The weirdest year in Major League Baseball history starts Thursday night. The game that fancies its season a marathon will engage in an outright sprint during the 2020 MLB season. The sport that night after night packs fans into stadiums will play with no crowds. Amid a global pandemic, in a country where the coronavirus continues to spread with impunity, baseball will imbibe a confusing cocktail of uncertainty, skepticism and hope, fully embracing a show-must-go-on mentality.
Around the sport, there is pride that it reached the point where a season is reality and unease about what playing that season means. The disquietude is a definitional feature of baseball in 2020, omnipresent and threatening. As quickly as it starts, it could end.
And for a game so about control — controlling of pitches, of pace, of swings, of emotions — that truth is disaffecting. Inside baseball, there are bulls and bears, believers and cynics, optimists and pessimists. Most people, though, from the clubhouse to the front office and everywhere in between, find themselves conflicted, wanting success, fearing otherwise.
“I’ve gone back and forth,” one National League general manager said this week. “I think it’s the right thing to try this. I came in concerned with a rash of positives in the industry. Now I’m just more concerned with the nation. How long can you continue a business that’s purely a diversion when a nation is increasingly in turmoil?”
The question was rhetorical because the answer isn’t particularly satisfying: You just can. Once the principals convinced themselves that baseball’s return was important — for the sake of the teams, owners and players, for the fans, for the employees, for the present and future of the sport — this moment was always the endgame. It was simply a matter of whether anything fundamental would get in its way. Nothing has. And here we are, Opening Day nigh, still with questions, 20 of which are pertinent and do have answers that aren’t satisfactory to some but are the foundation upon which this season, however long it lasts, will be built.
So, they’re actually gonna do this, huh?
Yup. At 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci will throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park, and soon thereafter, Max Scherzer will fire the first actual pitch of the 2020 season to leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu as the reigning champion Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees. Three hours later, Clayton Kershaw will face Johnny Cueto as the World Series favorite Los Angeles Dodgers entertain their rival, the San Francisco Giants. On Friday, the 26 other teams will play their first of 60 games.
Is it gonna work?
Maybe? That’s the only answer, right? It’s not a satisfying one, but come on. It’s 2020. Satisfaction is a luxury nobody can afford anymore.
Brass tacks: In order for MLB to complete this shortened season, it needs to avoid coronavirus outbreaks inside clubhouses and maneuver around potential restrictions enforced by cities and states. It needs players, coaches and others to abide by strict guidelines written not to ensure the safety of those involved — an impossibility — but to make it as safe as possible. It needs, above all, a metric ton of luck, because the proposition — pulling off a season with travel as a pandemic rages around it — is positively herculean.
On its side are a few things. The incentive is strong for players who want to play and do not get paid if they don’t. The game itself is, for the most part, naturally socially distanced. The protocols are fallible but strong. The three-week training camps, which culminated in a flurry of exhibition games, are seen throughout the sport as mostly a success — particularly with the number of positive COVID-19 diagnoses inside major league clubhouses going down.
Are people actually following protocol?
Seemingly. Players say that their teams are buying into the use of masks inside of clubhouses and practicing social distancing. Remember, professional athletes, for all of their foibles, rarely reach the highest levels of the game without some semblance of discipline. This is simply a different form of it.
That said, when more than 1,000 players of differing backgrounds and varying political persuasions get together, unanimity is an impossibility. Younger players will look at veterans and emulate their behavior. One player on a 2019 playoff team, who asked for anonymity so as not to get his teammates in trouble, said he worries that players inside his clubhouse have grown comfortable because of the lack of positive tests and no longer are wearing masks.
“All it takes is one guy for this thing to go sideways,” he said. “Because testing itself isn’t going to keep us healthy.”
How is testing going?
Baseball is not the NBA, which inside of its Disney World bubble returned zero positive tests this week, but the results have been considered a success. Of more than 2,000 people tested last week, according to the league, six tests came back positive.
The testing itself was bumpy early on — and it’s still far from foolproof. MLB tests its Tier 1 employees — players, coaches, training staff and others seminal to the game’s operations — every other day. Saliva samples are taken mid-afternoon and shipped to the league’s Utah-based lab that day. Typically, the results are returned by around 11 p.m. the next day.
It leaves a not-insignificant window for a COVID-positive person to spread the virus inside of a clubhouse. Say someone is tested on a Tuesday. If he’s carrying the virus, he will spend all day Tuesday and Wednesday around teammates before his result is returned. And that is best-case scenario. Confirming positive tests can take longer, an issue that forced MLB to contract with a second lab at Rutgers University to process some of the 10,000-plus tests it runs each week.
That test-to-result gap, players said, is why so many are gung-ho on wearing masks and social distancing. They recognize that an outbreak is a threat to their well-being and their team’s success. They’ve either seen teammates or heard stories of opponents who still haven’t practiced with their teams because even though they feel healthy, they continue to test positive — and the protocols state players cannot return to teams until they’ve tested negative twice. In some cases, even an asymptomatic positive, sources said, can sideline a player for a month.
For players, it’s not a simple binary of sick or not sick. Accordingly, some teams have taken it upon themselves to lease coronavirus testing equipment and purchase their own tests, sources told ESPN. Executives from nine teams confirmed to ESPN that they are using antigen testing, which involves a nasopharyngeal swab, returns a rapid confirmation and costs $30 to $40 per test.
Why do teams need their own machines?
Consider: A player shows up to the stadium and, upon getting his temperature taken, registers at higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. By using a point-of-care machine, teams can get results within 15 minutes — and, if the result is positive, start testing those who have been in contact with the person. Further, sources said, the machine allows them to test employees in other tiers who may not have contact with Tier 1 personnel but still could spread the virus to those who do interact with players, coaches and others.
What are players’ biggest concerns as they start traveling?
Well, there are the plane rides, the hotel stays, the bus trips — all of the extra points of contact that traveling entails. There are also trips into cities where the coronavirus is far more present.
Those are all macro issues. Players tend to believe the micro is a far trickier impediment: “I honestly think horny dudes on the road are what’s going to bring this down.”
So the biggest threat to the 2020 baseball season is thirst?
You said it, not me.
Seriously, what’s the biggest threat to the season?
Certainly eschewing protocol brings its own perils — and it’s not just guys trying to hook up. What if a player from New York travels to Atlanta, where his family lives. Is he really going to sequester himself at the hotel and just order takeout? Not see his mom and dad after months of lockdown and quarantine limited them to FaceTime calls instead of actual face time? It’s possible, certainly, but the risk of travel is rooted as much in those sorts of interactions as it is in players getting Tinder-happy.
Of course, both of those hypotheticals pale compared to the real existential threat of the season: the ability of governmental officials to stop baseball. While some teams have struck deals with municipalities to play — aided by the argument that traveling personnel are tested consistently — the league finds itself powerless to overrule governmental officials, regardless of the reason for their edicts.
The Toronto Blue Jays thought they were playing this season in Toronto. City officials rubber-stamped it. They received the provincial go-ahead. When the federal government said no, gone was any chance of the Blue Jays playing in Canada this season. It sent them scrambling for a new home, and if multiple other teams face an on-the-fly scramble for a suitable alternate site, it could be the Jenga piece that causes everything to collapse.
Fill in the blank: The _________ Blue Jays?
Pittsburgh. While it’s not official, multiple sources told ESPN that PNC Park is expected to host the Blue Jays this year, making New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh the only two-team cities in baseball.
It makes sense for a number of reasons. First is proximity. With 60-game schedules against only division opponents and interleague regional opponents, the Blue Jays need to play in the Eastern time zone. Just as important, the Pirates’ and Blue Jays’ schedules match up almost perfectly. Aside from July 29, Pittsburgh and Toronto don’t have a home game on the same date until Sept. 7. (And the Blue Jays’ July 29 game is against Washington, where they’ll be for their previous series and theoretically could stay to play their scheduled two-game home series.)
September does get tricky. The Blue Jays play Sept. 1-2 in Miami and Sept. 3-6 in Boston. Instead of scheduled home games Sept. 7-9 against the Yankees — when Pittsburgh is at home — Toronto could go to New York and stay there for its scheduled home series Sept. 11-13 against the Mets. Road series against the Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies follow, and with Pittsburgh at home Sept. 21-24, the Blue Jays could play another series against New York at Yankee Stadium.
All told, that would be 24 consecutive days on the road, which might be untenable. Welcome to 2020.
Will players just opt out instead of doing that?
It’s certainly possible. So far, 14 players have opted out of the season, as have around a dozen umpires.
And don’t think potential opt-outs will be limited to the Blue Jays, either. One popular, if misanthropic, theory among players is that those who have had their service time manipulated by teams for purposes of delaying free agency will throw deuces after as many games as needed to earn a new year of service and head home. That would mean leaving teammates and potentially damaging their reputation among them, but if anyone would understand the rationale in giving teams a taste of their own medicine, it would be players. The season already feels odd enough as is.
What do you mean?
If the vibe during regular-season games in any way mirrors that of the exhibition games, players are going to spend the 2020 season in perpetual discomfort. It’s not, like, bad. Eerie is perhaps the best way to put it.
All of this is relatable. Every person grows accustomed to the specificity of a work environment: the sights, the sounds, the smells — the standards of sense. For baseball, like so many other workplaces, they are markedly different. Near-empty ballparks come with a peculiar feeling of barrenness, a reminder that something is very wrong. Piped-in noise, while good for the television viewer, sounds out of place, like a video game that’s glitching. The environment, so full of life in normal times, is antiseptic.
Players almost surely will adjust to this. They are, after all, professionally malleable creatures whose livelihoods depend on the ability to adapt. It may, in fact, behoove some. But learning to live with something doesn’t mean liking it, and the vast majority will view the current state of affairs as a necessary evil.
What are games going to look and sound like?
To you, the TV viewer, pretty much the same. Aside from the occasional fan in the stands who makes a great catch or goes viral for a ridiculous dance, fans tend to be an ancillary part of baseball broadcasts. Their main contributions — the noise they make — are replicable.
There could be a benefit to the sterility. One of baseball’s underappreciated joys is the on-field chatter that takes place every game. Fans will hear more of what goes on than ever before. If there’s a pop-up to the pitcher, the in-the-moment conversation among the swarm of infielders converging on the ball will be fascinating to hear. Third-base coaches yelling at runners, teammates trying to help catchers find balls that skid away, outfielders calling off one another — the aural chorus of a ballgame can be the orchestral accompaniment instead of the din of fans. It may well be a baseball nerd’s perfect soundtrack.
What kind of games are we going to see?
It’s one thing for hitters to say high-scoring. When pitchers echo their sentiments, you know we’re living in some kind of a parallel universe.
Pitchers always believe they’ve got the upper hand on hitters. They have to. And yet a number of them admit that they feel far behind hitters in terms of preparedness — that the extra weeks they get to fine-tune pitches in a standard spring training make the difference between success and failure. Compound that with the muggy summer months benefitting batters and the implementation of the designated hitter in the National League, and a run-scoring paradise is about to be unleashed.
The lack of preparation could mean sloppy play, too. Neither Seattle nor Tampa Bay so much as played an exhibition game. When they debut Friday, it will be the first time either team sees an opponent since MLB shut down the season March 12.
How is the game going to be different?
Beyond the universal DH, a runner starting on second base in extra innings, a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers and other procedural rules, the short season, by its nature, forces teams to value every game more. In a 60-game season, every game is equivalent to 2.7 games during a standard year. That makes three-game winning streaks equivalent to eight-game jags in a regular year and makes a seven-game losing streak like a 19-game skid.
Accordingly, there will be more risks taken — more atypical behavior than one might see in a normal season. Managers may be more inclined to yank struggling starters — especially early in the season, when their arms may not be built up to go more than five innings or 80 pitches. Some pitchers who did more than throw into a net during baseball’s down time are built up enough to throw 100 pitches this week. For those whose arms aren’t responding as well, teams may opt for so-called piggybacking, during which two starting pitchers are lined up to carry the lion’s share of innings that day — one at the beginning of the game and one in relief.
Multiple executives said the high-quality multi-inning reliever could make a comeback. Whether it’s in an end-of-game fireman role or as a midgame leverage play, the ability to pitch for long stretches holds significant value, particularly as the season goes on and rosters contract from the Opening Day size of 30 to 28 and wind up at 26 players.
Throughout it all, there will be tinkering and tooling around with the game’s conventions, because what is modern baseball if not one big experiment? One of the inevitable evolutions could finally become a reality: the two-man outfield.
The two-man what?
During training camp, Tampa Bay tested out an alignment with a pitcher, a catcher, five infielders and two outfielders. With their acquisition of center fielder Manuel Margot to pair with defensive standout Kevin Kiermaier, the Rays theorized that certain situations could call for an infield-heavy placement. They’re not going to do this with fly ball-heavy Nick Anderson pitching. But if sinkerballer Diego Castillo is pitching?
Ground ball pitchers tend to induce pull-side grounders and opposite-field fly balls, meaning Kiermaier and Margot would line up shaded to the right side against right-handed hitters and five infielders would be spread relatively evenly around the diamond. The Rays, remember, are the progenitors of the opener and practitioners of the play-a-pitcher-at-first-base gambit. This would be totally on-brand, and what better time to try it than a season of questionable consequence?
OK, that’s probably taking it a little too far. But more than a few people in baseball already are rationalizing treating this season differently than most. Starting the season with a hotshot rookie on the roster and giving him a full year of service for at most 60 games? Not going to happen, because of the length of the season and the fear that commissioner Rob Manfred can cancel it at any time, which would lead to players getting proportional service, which means if a rookie plays all 10 games in a 10-game season, that would count as a full year of service.
Similarly, teams will be incredibly hesitant to give up top prospects at the Aug. 31 trade deadline, not just because this is season lite but because it could vanish at any time. If outbreaks in September force public-health officials to shut down baseball, any players given up will be for naught, and even the most swashbuckling executive gets nauseated at that possibility.
The debate over the substance of a shortened season will rage on as long as games are being played. Still, if MLB does make it to the end of the season Sept. 27 and through October, assigning an asterisk to the World Series champion feels — at least in this moment — misguided. Navigating a full postseason is an extraordinary achievement regardless of the year. This year? It’s a feat of strength worthy of Festivus.
Mark Teixeira explains that every game is worth three in MLB’s shortened season because one bad pitching rotation or a week of cold bats could destroy a team’s summer.
How should I interpret numbers from this season?
Know that for however misrepresentative small sample sizes may be, they are all you get this year. The likelihood of anyone hitting .400 is minuscule because of the prevalence of the strikeout. The suggestion a reliever may win the Cy Young is equally curious. They typically don’t crack the ballot because of a lack of volume. The best one-inning relievers this year may top out at 30 innings — or about four good starts.
Teams, actually, are asking themselves this same question, albeit for different reasons. The ban of pro scouts from attending games in person has put an even greater reliance on the data that informs so many baseball decisions today. That data is being supplied by Hawk-Eye, its new provider for ball- and player-tracking services. And Hawk-Eye, according to four analysts who have sifted through the data, needs work.
Some of this is to be expected, especially with the implementation of a new system at a most inopportune moment. At the same time, the analysts said, there are questions about the system’s ability to track spin and register exit velocities — two measurements vital to understanding the quality of a player. The league, according to the analysts, has said it will resolve the kinks in the system. In the meantime, the analysts said, whichever teams figure out how to interpret the data could reap a competitive advantage.
Are a lot of players going to kneel during the national anthem?
Nearly three years after former Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first and only MLB player to kneel, members of the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds did so during exhibition games. On Opening Day, players are expected to spearhead several social justice initiatives, as Craig Mish reported.
Does that mean baseball, a sport that has been slow to address social justice issues — including its own problems — suddenly will see a wave of players kneeling? Probably not.
Who is going to win awards this year?
This is all a setup to make me look stupid in two months, isn’t it?
I want receipts, Passan.
NL MVP: Mookie Betts, Dodgers — Goes into free agency with some hardware.
NL Cy Young: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals — He was the best pitcher in the league in the second half last year. Now he takes the title of best period.
NL Rookie of the Year: Carter Kieboom, Nationals — Only because Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux may spend the first third of the season at the team’s alternate site, where every team is housing up to 30 reserves in case an outbreak forces them to call for reinforcements.
AL MVP: Alex Bregman, Astros — Mike Trout is the right pick, but he’s going to be leaving the Angels at some point when his wife delivers their first child, and those games missed could be the opening Bregman needs.
AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole, Yankees — A chalk pick. Whatever. He’s the best pitcher in baseball.
AL Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert, White Sox — Everything he does screams star. The bat is loud, the tools special and the upside stratospheric.
Who’s going to win the World Series?
Since gloom is so de rigueur, let’s opt in to the idea that a World Series is going to be played. In that case, the answer is the Los Angeles Dodgers. That they’re deep enough to send Lux and pitcher Tony Gonsolin out says all you need to know. In a season where depth could buoy a team through injury or outbreak — and will allow adequate rest amid the sprint — the Dodgers boast the most. Beyond that, they have high-level talent, from Betts to reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger, all the way down the lineup.
Yes, there are questions about the length of their bullpen and just how frontline Clayton Kershaw remains and Walker Buehler — who may start the season piggybacking — can become. But that is some serious nitpicking. The Dodgers are the best team in baseball, and after seven consecutive NL West titles ended in disappointment, the eighth time will prove charmed.