At a moment when much of the nation remains in turmoil, so too is America’s National Pastime. After a long hiatus brought on by the coronavirus, baseball is finally returning, but with some significant changes.
Major League Baseball is set to implement a shortened, 60-game season scheduled to begin the week of July 20. The move comes after months of negotiations between MLB owners and the players association, during which each side attempted to wrangle more financial concessions from the other — an unseemly spectacle during a public health pandemic and massive recession.
Because MLB implemented the 60-game schedule unilaterally, it also imposed several rules changes for the abbreviated season. Some of the changes seem quite sensible for the current health crisis, such as a separate injured list for COVID-positive players forced to quarantine after infection. Other changes, however, may have more lasting, and more harmful, effects.
Universal Designated Hitter
First, the MLB announced the 2020 season would feature a designated hitter in the National League as well as the American League. The American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973, but the National League shunned the change, insisting pitchers continue to bat in their spot in the lineup.
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Originally, the designated hitter intended to give aging players, who might not run or field as well as they used to, an opportunity to extend their careers in a hitting-only capacity. In more recent times, American League clubs have used the position to give players partial days off — baseball’s version of what basketball refers to as “load management.”
Either way, the designated hitter functions as baseball’s version of a welfare state, giving both traditionalists and political conservatives reason to oppose it. Its expansion might lead to more offense but would lower the quality of the game overall.
The Extra-Innings Rule
The second rules change drawing some scrutiny would place a runner at second base at the start of any extra innings in games. Baseball may have made this change as a concession to the compressed schedule.
As the theory goes, placing runners on base to start an extra-inning game makes it more likely that runs will score. Increasing run production in extra innings reduces the likelihood of marathon games lasting a dozen or more innings — games which would tax the arms of pitchers who are coming off of a four-month hiatus and will not have time to get fully into playing shape during a training camp of only a few weeks.
Yet, however well-meaning the argument for this extra innings rule may be, it brings to mind the old phrase about good intentions and the road to perdition. Beyond the fact that the gambit looks like a gimmick — because it is — it will change the late-game strategy in ways that would appear to benefit home teams. If they hold their opponents scoreless in the top half of an extra-inning, home teams could attempt to score the winning run in the bottom half of an inning through two sacrifice outs. Think about that: Teams could score the winning run without obtaining either a base hit or a walk, just by advancing the runner that the rules already placed on second base.
College football includes similar rules that inflate offense during overtime. Giving each time the ball at the opponent’s 25-yard line virtually guarantees at least one team will score during each overtime period, helping to end the game quickly. But it also leads to wildly inflated scoring during overtime. In the fall of 2018, a seven-overtime game between Texas A&M and LSU ended with Texas A&M winning, 74-72 — a final score more akin to a basketball matchup than a football game.
More than any other sport, baseball venerates the constancy of the game and its statistics, a reverence made the sport’s steroid era so damaging because it prevents easy comparisons of players across generations. The new extra-inning rule would similarly undermine some statistics (runs batted in and earned run average, for instance) as it changes end-game strategy in close contests.
Every Game Counts
MLB did say that the new extra-inning format will only apply to regular-season games in 2020, and not to the World Series or other post-season contests. But the notion that this change will not affect the playoffs belies the facts.
With a regular-season of only 60 games — less than 40 percent of the normal 162-game slog — every game will matter more. Even if the new rules affect the outcome of “only” one or two games per team, those one or two altered games could make the difference between a team qualifying for postseason play and staying home. Last year’s Washington Nationals, who started the season 19-31 before coming back to win the World Series, demonstrate how a compressed and shortened calendar could keep teams that get off to a slow start out of the playoffs.
While the infamous 1994 strike canceled that season’s World Series, other years (most notably 1981) have seen labor disputes interrupt the baseball season. Yet those champions have not seen their titles undermined because of work stoppages. Yet, if the universal designated hitter and the extra-inning rule affect the outcome of games during the playoff run — and given the short season, that seems likely — this year’s World Series champion may well find itself with an infamous asterisk behind its name.