October 27, 2020

Why Baseball is Entering a Season of the Unknown

Baseball makes you wait. That is part of its old-world charm. The story takes time to reveal itself, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, game by game by game by … well, you get the idea. Players weather a rigorous six-month schedule, with few days off. No other professional athletes spend as many days performing.

So what will it look like now, after more than four months in hibernation since the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training in mid-March? We will find out Thursday, when Major League Baseball begins its 60-game schedule with two games: the Yankees at the Nationals in Washington, and the Giants at the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

Get ready for rule changes, extensive safety protocols and a whole lot of unknowns.

“It’s hard for those of us in baseball because we want to be knowledgeable about what’s going on,” said the longtime broadcaster Jim Kaat, 81, who pitched for 25 seasons in the majors, “and sometimes the toughest thing to say is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Of course, no one ever knows exactly how a season will unfold. But nobody living has ever seen a season like this, and not just because of the cardboard cutouts in the stands, the ban on spitting, the video-game crowd noise and the looming specter of a still-raging virus.

Baseball has not staged a schedule so short since 1878, when Providence, R.I., had a team, New York did not, and the first World Series was still a generation away.

“After the first season of Major League Baseball, 1876, the New York and Philadelphia franchises were barred from continuing play because they failed to complete their end-of-season road tours,” said John Thorn, the official historian for M.L.B. “They thought it was going to be unprofitable. So they were bumped, and the National League was left to scramble.”

That scramble resulted in a 60-game schedule, with teams playing five opponents 12 times each. This year’s scramble landed on the same number of games, after the players’ union and the owners failed to reach a negotiated agreement, forcing Commissioner Rob Manfred to impose a schedule with players getting full prorated salaries.

The contentious labor standoff, with sharp words volleyed between the league office and the union, sent ominous signals about future strife beyond this bizarre season. The collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021, and players are wary of giving any more ground to the owners.

“The challenges are going to be amplified even more the next time, and we realize that,” said Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee. “We love the game as much as anybody, and we want to see the growth of it continue in the best way possible. But you can’t work across the aisle until you have everybody functioning on your side correctly. If you start having divisions, then it doesn’t matter what the other side’s doing, you’re fighting yourself.

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Updated 2020-07-23T10:30:23.915Z

“We really got to see what it’s like to have guys working together — not only on our team but across the league.”

The players’ unity, fortified during the labor standoff, will be tested this season by the shared responsibility of adhering to safety protocols. Players are required to wear masks while indoors, avoid high-fives and fist bumps, use their own soap in the shower and so on.

ImageA sign at Fenway Park reminded players and staff members to keep their distance from one another. 
Credit…Brian Fluharty/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Unlike the N.B.A., the N.H.L. and M.L.S., baseball is forgoing a contained environment, or “bubble,” and nearly every team will play at its normal home stadium (the Toronto Blue Jays are still scrambling to find a site in the United States). The league has limited travel by keeping all games within the same geographic divisions and set up extra clubhouse and dugout space to promote social distancing.

But away from the field, players are largely on their own, trusted to avoid prohibited actions like eating at public restaurants and taking public transportation to games. If a player slips, he could contract the virus and threaten his team’s season.

“You have to be the best version of yourself, the best teammate that you’ve ever been in your life,” Joe Maddon, the manager of the Los Angeles Angels, said. “That’s what we need — more than a guy that may get a knock in the latter part of a game or a pitcher that might throw a couple of scoreless innings, we need the guy that’s going to stick with the protocol and permit us to play this all year.”

Maddon and his fellow managers will have expanded rosters for much of the season: 30 players for the first two weeks, 28 for the next two weeks and, finally, 26. Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base to encourage scoring and prevent marathon games; the designated hitter will be used at all times; and games suspended before five innings will be continued, not replayed in their entirety.

But perhaps the biggest change will simply be the urgency of a schedule that is just 37 percent as long as usual. Each game will essentially count 2.7 times, relative to a 162-game schedule, so each game is roughly the equivalent of a three-game series.

“I think you’re going to see more of a playoff-attitude managing, where it’s a little bit more assertive,” Maddon said. “Probably the best way to describe it is more aggressive decision-making early in the game as opposed to what you would do in the first couple of months of the regular season.”

Credit…Angels Baseball/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Milwaukee Brewers Manager Craig Counsell, who is known for frequently changing pitchers, said in-game decisions might not change much. But he may adjust playing time, giving little leeway to players working through struggles.

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“Hot hands and slumps, we’re all going to pay attention a little more to that,” Counsell said.

Counsell has heard the theory that pitching could dominate this season because hitters have gone more than three months without facing pitchers in game situations. But with some teams carrying 16 pitchers or more to start the season, he said, there are bound to be plenty who are not truly ready for the majors.

“If you have an average of two guys missing — on the injured list or whatever — you’re going to have pitcher No. 18 on the staff already,” Counsell said. “You’re going to have to use every pitcher on the staff early in the season — and to me, that could create a run-scoring environment.”

Pitchers who can throw multiple innings several times a week may become even more valuable if managers are reluctant to push starters after such a long layoff. The potential for a nightly pitching parade, though, might not be best for a product that is already dealing with criticism over its sluggish pace.

“It really points to the wish I’ve had for a couple of years now of having seven-inning games, because some of these games are probably going to drag out,” said Kaat, who once threw more than 300 innings in a season. “It’s not going to be a good image for the game on TV. People are eager to see baseball, but it might look like spring training, where you’re seeing a new pitcher every inning or so.”

Whatever trends prevail, a short season could produce statistical outliers. No player has hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941, and Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average has been a record since 1968. But the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger entered his team’s 50th game last season with a .404 average, and the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty posted a 0.92 E.R.A. over his team’s final 60 games.

Credit…Brad Penner/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Could the record book get a heavy rewrite after this season? Officially, Thorn said, any records set this season will be legitimate.

“Sure,” he said. “We don’t do asterisks. Fans are free to apply asterisks liberally. They may view the records and the outcomes as they please. That is one of the privileges and pleasures of fandom.”

Most important, Thorn said, is to understand the context of the season. Circumstances have rarely been stagnant in baseball, with integration, expansion, equipment changes, training advancements, ballpark configurations and the use of steroids and technology — both legal and illegal — influencing what we see.

The 2020 season will offer its own distinct wrinkle in the fabric of the sport — unless the virus undoes it all.

“There is one unknown, obviously, that could completely change some teams’ seasons,” Counsell said. “We all recognize that through no fault of anybody’s, a team’s season could really be sunk. That is the scariest thing for everybody this year, but we all know that’s part of it — so we have to just go for it.”