The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into all our lives, and the baseball world as well. When it is time to resume some “non-essential activities”, perhaps with accommodations in place to prevent any more spread, baseball will be a large part of helping us return to feeling normal.
But with these exigent circumstances, baseball will have to adjust the 2020 season, assuming it is played at all. Baseball could look at this season as an opportunity to try some ideas that have been kicked around for awhile (Rob Manfred is full of ideas he’s considering, good and bad!). Already they have floated an idea that would involve having all 30 teams play in Arizona by late May, but there would be many logistical obstacles to making that happen.
Still, there are other ideas that baseball could try out in what will be sure to be the most different season in baseball history. This season will almost certainly have an asterisk to it, so why not try some radical ideas that could actually be adopted long-term?
Shortening the schedule
How many games each team plays this year depends a lot on when they can safely hold games, with or without fans. Right now, baseball is tentatively scheduled to return in mid-May, but with many states expecting to see their COVID-19 cases peak in late April, expecting non-essential businesses to open by then seems rather optimistic.
Having baseball return in June seems more likely, but even then, players would need at least two, perhaps even three weeks of spring training to get ready for the season, providing for an Opening Day in late June or early July. Craig Edwards at Fangraphs went over some different scenarios on how many games can realistically be played, considering different start and end dates. If baseball began on July 2 and ran late until October 25, and they added some doubleheaders, you could squeeze a 100-game schedule into that time frame.
As Edwards notes, adding so many doubleheaders will likely encounter resistance from the union, particularly if they are scheduled on Saturdays, following a night game, with a day game and a travel on Sundays. But players may have to take on the inconvenience to get games in this season, and maybe they will find that the doubleheaders are not quite as onerous as expected. Baseball has not typically scheduled doubleheaders, but if they can get the union on board, this could allow baseball to shorten the time frame of the regular season to accommodate more playoff games in October in future seasons. Depending on the response to a shorter schedule, this could also give ammunition to those that want to shorten the regular season, in favor of adding more rounds of playoffs.
With so many scheduled doubleheaders, there is a concern that there won’t be enough pitching to give managers at least 18 innings on Saturdays. Some have proposed making each game of a doubleheader just seven innings long. This would be a pretty radical change for baseball, which has held nine-inning games for well over a century. But it is also not unprecedented, considering college baseball has played seven inning doubleheaders on Saturdays for years.
With so few off days, baseball may also look at ways to keep relievers from being overused. One way could be to limit the number of extra innings played. Managers can expend an entire bullpen for a 14-inning affair, but baseball could bring games to a quicker end by having extra innings begin with a runner at second, as they have implemented in the minors. Or baseball could just simply end games after 12 innings (or earlier) and declaring ties (tie games were frequent in the early 20th century and are still a staple in leagues in Japan and Korea) or having games determined by a quick competition (home run derby, anyone?) Trying out ideas this year could prove successful, allowing baseball to find a way to keep games from going four or five hours in the future.
If baseball pushes back the regular season to extend well into October, that will mean post-season games will have to stretch well into November. Agent Scott Boras has discussed having neutral site playoff games in climate-controlled or warm-weather stadiums possibly well into December. This year’s All-Star Game was scheduled to be held in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, but with the game now unlikely to be played, perhaps the stadium could instead be the site of the 2020 World Series. This would also end the need to have travel days, allowing the series to be played in a week, and requiring the series to be played more like regular season games, rather than allowing managers to game the off-days to let their pitchers pitch more than they typically would.
If the season cannot be started early enough to get even 100 games in, baseball may look to change the post-season format entirely. The playoffs could be expanded to allow more teams, since the shorter the season goes, the greater chances that the best teams won’t necessarily be at the top of the standings yet. If the season is extremely short, teams could play a quick 50-60 game season to jockey for seeding in a giant post-season tournament, with the top seed in each league getting a first round-bye. Each round could be a one-game playoff to maximize excitement, akin to college basketball’s post-season tournament.
What would you like to see baseball try this season?