Thoughts on the 2020 baseball season so far, Part One [With Comment by John]

Baseball wraps up its regular season today. On Tuesday, the playoffs will commence with 16 of MLB’s 30 teams participating.

The most important thing about this year’s season is that it happened. Baseball didn’t go dark in the year of the pandemic, despite the entreaties of so many nay-sayers, including plenty of sportswriters.

Baseball pulled off the season. Two teams had to shut down for extended periods. However, it looks like every team will play the “full” 60 game schedule except for St. Louis, which will play 58.

Baseball made three important rule changes due to the pandemic. First, doubleheader games were shortened to seven innings because, in the quest to get every team to 60 games, there were so many of them.

Second, MLB implemented the approach used by the minor leagues to settle extra inning games. Instead of playing normal innings, each extra frame began with a runner on second base and no outs. This significantly increased the likelihood of the game ending after just one or two extra innings. The rationale was that, with the pileup of games and the issues of team travel during a pandemic, games shouldn’t drag on for 13 innings or more.

Third, the National League went with the designated hitter this season. The rationale was that, in the absence of a normal preseason, starting pitchers wouldn’t be able to work as long as usual. With bullpens therefore already taxed, it made sense not to burden them even more by the use of pinch hitters for pitchers.

These three rule changes were only for this season, with the possibility of being continued thereafter. Baseball also implemented a permanent rule requiring pitchers to face at least three batters before being replaced, unless they complete the inning in which they first appear.

This rule was intended to decrease the length of games. I’m pretty sure it did somewhat, although it did nothing to address the deeper problem of pace of play.

Critics said the rule would take an important set of manager strategies out of the game. What it did was replace one set of strategies with another. The new strategies are somewhat less complex, I think. However, the trade off — slightly shorter games for slightly less interesting strategy — doesn’t bother me.

Will baseball stay with the three new rules designed for the pandemic season? I think it will. The pandemic, I suspect, was used to introduce them to the game, get fans used to them, and implement them permanently.

Should baseball stay with the three new rules? I think it should keep the new way of settling extra inning games. I liked it in the minor leagues, and not just because it meant I could start the long drive back from places like Hagerstown, Maryland at 10:30 p.m. instead of 11:30.

I wasn’t sure I’d be okay with a change this fundamental in the majors. However, it makes for more interesting, exciting, and compressed baseball than the traditional rule. Plus, it means I can start my late-night blogging at 10:30 instead of 11:30.

I do think MLB should consider using the old approach to extra innings in the post-season, but I doubt it will.

I’ve never wanted the National League to use the designated hitter, but I’ve always thought it would. I’m surprised it took almost 50 years. I’m okay with the change.

I don’t like to see baseball games settled in seven innings, any more than I want NFL and NBA games to be shortened to three quarters or college basketball games shortened to 32 minutes. Going forward, there is no need to stop at seven innings because, I assume, single admission doubleheaders will once again become extremely rare (and double admission ones pretty rare).

In any case, I think it’s great that baseball was able to adapt to the exigencies of the pandemic and complete its regular season, however imperfectly.

I’m also happy that I was able to watch baseball on a nightly basis without being subjected to political messaging, except on rare occasions.

I’m looking forward to the playoffs.

JOHN adds: The best thing about the 2020 season is that the Minnesota Twins won the American League Central division with a .600 winning percentage. Somewhat weirdly, the Twins had a remarkable home record of 24-7. the best in baseball, while going only 12-17 on the road. Why would that happen, with no fans in the stands? I have no idea.

I didn’t watch a single inning of baseball this year, because I heard that players were kneeling and “Black Lives Matter” had been emblazoned at various locations on fields. I plan to check out the playoffs, but will immediately turn off the television at any sign of politics.

Today I watched most of the Minnesota Vikings game against the Tennessee Titans, the first football I have seen this year. It was somewhat weird, as there were no fans in the stands but the network supplied fan noise, more or less attuned to what was happening on the field, for the benefit of TV viewers–thus confirming that NFL games are played for the television cameras, and the fans in the stadium are like the studio audience for a sitcom, easily replaced by a laugh track. While I missed the National Anthem, I was pleased to see that politics were not in evidence, except for a rather discreet “End Racism” in each end zone. It was easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.