get back out there and finish a strong second inning, get some quick outs,” Richards said. “It was nice to be able to offset that first inning and kind of get my work in, complete my outing, but also finish on a strong note.”

The new rule, announced by Major League Baseball late last month, applies only to spring training games through March 13 as teams shake off the rust. It relaxes Official Baseball Rule 5.09(e), which states that “when three offensive players are legally put out, that team takes the field and the opposing team becomes the offensive team.”

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“Obviously, you want to finish it and you want to make all the outs that your outing requires,” Richards said after his abbreviated first inning Monday. “So, yeah, it was a little frustrating.”

The rule, which has been dubbed “rolling the inning,” has been invoked a few other times in the early part of spring training. The Cincinnati Reds used it in consecutive innings Monday against the Oakland Athletics. In the fourth, Sal Romano gave up a triple on a flyball that was lost in the sun and then three singles; Manager David Bell pulled the plug with two outs after three runs had scored and two runners remained on base. The next inning, Bell again cut things short after Shane Carle allowed three doubles, two walks, a single and four runs while recording just one out.

The Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers also have invoked the rule. On Sunday, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen didn’t even allow a run before Manager Torey Lovullo ended the first inning with two outs and two men on.

MLB also announced several other rules that could shorten spring training games. Through March 13, games may be shortened to five or seven innings upon mutual agreement of both managers, and games may be shortened to seven innings from March 14 through the end of spring training March 30. (They can also be nine innings if both managers agree.) And for the entirety of spring training, pitchers who are removed from a game may reenter at a later point.

The rule changes have their detractors, with Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore telling the New York Times that he worries that young pitchers won’t be allowed to properly develop and decrying that “the fans don’t know if they’re coming to watch a five-, six-, seven- or nine-inning game the first two weeks.” But Milwaukee Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook told the new pitching rule will be helpful for the team’s young arms.

“The fans will be scratching their heads at times,” Hook said. “But for us, on our side, it’s going to be really helpful in getting our guys ready for the season. It’s never more frustrating than when you have a starter in his second outing, and you want to get him up twice, and he has a 35-pitch inning. It just doesn’t go very well. So these rules are going to be very helpful for us developmentally and help us get guys ready for the season.”