Welcome to MLB 2020 -- The Twilight Zone

ORLANDO, FL --- “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call… Major League Baseball 2020.”

With apologies to Rod Serling, creator and narrator of the television show, The Twilight Zone, which aired from 1959 through 1964, baseball is about to enter its own Twilight Zone when the season begins late this month.

Pick an adjective – strange, crazy, bizarre, abnormal, odd, weird, wild, chaotic – they all likely will apply, because this promises to be a season like none we’ve ever seen. The 60-game schedule is about 37 percent of a typical, 162-game season. Imagine, if this were the Indianapolis 500, it would be the Indy 187; the 1.25-mile Kentucky Derby would be the one-half-mile Derby; the 26-mile Boston Marathon would be the 9.6-mile Boston Run; or the 72-hole Masters would be the 27-hole Augusta Championship.

There are rule changes galore, covering everything from the on field play to player conduct, to health, safety and social distancing protocols.

For instance, no more high-fives, no post-game handshake lines, no friendly group muggings at home plate after a teammate’s walk-off homerun. Also, no spitting, no fighting, and no “coming within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of arguing.” (Somewhere, old-school managers like Leo Durocher, Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Lou Pinella, and Bobby Cox must be shaking their heads.)

We’ll highlight some of the changes.

An “Auto Runner” on Second Base

No rule change seems to provoke as much criticism as this one.

If a regular-season game is tied after nine innings, each half inning thereafter will begin with an “auto runner” on second base and no outs.

Baseball says it is implementing this rule in an effort to get players off the

field more quickly for safety reasons. According to an excellent article on the website beyondtheboxscore.com, between 2012 and 2017, less than 9 percent of MLB games went into extra innings, and only 5 percent went more than 12. So, it’s not like there’s a great need.

After three months of bickering and contentious negotiations, Major League Baseball collectively has lost its mind. This may be the dumbest idea baseball has come up with since then-Commissioner Bud Selig introduced the postseason “play-in game” in 2012. This is something you’d expect to see in the Little League.

All the “auto runner” does is add another boring element to the game. Starting an extra inning with a runner on second base virtually commands a team to have the next batter bunt the runner over to third base. If that sacrifice bunt succeeds, it then demands that the opposing team intentionally walk the next hitter to set up a potential inning-ending double play. So, the first two plays to start each half-inning are a bunt and an intentional walk -- that should excite the fans.

If MLB is serious about getting players off the field, there are safer and equally dumb ideas. One would be to settle ties with a mini-homerun derby. Each team designates one batter, who gets 20 pitches to hit as many homeruns as he can. The player with the most homers wins the game for his team. This would also be safer for the teams, since all that each team would need is a hitter, his team’s batting practice pitcher, and a catcher (likely the bullpen catcher).

Or, sillier, safer and quicker still, each team selects its fastest runner. Starting at home plate, each runner is timed on how fast he makes a complete trip around the bases; the visiting team goes first. The player with the faster time wins the game for his team. And, all you’d need are two runners and a guy with a stopwatch.

The “auto runner” rule is one reason to be thankful this season is only 60 games.

The DH Comes to the NL

Forty-seven years after the Designated Hitter debuted in the American League, the DH continues to spark passionate debate: either you love it or hate it. Well, COVID-19 has done what baseball couldn’t: it’s brought the DH to the National League.

Finally, fans in National League stadiums (whenever they’re allowed in) won’t have to watch their team’s pitcher feebly flail away at the plate. Those against the DH cite tradition, the need for the pitcher to bat just like the other eight players in the lineup, and the strategy of deciding when to pull a pitcher for a pinch-hitter or whether to have the pitcher swing away or bunt in a given situation. Fans in favor of the DH say it adds more offense to the game, gives position players a day off from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup, and reduces the chances of a pitcher getting hurt by swinging a bat or running the bases.

We need to get over this illusion that pitchers can hit; most can’t. In 2018, MLB pitchers had a collective .115 batting average. Do fans really want to pay $75 a ticket to see that?

Tighter Pennant Races

Fewer games mean fewer opportunities to separate teams, so expect tighter pennant races and more teams in contention.

It is estimated that 25 of the 30 teams have at least an outside chance of reaching the playoffs, thanks to the reduced schedule (the other five clubs are the Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Pirates, and Marlins). With so many teams packed together, this year, in particular, would be a good time to go on an extended win streak or avoid a lengthy skid.

This would be a good season to emulate the 1982 Atlanta Braves and the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers. Both teams began their respective seasons winning their first 13 games. So, rip off a 10- or 12-game win streak, then play around .500 ball the remaining 48 or 50 games, and a team pretty much writes its own ticket for the postseason -- especially if the playoffs expand (both the owners and players union continue to discuss the matter, according to reports).

Conversely, a losing streak will sink those hopes. As Jayson Stark of The Athletic pointed out, a seven-game losing streak this season is the equivalent of a 19-game drought during a regular season. Stark noted that 19 teams had losing streaks of at least seven games last year.

Getting off to a strong start obviously would help. If 2019 had been 60 games instead of the usual 162, the World Series champion Washington Nationals would not have even reached the playoffs.

If nothing else, the shortened schedule should make for an exciting, even chaotic, September, if the pandemic allows the season to progress that far. Let’s hope Major League Baseball has multiple playoff tiebreaker scenarios prepared.

The Schedule Matters

While the exact breakdown of the 60-game schedule has yet to be finalized, it will be geography based: 40 games vs. teams in their own division and 20 against teams in the opposite league’s corresponding division.

With such an abbreviated season and so many teams contending, strength of schedule could mean the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

NL Central contenders (St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati) caught a break. Under the pre-pandemic schedule, they were to play the AL East teams; but with the shortened season, they play the AL Central instead. That means they avoid the Yankees, Tampa Rays and Boston Red Sox, and instead get to play weaklings Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals. The four NL Central contenders also will miss powerhouse NL teams like the Dodgers, Braves, and Nationals.

For instance, the Cardinals are expected to play 10 games against the Pirates, six against the Royals, and four against the Tigers. That means St. Louis would play one-third of its games (20) against three of the worst teams in baseball. That could give the Redbirds an edge in the battle for one of the wild-card playoff spots.

Over in the AL Central, the Twins fare even better. Minnesota gets 10 games apiece with Detroit and Kansas City, and three or four against Pittsburgh (as much as 40 percent of its schedule).

NFL-Size Rosters

Strange is the season when an MLB team has a roster larger than a team in the National Football League. Welcome to 2020.

NFL team rosters consist of 55 players, 48 of whom are active on game days. This season, a big-league baseball team will have 60-man “player pools,” with a 30-man active roster at the beginning of the season. After two weeks, the active roster will be reduced to 28 players, and two weeks later to 26, for the rest of the season.

The remainder of the 60-player pool will be available to replace injured or ill players on the roster.

A Parade of Pitchers

Since summer training camp is only three weeks long – half the time of the typical spring training camp – pitchers will not have their usual amount of time to stretch out their arms. If pitchers ramp up too quickly, it could lead to an in increase in injuries such as sore arms and obliques.

As a result, instead of starters trying to pitch five or six innings early in the season, they likely will try for three or four. So, expect teams to load up on pitching, especially early on. A team could carry as many as 15 pitchers on its 30-man active roster.

An Asterisk* Season

It’s been 72 years since the Cleveland Indians won a World Series (1948). If they win this season, does it count as ending that drought?

What if someone bats .400? Does he deserve to be recognized as the first to do so since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, and to stand alongside the 20 players in MLB history who’ve batted .400 in a season?

The condensed schedule will question the legitimacy of any accomplishment this season. There may be so many asterisks in the record books that they look as if they have the measles.

As for seeing a batter hit .400 this year, the minimum number of at-bats to qualify for a batting title is 186; the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger batted .409 in his first 189 plate appearances in 2019.

Other potential candidates to hit .400 in 2020 are the Brewers’ Christian Yellich, Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, Reds’ Joey Votto, Astros’ Jose Altuve, and the Angels’ Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon.

So, it could happen. But would it be legitimate?

No All-Stars This Season

This will be the first season since 1945 that the All-Star Game will not be played.

Major League Baseball’s recent decision to cancel the Mid-Summer Classic because of the COVID-19 pandemic is the correct choice. The risk of infection to players is too great to justify playing an exhibition game.

In 1945, severe travel restrictions because of World War II forced the game to be cancelled.

No Fans, No Problem

Early on, teams will be playing in empty stadiums. Eventually fans will be allowed in, but when and how many will vary based on state and local guidelines for social distancing.

With limited or no attendance, the rest of baseball will get to see how the perpetually attendance-challenged Miami Marlins live.

And, get ready for “fake fans.” Just when you think baseball can’t get any stranger this season, according to an Associated Press story on July 1, the Kansas City Royals will offer fans an opportunity to purchase a plastic cutout their likeness to be displayed in a seat at games in Kaufman Stadium. The charge for the likeness is $40, with season ticket holders having first crack at the 500 cutouts.

In a copycat league such as MLB, expect other teams to follow suit. It shouldn’t be too long, then, before some team plays piped-in crowd noise, say after a home-team player hits a homerun.

Fake fans and piped-in crowd noise? Seems fitting as Major League Baseball prepares to enter its Twilight Zone. Or, maybe it’s Star Trek, “Where no man has gone before”.

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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.

Photo credit: Robert F./Unsplash.com

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