Rules Roundup: Lineups, Substitutions, and the Designated Hitter

In this installment we'll look at something that seems basic but can be more complicated than people realize: lineups and how substitutions are done.

The Lineup Card

Managers make out lineup cards giving the names and positions of the nine players who will start the game (ten in a DH game, including the starting pitcher). On the lineup card, the starters are listed in the order that they will bat, and the position they will play. (There is a separate area for listing the starting pitcher at the bottom.) The order in the lineup card sets the batting order for the start of the game.

Five minutes before game time, the managers and the umpire crew chief meet at home plate, and exchange lineup cards. Each manager needs to make out at least three cards: one for the opposing manager, one for the umpire, and one for his own use. There have been occasions in the past when managers have gotten tripped up on this. A famous example occurred in the mid-1980s when Pete Rose, then manager of the Cincinnati Reds, made out two versions of a lineup when he was deciding which one to use. He accidentally kept the wrong one for himself. Since the umpire's card determines the official batting order, this resulted in a bizarre batting-out-of-order sequence as the Reds followed the lineup card posted in their dugout, which was not the same as what was on the umpire's card.

Once the starting lineups are handed to the umpires, the players listed on the lineup card are officially in the game. If a player listed on the lineup card fails to take the field or bat in his turn in the first inning, then he has been substituted for and is out of the game, even if he never set foot on the field. The lineup card determines the batting order, the starting pitcher, and for a DH game, it fixes the position in the batting order where the DH will bat. I'll have more to say about this in the DH special rules section, below.


Traditionally, players other than the pitcher and the catcher were allowed to position themselves anywhere in fair territory, but the rule book has chipped away at this over the years. The players listed on the lineup card as the pitcher, DH, and the four infielders (1B, 2B, SS and 3B) have restrictions placed on their ability to change positions, as will be detailed in sections below. The catcher isn't restricted specifically, but in order to do his job, he must necessarily line up behind home plate. The catcher is the only defensive player allowed to position himself in foul territory.

The 2023 Anti-Shift Rule

It used to be the case that other players could position themselves anywhere in fair territory. However, with the 2023 anti-shift rules change, there must now be at least four fielders (plus the pitcher and catcher) lined up in the infield, with at least two on either side of second base, when the pitcher begins his motion. If they move such that they are not positioned properly when the pitch is delivered, the offense can choose to have the pitch called a ball, or take the result of the play if one resulted from the pitch.

Players are fixed to one side or the other, according to which position they are listed in on the lineup card. The players listed in the lineup card at 1B and 2B must position themselves on the 1B side of second base; the players listed at SS and 3B must position themselves on the 3B side of second base. This can be changed only (1) at the start of an inning, and (2) when the defense makes a substitution.

No more than three outfielders are permitted. (An outfielder, for the purpose of this rule, is a fielder who takes a position on the outfield grass.)

The Catcher's Position

At one time, the rules required the catcher to take a position within the catcher's box, and remain within the box until the pitcher released the ball. At some point, rule 4.03 was modified to state that this was only a requirement when the pitcher was giving an intentional walk; if the catcher stepped outside of the box before the pitcher released the ball, this constituted what was called the "catcher's balk", and it was enforced like any other balk. However, with the 2017 rule change that allows the defense to issue intentional walks without the need for the pitcher to throw a pitch, the catcher's box no longer has any relevance to the rules, and I have noted that at some ballparks, they no longer bother to chalk it.


Except for the pitcher, any player may be substituted for at any time. There are no restrictions on who can substitute for who; any player may play any position. A player who has been substituted for is out of the game. It is not a requirement that a player removed from the game leave the field (unless he has been ejected); such a player may remain in the dugout or coach, although most of the time a player who has been removed from the game will retreat to the clubhouse. A team may call time for players to make legal position changes.

Once the substitute is in the game, that is irreversible. You sometimes see the case where the offense sends in a pinch hitter, the defense brings in a relief pitcher, and then the offense sends up a different pinch hitter. The first pinch hitter has officially been substituted for and is out of the game, even though he didn't get to swing a bat or see a pitch. When you see in a box score that a pinch hitter "hit for" or "was announced for" another player, this means that the pinch hitter was replaced with another pinch hitter and so didn't complete the time at bat.

Note that a pinch hitter in the on-deck circle is not yet in the game. The player can be called back before he is announced, or enters the batter's box, and remain available as a substitute.

When a batter or runner is entitled to advance one or more bases without liability to be put out, but is unable to due to an injury, the offense may call time and send in a pinch runner. The pinch runner may then complete the advance.

Position Players as Pitchers

Rules adapted in 2022 limit the use of position players as pitchers; these rules were further revised in 2023. At the start of the season, each player is categorized by the league as a pitcher, a position player, or a two-way player. (It is very difficult to classify a player as a two-way player; that player has to have pitched at least 20 innings, and appeared as a position player in at least 20 games with at least three plate appearances per game, at the MLB level.) A position player may appear as a pitcher only if one or more of the following situations applies:

  • Ninth inning or later, and his team is ahead by at least 10 runs.

  • His team is behind by at least eight runs.

  • The game is in extra innings

As of 2023, there is no season-wide limit on the number of times a position player can appear as a pitcher.

There are no restrictions on players categorized as pitchers playing other positions.

Unannounced Substitutions

When exactly is a substitute considered to be in the game? Pinch hitters and runners, and relief pitchers, are usually announced over the PA system, and sometimes defensive substitutions are. When a substitute is announced by the park PA announcer, the announced player is in the game and the player he is substituting for is out of the game. However, per Rule 3.08, unannounced substitutes are always legal. (Defensive substitutions, other than pitchers, are frequently not announced.) An unannounced substitute is in the game when:

  • If he is pinch hitting, when he takes a stance in the batter's box.

  • If he is pinch running, when he arrives at the base where he is to replace the runner being substituted for. (It is not a requirement for a pinch runner to "tag in".)

  • If he is a relief pitcher, when he takes the ball and stands on the pitcher's mound, or:

    • New rule for 2024 is that a relief pitcher who goes to the mound to warm up between innings is in the game as soon as he throws a warm-up pitch.

  • If he is a defensive substitute other than the pitcher, when he takes up a position on the field.

The Designated Hitter

The DH became added to the American League rules in 1973, at a time when the two leagues still had some autonomy. The rule allows for a team to designate a hitter, who will hit for the pitcher (not any other position, just the pitcher) throughout the game. A team does not have to use the designated hitter; it can opt to have the pitcher hit for himself. Other than the Angels with Shohei Otahni (about whom more later), I don't think a major league team has ever started a game without a DH in a game in which the DH was permitted. However, there are numerous cases where the team either opted to allow a pitcher to hit for himself at some point during the game, or "lost" the DH due to substitutions. I'll explain later how this can happen.

The National League did not adopt it at the time (except for the temporary DH rule in 2020), and so until the start of regular season interleague games, AL teams always played with the DH, and NL teams never did. With the advent of regular season interleague play in 1997, this rule for determining DH use in interleague games (which had been used for a number of years in the World Series) was adopted: if the AL team was the home team, the DH was allowed in that game. If the NL team was the home team, there was no DH. This is now no longer relevant with the NL finally adopting the DH rule in 2022.

The "Shohei Ohtani" rule, adopted universally in 2023, allows the starting pitcher to bat for himself, but then remain in the game as the DH after being relieved on the mound.

Pitcher Substitutions and Pitchers Changing Positions

A 2020 rules change requires that a pitcher, once having entered the game, must complete at least three batter plate appearances (previously, it was one). This applies both to the starting pitcher and to relievers; Exceptions, where the pitcher can be removed before pitching to at least three batters, are

  • The inning ends (e.g., by a runner caught stealing)

  • The pitcher is injured

  • The game is delayed by weather

  • The game is suspended

A pitcher who enters the game and then completes the inning prior to completing the three-batter requirement may be removed from the game at the end of that inning. However, if that pitchers comes back out to start the next inning, he must complete the three-batter requirement before being substituted. For example, if a pitcher enters the game with two out and retires the first batter he faces to end the inning, and then returns to the mound to start the next inning, he must pitch to two batters before he can be substituted.

A rules change for 2024 states that a reliever who comes to the mound and warms up between innings is in the game, and must fulfill the requirements for pitchers entering the game.

A pitcher may move to another position, but such a move results in the loss of the designated hitter for the remainder of the game.

A pitcher who comes to the mound to start an inning must, at a minimum, complete pitching to at least the first batter, even if he has previously fulfilled the three-batter rule, unless the defense substitutes a pinch hitter for the first batter of the inning.

Suspended Games

Under the rules, a game is suspended when conditions make it impossible to complete the game that day. (Current rules are such that this includes nearly all circumstances in which play cannot continue; more down below.) Generally, a suspended game will be completed before a regularly scheduled game at the next opportunity where the two teams meet at the same ballpark (most often, the next day). Occasionally, circumstances are such that a suspended game has to be completed on a day when there is no scheduled game, or the completion has to be moved to another ballpark. If the completion of a suspended game has to be moved to the visiting team's ballpark, for the purposes of that game, the previous home team is still the home team, and continues to bat last in each inning.

At the resumption of a suspended game, the game situation (batter at bat, runners on base, outs, etc.), is put back like it was at the time of suspension. However, prior to the resumption of the game, both teams may make any legal substitutions that they desire (including that the defense may substitute the pitcher, even if the pitcher has not completed pitching to three batters). Obviously, a player who was in the game at the time of suspension, but is no longer on the team's major league roster, has to be substituted for.

During the interval between a game being suspended and its resumption (which may be days or weeks later), a team may make roster moves. The roster moves may have the effect of replacing players who had been substituted for at the time the game was suspended, with other players who were not on the team's roster at the start of the game. Such players may appear in the resumed game, even though they take the place on the roster of players who are already out of the game. Because of this, it is possible for a player to appear for both teams in a suspended game, if he is traded from one team to the other during the period of suspension. However, according to SABR, this has never actually happened in the major leagues. It is also possible for more players to appear in the game than the team has on its roster, and this has happened a number of times.

Rules for Designated Hitters

There are special and rather complicated rules for designated hitters. A key facet of the DH is that the DH's place in the batting order is fixed for the duration of the game by the initial lineup. (In the case where the Shohei Otanhi rule is invoked, where the starting pitcher bats in the lineup fixes the place where the DH will be in the batting order, once the starting pitcher is relieved.) The manager may not make any combination of substitutions that results in the DH's place in the batting order changing, per rule 5.11(a)(7).

First, the easy bits:

  • The DH may be pinch hit or pinch ran for. (Rule 5.11(a)(2) requires that the designated hitter named in the starting lineup must bat at least once, unless the defense removes the starting pitcher before the DH comes to bat.) Any such sub becomes the new DH.

  • At any time during a DH game, the manager can opt to let the pitcher hit for himself, in place of the DH. Once this is done, the DH is lost for the rest of the game.

  • A player in the field may not move to DH, except that a pitcher who starts the game and bats for himself may "move" to DH.

Here's where it starts to get complicated: The DH may move to a position in the field. But if he does so, the team loses the use of the DH for the rest of the game, and from that point on the pitcher must hit for himself. The question: The pitcher isn't in the batting order. Where does he bat? Answer: If the DH is moving to a position in the field, he is taking the place of a player already in the field, who then comes out of the game. The substituted-for player's place in the lineup is where the pitcher will bat. Example: The DH is batting 4th in the lineup. The third baseman is batting 6th. The DH moves to third base, replacing the third baseman, who comes out of the game. The pitcher will bat 6th. It's rather counter-intuitive since the pitcher isn't batting where the DH was, but since the player who was DH is still in the game, and it isn't possible for a player's place in the batting order to change, the pitcher has to go in the vacant spot where the substituted-for player was.

If the pitcher moves to another position, the DH is lost for the rest of the game, and the player who moved from pitcher to another position then bats in the DH's place. (There remain in the rule book some complicated rules that involves pitchers moving back and forth between the mound and other positions. With the universal DH, they aren’t really relevant any more, so I took that paragraph out of this writeup.)

It is possible to do a variation of the NL "double switch" when moving the DH to the field. A second, or further, substitution can be made at the same time, and then the manager can designate from among the substituted-for players where the pitcher will hit.

Scoring Rules for Substitutes

All actions performed by a substitute player are credited in scoring to that player, with these exceptions:

1, If a pitcher or batter is substituted for in the middle of an at-bat, the outcome is charged or credited to the substitute, except when:

For a relief pitcher, if the count at the point of the substitution was any of:






and the batter draws a walk, the walk is charged to the pitcher who was substituted for.

2. For a pinch hitter who enters in the middle of an at-bat, if the count at the time of the substitution was any of:





and the pinch hitter strikes out, the strikeout is charged to the batter who was pinch-hit for.

3. When a batter or runner who was entitled to advance one or more bases is unable to, the offense may substitute a pinch runner to complete the advance. The bases gained, until the pinch runner reaches the base to which he is entitled, are credited to the substituted-for player, but if the advance results in the pinch runner scoring a run, that run is credited to the pinch runner. Example: The batter hits a home run, but is unable to run the bases due to a groin pull suffered on the follow-through. A pinch runner comes in and runs the bases. The batter is credited with a home run and resulting RBIs; the pinch runner is credited with a run scored.

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