The baseball season is going to be a disaster. I can't wait.
So, we're really doing this! With the requisite knocks on all wood within arm's reach, baseball is coming back in 2020 for a truncated season. On Tuesday night, MLB announced their plan, which involves having teams play a total of 60 regular-season games, implementing the universal DH, placing an automatic baserunner on second during extra innings, and having pitchers use a "wet rag" in place of finger-licking to improve grip on the ball.
Do such rule changes go against the entire ethos of capital-B Baseball? Definitely! Should we be mad about it? Ehhh. The season is going to be so weird and dumb and chaotic already, that it can barely be called "baseball" with a straight face to begin with. Rather than getting worked up about the sanctity and purity of the sport — which, believe you me, I'm game to do any other time — I propose we embrace this wacko season for what it is: A one-time, bonkers, and destined-to-be-unforgettable year.
Getting to this point at all as been a minor miracle, to say the least. While I maintain that for the safety of the players and the staff, there really shouldn't be a season at all (a view further reinforced last week by athletes testing positive for COVID-19 in a number of the team's camps, and this Sports Illustrated piece on Wednesday), sports are firmly a "go" in America, pandemic or no. The NBA and MLS are already on their way back, and, after much hand-wringing by baseball's owners (won't someone think of the billionaires?!), MLB is now set to return at the end of July, preceded by "spring training," which begins in T-minus seven days.
This is, in practice, going to be ridiculous. To begin, while baseball seasons have been cut short before due to war, tragedies, and strikes, the 60-game season will be the sport's shortest since 1878. After all, the essence and glory and uniqueness of baseball lies in the long-game, of making it through a 162-game season in which promising pennant races collapse, scrappy underdogs surge, and players have epic, short-lived weeks of breathlessly being described as "the next Mike Trout" by sportswriters. The 60-game format means, instead, that anything is possible: you can be a home run leader with 15 home runs, and the Seattle Mariners can, uh, win the division? The strength of schedule disparity is going to be extra wacky! That's not to mention the headache the whole thing causes for such a records-and-stats obsessed sport: to quote my colleague Jacob Lambert, who is against the restart, "If the Cleveland Indians win the World Series, has their 72-year title drought really ended? If Jacob deGrom wins his third straight Cy Young Award, is he a true heir to Sandy Koufax? Or did he just have a nice half-year?" Admittedly, most people aren't actually complaining about the season's length (especially us fans of mediocre teams); it's pretty clear to everyone that we're lucky to have any version of baseball at all.
Where people do start getting prickly, though, is about how the 2020 rule changes seem to alter the spirit of the game. Take implementing the universal DH, something MLB has long flirted with and has now seized the opportunity to implement.
Smh, MLB capitalists using this crisis to bring the DH to the national league #shockdoctrine
— Bhaskar Sunkara (@sunraysunray) June 24, 2020
There will be those who try to tell you that the universal DH is a "good thing," that it means more time watching "quality baseball" as opposed to watching pitcher bunts. Those people are wrong, for the obvious reason that you'll by consequence also miss pitcher dingers. As a result, this 2020 rule change has a vocal faction of fans furious: "If we allow universal DH, we will have allowed COVID to win," tweeted the mayor of Alexandria, Virginia. "Universal DH is bad because ballgames are supposed to be played by nine players, not 10," added Vice's Tim Marchman. "The DH rule throws the moral and aesthetic balance of the universe off." And do you really want to be tinkering with the balance of the universe right now?
While I would normally join in this chorus — my former colleague, Michael Brendan Dougherty, sums up my thoughts on the DH quite well — honestly, at this point … who cares? We've already established that the 2020 season is going to make no sense and forever be talked about with a giant asterisk beside it deeming it illegitimate as a measure of, well, anything basebally. Why not make more time for Kyle Schwarber to hit homers that will clang around in the empty Wrigley Field bleachers?
The most controversial rule change of all, though, is MLB's decision to expedite playtime by starting extra innings with a runner on second base. This obviously terrible idea was already being used at the minor league level, and was clearly dreamed up by someone who hates watching games (they don't call extras "free baseball" for nothing!). Like the DH, the extra innings rule change is one that MLB seemed eager to find an excuse to shuffle in while we were distracted by a global pandemic. Still, as has been noted before, the change is drastic for what is actually a relatively insignificant "problem" in the game. Between 2012 and 2017, there were 1,200 extra-inning games; that means only about 8.7 percent of games went more than nine innings. "One out of every 11 games played goes into extras, so we can expect around one game per night to go more than nine frames," explained Beyond the Box Score. But of games that go to extra innings, just 5 percent go more than 12 innings. We're really, then, talking about only 20 to 40 minutes more of baseball, which Beyond the Box Score points out is no more than overtime lasts in many other sports.
Should runners start on second base during extras in any season but this one? Absolutely not! But for 2020, I fully embrace the nonsensical chaos of starting an inning with a runner already in scoring position. The only thing that would make less sense would be to replace the 10th inning with a sudden-death home run derby, which I'd frankly also support at this point. Whatever is happening in the 2020 season isn't any purist's idea of baseball, so why not just fully embrace the weirdest version possible, rather than hopelessly pretend like things are normal?
pitchers can have a wet rag in pocket, as a little treat
— Lindsay Zoladz (@lindsayzoladz) June 23, 2020
What is actually worrisome is that MLB is using the 2020 season as a kind of laboratory for its worst ideas, which it then likely plans to sneak into the 2021 season and beyond (that already looks pretty certain with the union-backed universal DH). Let's not get carried away: surely no one wants baseball to be this dumb forever. I'll fight that battle next spring, though. In the meantime, I welcome whatever happens in this already throw-away year. Here's to the future 2020 World Series-winning Chicago White Sox (???). Long may they reign.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.