A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we used to do crazy things like spend our time arguing about sports. Now, we get to argue about whether we should all be wearing facemasks (answer: yes) and the appropriate way to protest systemic police brutality against people of color (answer: whatever affects change). Good times. Makes one long for the good ol’ days, when lively debate over a certain sign-stealing scandal was the biggest thing in your news feed. I miss writing about actual baseball instead of being a Debbie Downer.
In the pre-COVID world, my offseason routine as a baseball writer consisted of covering trades, signings and any other big news, with the occasional opinion piece about labor relations and the like thrown in for good measure. As the actual season neared, it was time for a wrap on each team’s overall offseason performance, and then we’d tie a bow on the whole thing with some predictions. Sometimes they were right (last year, I had the Nationals in the World Series!) and sometimes they were not (they lost to the Yankees instead of beating the Astros!), but I could always feel pretty confident that I would only look slightly like an idiot when I read them after the World Series.
This is not your normal baseball season, and I'm more than a little less confident in my ability to predict results in a way that wouldn’t make me look like an absolute ignoramus in hindsight, so we’re, in turn, gonna step back a little bit and focus on a bigger picture preview and things to expect/look forward to/freak about in the season that starts today. Don’t worry, there will still be predictions, they’re just going to be a little different than which team is going to win the AL Central.
Before we get into that, though I’d like to remind you that, if you have (like me) hand-sanitized your brain since the actual conclusion of the offseason, we’ve got you covered for what happened this winter in both the National and American Leagues. I’d also like to express a tad bit of anger at the Dodgers for deciding to ink Mookie Betts to a 12-year extension the day before the season starts when I’m in the middle of writing this article. Looks like we’re going to have to come back to that particularly newsworthy nugget, though, and proceed as we were. And so, onto thoughts and predictions on our weird-as-hell 2020 MLB season.
This Is Not Your Father’s Baseball Season
It goes without saying (not that that will stop me from saying it): 60 baseball games isn’t a lot of baseball games. Perhaps you remember last year, when there was endless chatter (from yours truly, among everyone else) about how the Nationals started off the season so poorly prior to, well, winning the World Series. When the Nationals hit the 60-game mark, they were in possession of a 27-33 record and were 6.5 games back in the NL East.
Under normal circumstances, we just keep telling ourselves that an under- or over-performing player or team will right the ship and things will come correct in due course. It’s not that we haven’t seen things fail to return to the mean over a full season (see, for instance, the Rangers’ ridiculous 2016 season, where they won 96 games with a +8 run differential thanks to a 36-11 record in one-run games), but that sort of thing is basically guaranteed to happen in 2020. There’s going to be a preseason favorite that starts off cold and never recovers. There’s going to be a team that nobody but a diehard fan would’ve reasonably expected to make the postseason that’s going to take their place. There may be more than one of each of these teams.
Will the Dodgers’ reign of terror in the NL West be ended by the Giants? Probably not. The Dodgers (who won 106 games in 2019, lost little and added Mookie Betts via trade in a fairly ridiculous fleecing) are not just a ridiculous team, but arguably the most stacked team in recent history and were clear pre-COVID championship favorites. They are still, but would I be overly surprised if something wild happened and the Padres or Diamondbacks pulled off an upset over 60 games? Mildly. Because It’s that kind of year.
Or maybe you’re more of an AL aficionado. Could the Rangers steal a division title from the Astros in a full season? Probably not, as Houston’s offense is still going to punish opposing pitchers even sans trash cans, just like they did last year. Over 60 games? It could happen, as the Rangers have assembled a sneaky-good collection of pitchers and Houston’s starter stock isn’t quite the specimen it was last year, thanks to Gerrit Cole heading to New York.
The top-three in Houston are likely Justin Verlander (37), Zack Greinke (36) and Lance McCullers (26, and returning from Tommy John surgery). No offense to Verlander and Greinke (who are both a little younger than me) or to McCullers (who is not only far younger, but also just had a tendon moved around his damn body and is about to go out and throw a baseball again, whereas I still loudly complain about the tennis elbow I got from assembling IKEA furniture four years ago every time I take out the trash), but pitchers are fickle creatures.
All of which is to say that anything can happen in this crazy, shortened season, and there will be surprises. Keep an eye on some of the teams that were probably longshots before but have the bones to put together something particularly impressive with a few breaks (Angels, White Sox, Padres and Reds) and, if I’m being totally honest, don’t even fully sleep on teams that you almost certainly would’ve been totally written off (Rangers, Rockies and, gasp, Marlins). Weird things happen in small sample sizes. But there’s also a good chance that those Astros and their “old” and “decrepit” pitchers win the World Series (15.8% as of when I’m writing this), and make everyone lose their collective minds. All. Over. Again.
The Art of the Pitch: Creativity and Skills That Win Baseball Games
Before we stray too far from the pitching discussion above, this is going to be one of the most interesting things to watch this season, as we’re entering uncharted territory. For basically as long as the sport has existed, pitchers have had unique routines and practices, some that make sense (throwing schedules) and some that might come off as a more than a little weird to the uninitiated (do not ever talk to a pitcher when he’s in the middle of a no-hitter, lest you be immediately sucked into a hole in the earth and burn in hellfire for eternity). But this year has thrown a rather larger than normal wrench into those routines and practices.
The first iteration of Spring Training, when pitchers build up their strength slowly and get ready to navigate a 162-game season of doing things with their arms that the non-baseball gods who created the world couldn’t have possibly imagined, but which the baseball gods demand, was a long time ago. Different pitchers have done very different things to keep in shape in the meantime and the very limited Spring Training 2.0 that we’ve had as of late is probably not going to cut it. Things are going to get weird, both from health-management and strategy perspectives, and teams are going to have to adjust.
Teams like the Rays are particularly well-suited to take advantage of the lack of a need for a full-season’s worth of innings from starters. They weren’t expecting it anyways, and now they’re poised to take advantage of their preexisting depth and ability to lean on a motley crew of starters, long relievers and straight up bullpen dudes to string together quality innings. When you have 60-games to play, the equation changes. How it plays out remains to be seen, but it’s going to be one of the more interesting things to keep an eye on in this supremely weird season.
I’ll Be God $%*# It, They Done Changed the Rules
We didn’t cover the fact that there’s now a three-batter or finish-off-the-inning rule in effect for pitchers. That one was coming regardless and will certainly pose some interesting questions in terms of how teams adapt to it, but there are plenty of other tweaks, minor and major, that you’re going to want to pay attention to.
The early part of the season is going to be particularly ridiculous. With the cascading reduction in roster size (a couple of weeks of 30-man rosters, then a couple with 28, before rosters are set at 26 for the rest of the season), teams are going to be carrying a mess of pitchers, three catchers and the baseball gods know who else to start the season. Are managers going to use pinch hitters and runners and with abandon, knowing that every game matters in a way that it doesn’t during a normal season? We’ll see soon enough.
The universal designated hitter is another thing that’s going to cause some spittakes if people haven’t been paying attention. While some NL teams (see: for example, (a) the Reds, who had more corner infielders than they knew what to do with and (b) the Cubs, who can finally park Kyle Schwarber somewhere and forget about everything but his at-bats), are going to be super stoked about this, it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow for others that built their rosters in a traditional NL manner. As a ride or die “pitchers bat or GTFO” kind of person, I find it slightly offensive, but I’ll deal. As one does in these times.
Then there’s the whole extra-innings thing. Teams will start the inning with a runner at second base, which is how they’ve done it in the minors for the last couple of years and has kept games from going past the 10th inning a great deal of the time. It’s going to be pretty weird from a whole bunch of different angles, from accounting for the stats to the strategy that will come into play in employing speedy dudes who can steal the game for a manager. It’s a move that makes more than a modicum of sense when you’ve got pitchers working with weird workloads and are trying to limit players’ exposure to each other more than is “necessary,” but that is not going to stop me from asking myself what in the hell happened when I hit the bathroom after we head to extras in my first handful of games.
There Will Be Asterisks
While we’ve talked about how tough it’s going to be to parse any meaning on the team level, it might be even more fascinating to see what’s going to happen on a slightly more micro-level (i.e., the players who comprise said teams). Some baseball writers enjoy writing about the good ol’ hot start (not this one, obviously), but the same rules that we were discussing above about teams pulling off ridiculous feats apply to individual players.
Think about the number of times you’ve heard about how great a pitcher has been over their last handful of starts. That’s basically the season. The Cy Young Award is totally going to… Checks rosters… Digs deep… Takes a sip of beer… Pauses… Thinks… Takes another sip… The Cy Young Award is totally going to this beer (a rather delicious Belgian-style pale ale, in case you were wondering). Because I have no idea who is going to somehow clock in with an ERA under 1.00, but the odds say that it’s pretty darn possible.
So, yes, there will be asterisks as we figure out a way to work this season into the collective memory that exists in our history books (and stats sites). Remember our conversation about the sign stealing scandal that happened way back when we were young and naive? Plenty of people want to strip the Astros of their 2017 title and, while I don’t agree with that mentality (both because I hail from Houston and I believe you can just let the history books explain what actually happened with some context), I at least understand the feels behind it. They cheated, so they don’t deserve it.
But is someone going to hit over .400 this season? What about the aforementioned pitcher with a sub-1.00 ERA? The record books are going to have to account for the fact that this season was, well, pretty freaking weird. So people are going to argue about it. I, for one, hope that we get a .600 hitter, a pitcher with a 0.00 ERA and that the Dodgers win the World Series, and people still argue about how it doesn’t count, even after they were ostensibly robbed by the Astros and the Red Sox. But I am also an agent of chaos.
There’s Still a Good Chance We Won’t Get to Have Nice Things
Time to get heavy for a minute. The players who have already been diagnosed with COVID isn’t a particularly short list, but we’ll hit up some “highlights.” Freddie Freeman, Charlie Blackmon, Jesús Luzardo, Pete Kozma, Will Smith, Salvador Perez. A bunch of teams have played their cards closer to their chest, opting to not disclose the specific players who have tested positive. Some players have done a totally reasonable thing and decided they don’t want to run the risk associated with playing this season, from Buster Posey to Ian Desmond and Felix Hernandez to Ryan Zimmerman. You can’t blame anyone for taking a pass on this garbage year..
MLB has a very extensive set of rules for how to deal with the whole pandemic thing. Many, many pages of extensive. Like a 100-page tome of an operations manual extensive. And yet, I, like those players who have opted out, are far from convinced that it’s going to work. You can prepare for the worst and hope for the best, but the worst is probably still going to come back and bite you where the sun most certainly does not shine in this particular year.
There are bunches and bunches of people involved in making the running of a professional sports league function in this day and age and it is more than a little naive to believe that something won’t funk the whole thing up. There’s a decent chance that, if this season is played through to its conclusion regardless of player health, it might just end up as a war of attrition. Or they might have to call the whole thing off, which might end up being the safest odds if you’re the gambling type.
Just Lean into the Hot Mess That Is Baseball and Our World in 2020
There’s a decent chance that the season won’t be played to its conclusion, and a ridiculously good chance that the ridiculous will happen if it is. I’ll take whatever I can get these days. We’ve got a disease ravaging our country and the economy is a hot mess. Then there’s police brutality, partisan politics and plenty of other things to stress about. But we’re going to have some baseball to watch. Whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, or a combination of all of those things, it’s baseball. It might not be the baseball we wanted, but it is the baseball that 2020 demands. Happy baseballing, y'all.