ORLANDO, FL (Nov. 23, 2020) – If anyone has a crystal ball, please contact Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred or players’ union executive director Tony Clark. They’d really like to know what’s in store for baseball in 2021.
For that matter, so would team owners, managers, players, TV networks, and the fans.
Baseball faces a murky winter and 2021 season as novel coronavirus cases spike across the country. Development of a vaccine appears promising, but when it will be available and distributed is uncertain.
Many of the challenges that the league overcame in 2020 remain questions for 2021: What type of grip will COVID-19 continue to have on the country? What health and safety protocols will need to be in place in order to play games? When will a safe and effective vaccine be available, and how will that impact the season? How many games will teams be able to play – 162, 120, 100, 60? When and in what numbers will fans be allowed to attend games, if at all? Are teams willing to go through another season, even part of one, with no fans in stands (last season, fans weren’t allowed in ballparks until the League Championship Series, and even then only in severely restricted numbers)? Are teams prepared to suffer heavy financial losses again (according to Manfred, teams collectively lost an estimated $3 billion in revenue last season)? Will the players be willing to play for less money again, if attendance is forbidden or severely restricted? Are players willing to again go through health and safety protocols – such as regular testing, and limiting access to persons outside of their approved “bubble” – only this time potentially for a full season? Will the Universal Designated Hitter rule return?
Hanging over all of those issues is the prospect of a contentious negotiation between the owners and the players’ union as baseball’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2021 season, not to mention what is anticipated this winter to be a slow off-season for free-agent signings, as teams slash payrolls in light of last season’s financial setbacks. How receptive will the two sides be toward working with each other this winter?
With so many unanswered questions right now, planning for next season is like a ship sailing an ocean without any navigational aids. For instance, teams can’t set realistic budgets without knowing if fans can attend games – which counts for about 40 percent of a team’s revenue, according to MLB. And, before National League teams can set rosters, they need to know if the Designated Hitter will return. Those are just two of the numerous questions awaiting answers. So, baseball’s ship is adrift at sea, unsure of which direction in which to sail.
A tentative spring training start date has been set, and a 162-game schedule with an April 1 opening for next season has been drawn up. But there’s so much uncertainty about how COVID-19 will continue to impact our nation that those dates are written in pencil, with a huge rubber eraser on top.
Last season, MLB adopted a number of one-season-only rule changes designed primarily to help the league safely complete the truncated, 60-game campaign. Among them were the Universal Designated Hitter, Extra-Innings Rule (beginning each half inning after the ninth with a runner on second base and no outs), Expanded Postseason, Seven-Inning Doubleheader Games (both games were seven innings, instead of the traditional nine), and the Three-Batter Rule (which requires a pitcher to face at least three hitters or complete a half inning).
Thanks to those rule changes, and others, MLB managed to successfully navigate the coronavirus minefield – only 45 games were postponed due to COVID-19 and just two were canceled. Until the Dodgers’ Justin Turner tested positive for the virus in the sixth game of the World Series, baseball had gone 54 days without a positive test.
In 2021, though, baseball may have to navigate 162 games, instead of 60. That will be even trickier because more games and more travel might mean more potential exposure, increased risk of infections and more games postponed.
Manfred has said he’d like to see two changes adopted last season made permanent: expanded postseason, and the extra-innings rule. Under the current CBA, those and other rule changes would need the approval of the players union. (The commissioner has remained silent on the Universal Designated Hitter, possibly because it may be part of the talks for the next CBA.)
I’d be in favor of keeping the Universal Designated Hitter; and with some modifications, an expanded postseason and the extra-innings rule.
Universal Designated Hitter
For the first time in MLB history, National League teams adopted the Designated Hitter full time last season (they had used it when visiting American League teams during interleague play).
A lot of baseball fans detest the DH, saying that it takes away the strategy of the manager having to decide whether to have a pitcher bat or use a pinch-hitter, to have a pitcher bunt or swing away, etc.
In reality, in today’s saber metrics-dominated game the strategy revolving around a pitcher’s at-bat isn’t that complicated. A manager almost always uses a pinch-hitter: in game-on-the-line situations (like late innings of a tie game with runners on base), when the game is in the seventh inning or later, if a pitcher has a high pitch count (100 pitches generally is considered the cutoff point), or if the pitcher has gone through the opposing team’s batting order twice.
Most pitchers can’t, and don’t like to, bat. In 2020, pitchers hit .128 collectively – that’s actually an improvement over the record-low .115 that pitchers hit in 2018, and 3 points higher than the previous record-low pitchers’ batting average of .125 in 2014. Still, that’s too anemic.
So, side with the added offense that the DH provides and keep this in the National League for 2021.
Whether this rule returns next season will be interesting, because both owners and players’ union appear to like it and both may want to hold it back as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Last season, MLB expanded its postseason to 16 teams, meaning that more than half of the 30 teams qualified. As a result, two teams with losing records in the regular season (the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros) advanced.
“I like the idea of, and I’m choosing my words carefully here, an expanded playoff format,” Manfred told writers in a post-World Series press conference. “I don’t think we would do 16 like we did this year. I think we do have to be cognizant of making sure that we preserve the importance of our regular season. But I think something beyond the 10 that we were at would be a good change.”
A 16-team playoff is too much. It dilutes the value of the regular season, and risks MLB becoming like the NFL, NBA and NHL, where watered-down postseason formats allow half of the leagues’ teams to reach the playoffs.
I’d be in favor of a 14-team postseason. That way, the team in each league with the best record earns a bye into the second-round, best-of-five series. Meanwhile, the other six teams in each league fight it out in a best-of-three format, with all three games in the first round on the home field of the higher seeded team.
The owners like expanded postseason because it means more revenue for them. Typically, players do not receive salaries during the postseason, instead receiving a percentage of the gate revenue. So, the league may have to sweeten the pot for players as an enticement – as it did last year with a $50 million bonus for completing the playoffs, since there were no fans in attendance until the League Championship Series. Expect postseason compensation for the players to come up in negotiations for the next CBA, too.
One of the most controversial of the rule changes enacted last season was this one, in which each half inning after the ninth began with a runner on second base and nobody out.
The idea was to reduce the players’ potential exposure to the virus while on the field and in the clubhouse, plus eliminate those 16- and 18-inning marathons that happen a couple times each season and can wreck a team’s pitching staff for four or five games afterward. The rule was a success; of the 68 games that went extra innings in 2020, only two were 13 innings or more.
“I think the players like it,” Manfred said. “I think it’s really good from a safety and health perspective that keeps us from putting players in situations where they’re out there too long or in positions they’re not used to playing (position players pitching).”
I’ve warmed up slightly in my opposition to this rule – I still think it’s a gimmick that smacks of Little League baseball; so, I’m willing to compromise. I propose that the 10th and 11th innings be played conventionally; that gives each team two chances to win under the traditional format. If the game remains tied after 11 innings, then begin each half inning with a runner on second.
When the extra-innings rule was proposed, many observers thought that it would cut down on strategy: A runner on second base and no outs? No problem; first guy up bunts the runner to third, and then the next hitter drives in the go-ahead or winning run with a sacrifice fly.
Except, we forgot that bunting is a dying art in Major League Baseball. In 2020, during 60-game season, there were just 125 sacrifice bunts – the equivalent of about 334 for a 162-game season. In 2019, there were only 776. In 2015, there were 1,200. In 2010, there were 1,544.
Today’s game has adopted a version of the old Earl Weaver philosophy of waiting for the three-run homer in lieu of moving runners over with bunts. The late Hall of Fame manager of the Baltimore Orioles felt that the 27 outs on offense during a game were a team’s most precious possession, and to give away one by bunting was a cardinal sin.
In some ways, Major League Baseball might not mind going back to the 1970s and 1980s when the “Earl of Baltimore” managed the Orioles, before terms such as “social distancing” became a part of our nation’s vocabulary. For now, though, baseball would be happy just to know what’s in store for the 2021 season.
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.