Rational Suggestions for the 2020 Baseball season

The shutdown could hardly have come at a worse time for baseball.  Perhaps if everything had held off until one or two regular season games were played before everything came to a screeching halt, that might have been worse.  But the timing for this is certainly bad enough.

Admittedly, it’s trivial to discuss the unrolling of a sporting season against the very serious backdrop of COVID-19.  Whether baseball – or any other sport – is even played at all this year pales in importance against the life-and-death battle that many people across the globe are facing every day.

That being said, for those of us who anticipated watching baseball games by this time of the year, the prospects for the 2020 season are a matter of some interest.  And as discussions about the upcoming season are on-going, I feel that I should weigh in here.

The NBA and NHL have both suspended their seasons just before their playoffs were to begin.  That is a very bad time for an interruption, but basketball and hockey are both indoor sports.  While it is fairly obvious at this point that the rest of their regular seasons are toast, both of those leagues could – if they wanted – wait almost indefinitely and then go straight to playoffs whenever sports get the all-clear to begin again.  Enough of their seasons have been played to make reasonable playoff assignments.

Baseball’s situation is much different.  Officially, the start of the season has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and it’s likely to be pushed back farther.  In all honesty, I rather doubt that we will see baseball at all this year, although it is still too early to pull the plug on the season.  In the interregnum – and amidst the swirling uncertainty – those closest to the process have consistently said that everything is on the table as far as putting together a schedule.  Since “everything” includes a lot of very bad ideas, I am going to chime in with a little guidance and a few commitments that baseball should make today.

All of the bad ideas in play have found their way into one suggestion by super-agent Scott Boras (read all about it here).  To sum up the bad in the plan, Scott is trying to play all 162 games, beginning in June and extending through the end of November, with the playoffs being played through December at neutral sites.  Game Six of the 2020 World Series – under this scenario – would be played on Christmas Day.

Since some of this senselessness appears in other plans – and since this specific plan has been submitted to the powers that be – it is worthwhile to understand how and why these ideas – individually and collectively – are bad for the game, its players and its fans.

Messing Up Future Seasons

Working backwards, let’s start with the impact such a plan would have on the 2021.  With the season not finishing until past Christmas, that would leave all of the playoff teams with a scant month or so before pitchers and catchers would report in early February.  Essentially, baseball would lose its offseason.  There is no one who looks at this that doesn’t agree that the 2021 season couldn’t begin any earlier than mid-April – forcing yet another season where meaningful games are played deep into November.  It is – on the face of it – senseless to allow whatever measures are selected to deal with the 2020 situation to negatively impact the 2021 season.

If, however, this were the only flaw in the plan, it might still be worth reluctant consideration.  But this is only the beginning.

Neutral Site Playoffs?

Really?

So, the Washington Nationals coming off their first ever World Championship – or the long suffering fans in Philadelphia – or the longer-suffering fans in Cincinnati (all of whom enter the 2020 season with the anticipation of a potential playoff berth) will be denied the opportunity to see their heroes play in their home ballparks?  You’re taking the playoffs away from Yankee Stadium?  From Wrigley Field?  From Fenway Park (although most prognosticators doubt that the Red Sox will be in the mix)?

In St Louis, home playoff games are held as a near religious experience as the Clydesdale’s make their way triumphantly around the perimeter of the playing field before a sea of nearly 50,000 red-robed worshipers.  Playoff baseball in these time-honored venues are the very fabric of the tradition of the game.  They are the sacred right of the local fandoms that uphold these teams with their collective faith (and wallets).  This is a heartless recommendation that defecates not only on the loyalty of the fans, but the traditions of a game where tradition means more than in any other sport.

Additionally, this plan deprives those communities of important revenue generated by the privilege of hosting a playoff game.  A neutral site playoff is so commonly mentioned that many believe that it is a foregone conclusion.  I shudder to think that this is true.

Since nothing written on this is terribly detailed, the neutral playoff plan raises another question.  Does everyone play neutral playoff games?  Say, for example, that the Dodgers qualify for the playoffs.  Their stadium is one of the selected stadiums.  Will they get to play their home games at home?  Or will they have to travel to Anaheim?  Suppose that they are scheduled to play Washington.  Where would the Nationals play their “home games,” Toronto?

Will the Nationals be expected to go into the frenzied environment of Los Angeles as the visiting team against an opponent very familiar with the surroundings, and then answer that ambiance with games in a nearly empty stadium in Toronto in a ballpark they are mostly unfamiliar with?

A whisper that made the news crawls a couple days ago suggested a World Series held in Dodger Stadium.  If the Dodgers should earn the right to represent the National League in the series, they would, indeed, play their home games in their home stadium.  And get this, the American League team will get to play their “home games” in Anaheim or San Diego.  Yeah, that’s obviously fair.

In fact, nothing about neutral-site, December (or late November) playoff games is either logical or fair.  This should be the first idea taken off the table.  And here is the second:

Regular Season Games in November

The December playoffs – under the Boras scenario – would be necessary because they would still be playing regular season games in October and November.  Baseball in November is a grisly thought.  Imagine – if you will – the Phillies playing an important series against the Mets in Shea Stadium in 20 degree weather with patches of snow and ice ringing the infield.

You can do this, of course.  You can bundle the players up and trot them out there and force them to play.  But what will the game look like?  Will it be an honest barometer of either team’s abilities?

Football, of course, is an all-weather sport, and NFL teams have to be ready and willing to play under any conditions.  Baseball is a different animal.  When the weather is uncooperative – or sometimes even when it’s just too cold – a baseball game will be cancelled and played later. 

The concern here isn’t that baseball players are any less tough or committed than football players.  The concern here is for the quality of the game.  Fans paying top dollar for major league baseball should be rewarded with more than pitchers struggling to get a feel for their breaking pitches and fielders trying to throw an icy baseball across the diamond.  In the era where so much of offense is dependent on the home run, would baseballs’ fandom be satisfied with the drop in offense that would be caused by dropping temperatures?

The Boras plan will try to maximize the warm weather sites and the domed stadiums during October and November – but that is its own can of worms.

Under the schedule as it was originally planned, the Cardinals were to play two important September series against their ancient rivals from Chicago (four at home and the last three games of the regular season in Wrigley).  Additionally, they had four potentially important games in Cincinnati.  If November is the new September, what becomes of these games?  Does the head-to-head aspect of the pennant race vanish?  Do the Cards, Cubs and Reds play all of their games against each other in July and August so that they can spend all of October and December playing San Diego, Arizona and Florida?

And what of Milwaukee?  Of the five teams in the Cardinal’s division, the Brewers have the only dome.  Do they get to spend all of October and November at home?  If so, then they will have to play almost all of July through September on the road.  Neither scenario is fair, either for the Brewers or the teams challenging them for the title.

And, of course, while they can try to maximize the warm weather/dome sites, no one pretends that they can be used to exclusion over the last couple of months.  So, under this and similar plans, critical end-of-season games will be played under conditions unworthy of pennant race baseball.

Yes, the early part of the season – March and April – are often plagued with poor weather.  But when conditions sink below acceptable levels, those games are simply postponed and played later.  That option exists with the early season games because the entire summer of improving weather lies before us.  That will not be the case in November.  If it’s 20 degrees in New York on November 29, what options are there?  The weather isn’t likely to be getting better the later in the year you go.

This is not how a baseball season should be decided.  The poor quality of play in the cold weather games is an important strike against this thought.  Even more so, the potential threat to those last-month rivalry games.  Has there ever been a season when the Yankees and Red Sox didn’t have a couple of big series in the season’s last month?

As you can see, all of these are very bad ideas – and all unnecessary.  And what, you ask, is underpinning all of these bad ideas?  Just this:

The Quest for 162

All of this is about somehow, some way, getting all 162 games played.  Details of the Boras plan were not fully divulged, but the plan does call for a dozen doubleheaders for every team.  My expectation would be that off days will also be few and far between.  This will also affect the quality of play.  Teams playing 21 games in 20 days are not likely to be playing at their best.

This is the consistent theme of this and many other plans – the emphasis of quantity over quality.  Get all of the games in, no matter how ugly they are.  While the full 162 is certainly optimal, baseball seasons have been played with fewer games in the past, and the sport has survived just fine.  A 100-game season, if completed before too much of October has passed, would be sufficient.  Even an 80-game – or 60 game – season would suffice in this era of global trial.  (If 60 isn’t doable within a reasonable time frame, that would be the time to pull the plug on the season.)

Much less important than the number of games played is the quality of play.  Bad baseball isn’t going to uplift anyone’s spirits.

There is one final potential hazard inherent in the rush to 162 that needs to be a part of the discussion.

A Dangerous Time for Pitchers

Again, few plan details have been shared.  Everyone agrees that there needs to be some kind of second spring to ramp up a little before the games start counting, but no one has voiced an idea of how much second spring we are talking about.  One week? Two weeks? A full month?

As there will be plenty of pressure to get the season restarted, I’m afraid that baseball will opt for the shorter end of the spectrum and allot two weeks or less preparation time.  If, indeed, it does shake out that way, it will almost surely lead to disaster.

When Spring Training was halted, almost all of the starting pitchers were pretty well stretched out.  They were up to five or six innings as they were nearly prepared to start the season.

And then, everything stopped.

Over the last several weeks, all of these pitchers have been trying to “maintain” their conditioning on their own.  They are trying to sustain that competitive edge without the benefit of competition.  As this is completely foreign to their normal preparation, I think it’s safe to say that the major’s starting pitchers are all over the map in regards to their conditioning.  If MLB now tries to pick up spring training where they left off, then all of these guys will go out there expecting to pick up at the five or six inning mark.  They will bring with them a sense of urgency to quickly prepare for the beginning of the season.

And when that happens, the echo of the collective snapping of elbows will resound from Miami to Seattle and most places in between.  Seeing as none of these pitchers has ever done this before, a stop-and-go spring will almost assuredly be catastrophic.  I freely predict that at least 20 of baseball’s 30 teams will lose at least one starter for not only this season, but for next year, too.

Complicating the cobbling together of some kind of 2020 season is the fact that at this point, spring training will need to start all over.  Anything less than a full month, with the starters beginning at the three-inning/45 pitch mark will be an invitation to record numbers of pitchers on the shelf.

Trust me, crowding in those extra games is just not worth it.  Baseball needs to take the long view.

Commitments Baseball Needs to Make

Here are my humble suggestions that constitute a sane approach to whatever 2020 season might be possible:

First, baseball needs to tell all of its pitchers to stop throwing.  Today.  Baseball has already lost Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard for whatever 2020 season there will be – as well as at least half of 2021.  Baseball needs to protect the rest of its pitchers by having them stop throwing now.

Second, baseball needs to commit to a full month of spring training – allowing their pitchers to rebuild under a more normal regimen.

Finally, baseball needs to commit to starting the playoffs no later than the first few days of October, and to play all playoff games in the stadiums of the participating teams and in front of their fans.  There is one caveat to the “first few days of October” commitment that I will get to in a second.

Given this time frame, baseball will decide to play the most games that can be reasonably played, and that will be the season.

The summer of 2020 will almost assuredly be one of the most heart-wrenching in our nation’s history, with death tolls potentially reaching a quarter of a million (and perhaps much more).  This is another reason that I strongly doubt we will have any baseball at all this year.  MLB would be well advised to salvage what it can from this summer, and keep itself in the best shape possible for 2021.

One Other Option

I will offer this one alternate suggestion.  The LA World Series plan extends the regular season to October 15 before going into the playoffs.  This allowed for a 100-game season.  In spite of the reservations I expressed earlier about extending the season, this scenario could work if baseball were willing to streamline the playoffs.

Baseball’s playoff structure hasn’t always been a month-long second marathon.  WildCard games have only been a part of the picture since 2012 and prior to 1995 there was no division series.  From 1968 (the last year that the World Series was the only postseason series) until 1993 (there was no postseason in 1994) there was only one level of playoffs in between the regular season and the World Series.  Each league was divided into two divisions, and the division champions met for a best-of-five Championship Series.

It would take a little juggling – Houston would have to be invited back into the National League for this one season, but baseball could re-create this dynamic, play the 100-game regular season into mid-October, and still finish the World Series at about the same point of year that it is currently ending.

The irony, of course, is that the season was scheduled to start about a week earlier than usual in part to avoid playing World Series games in November.  While this was a noble idea, concerns larger than baseball have forced a re-shuffling of priorities.

If the last game of this year’s World Series could be played on October 30 (the date the World Series ended last year), baseball and the world would consider that a victory.

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