Breaking Down MLB’s Rule Changes For The Shortened 2020 Season

This MLB season is not going to be perfect or pretty.  There have been a lot of bumps in the road to get here.  There will be more.  The MLB’s changes to the season indicate that.

But we should also be grateful we’re getting it – or whatever bit of it – at all.  We don’t know if this will last or how long it will be for, which is part of what makes some of the rules below disappointing.  A lot of it seems short-sighted.  Maybe that’s because this whole season could be very short.

Still, if we are able to pull through this MLB season, things will be different.  Most of those things are unfortunate negatives, but there are positives.  It was as close to a big flunk as possible for MLB, but a season, even with its drawbacks, saves them from that poor outcome.  Here are some thoughts on what baseball will look like as a whole starting Thursday.

Intradivisional and interleague divisional play

Aside from the universal DH, this was the best rule change MLB made for the 2020 season, and it has nothing to do with the actual baseball itself.

It seems as if this rule might have been the crux of this season’s occurrence.  Local governments might have been on edge about having a home team take in players – who may or may not follow MLB’s guidelines when they’re on the road or at home – from upwards of 15 different cities across North America.  That’s a lot of different people coming from a lot of different places, which may have made leaders – especially those who are in charge of areas that have handled the pandemic well – nervous.

Now, a home team is only having teams come from nine different cities: the four in the team’s own division and the five in the team’s interleague division.

Basically, local leaders and governments now know who exactly is coming in and from where.  It lowers the volume, and ultimately the risk.

It may not work.  As mentioned above, players have to follow MLB’s rules on the road.  We will likely know quickly whether they do or not, and that determination will come in the form of positive tests.  That’s the risk that local governments are taking by allowing teams to play.  Toronto wasn’t willing to.

The schedule change creates massive intrigue for divisions and regions that are already competitive.  The NL Central is going to be playing each other 60 percent of the time.  In a division where four of the five teams are of playoff quality and two to three should be serious World Series threats in a 60 game season, the men will be separated from the boys fast.  The schedule for NL Central teams will be tough, and that’s discounting the other foes, which features Minnesota, the White Sox and Cleveland – all teams that have a chance to make serious noise (That might be a tad generous in reference to Cleveland).  Regardless, that’s just one of the three regions.  The NL East should be a bloodbath.  The AL West will be competitive.  With just 60 games, you can’t have a bad week or bad start, and with this scheduling, for some teams it will be hard not to do so.

The three batter minimum for pitchers

Major League Baseball’s slow turn against advanced analytics and sabermetrics starts here.  

This rule – which was implemented before the pandemic hit and will be carrying on to seasons after the 2020 one – completely wipes out a lot of hard work put in by data analysts and front office members over the past 5-20 years.  Using a different pitcher every inning evolved straight from Moneyball, though it morphed into various forms first.  Moneyball was about being efficient.  Seventeen years later or so, we found out that the most efficient way to pitch was to mix it up as much as possible, and adapt for every possible situation.

Now the work that went into figuring that out is irrelevant.  There will never be a pitcher brought in for a specific batter in a specific situation.  Sure, it added a bit more time to an inning.  But watching how that single at-bat played out was fascinating.  It was each team throwing everything they had against one another in a distance of 60 feet and six inches.  It was like watching the emptying of a war chest.

Sure, these strategic moves make the game longer and slower (They also add a commercial break, which means money!).  They may piss off the older fan because it gives the pitching team an easy out from a tight, troubling situation.  It can be frustrating as a fan when an inning is ongoing for 45 minutes already and two pitching changes happen within the span of an out.   But those complaints being heard and resolved has now made the game worse.

The the batter minimum is also going to lead to a lessened work force of players.  What happens to the Adam Kolereks and Adam Climbers of the world?  A lot of specialists haven’t gotten three outs in a single outing in their life.  The transition could be tough for those guys.

After seeing the reduction of the MLB Draft, cancellation of the 2020 MiLB season and MLB’s plan to cut minor league teams, it feels like the league wants to cut its workforce numbers down at all levels, not just the lower ones.  There will be pitchers unable to adjust to this new rule, and it will leave them out of baseball completely. 

The runner on second base to start extra innings

It is understandable to see where MLB is coming from on this one in multiple facets.  Sure, the window to get these 60 games in is tight.  It will be a grind.  There are very few off days, and traveling will be especially brutal – and that’s without extra innings.

Baseball also might be dying, in part because the sport is boring to a lot of people.  MLB knows this.  Millennials and Gen-Zers who grew up with the Internet and are wired for everything to be fast-paced –particularly their sports – have seen football go all air-raid, basketball majorly ramp up its pace thanks to threes and athleticism and soccer, well, soccer has always been fast.  It’s just that no one wanted fast sports more than the past two generations had. 

Baseball hasn’t changed its pace.  The length of games show that.  The TV ratings and attendance indicate that’s a problem.

It is.  There’s no doubt about that.  But there are ways to go about that without affecting how the game is played. That same case can be made for the three batter minimum as well.

You know what’s awesome?  Those 15 inning marathon games on a random Tuesday night in the middle of the summer when you have nothing else to do except watch baseball.  You know what else is awesome?  The tension of bases loaded in the bottom half of an inning in extras.  Getting an early double and then hoping the next batter can bring him in.  Walkoffs that take time to develop.

All of that is gone this year with this new rule.  Baseball is the one sport without a clock.  Inevitably, that’s why the games take so long.  But that’s also the beauty of it, and MLB should embrace it and market their stars better instead of changing the game to appeal to younger masses.  They could also acknowledge the fact that we’ve literally never seen home runs hit at this rate before.  People do like home runs.

There’s also the case to be made that the runner on second saves pitchers’ arms, but doesn’t the three batter minimum do the complete opposite of that?

These 60 games are being smashed into a small time frame.  But the amount of off-days and the ratio of games played per month is extremely similar to a normal season.  Letting games go longer into extras this season is really no different than any other season.

There’s no case worth buying on this one from MLB.  Not only does their claim about this helping pitchers not stick because of the hypocrisy of the three batter minimum, but it’s also flawed because 60 games compared to 162 games will help pitchers and their arms dramatically – there likely won’t be any bullpens melting down in the playoffs due to fatigue this year.

Just like the negotiations to get here were, this rule is another perfect example of MLB deflecting the problem off themselves and into other areas, which will likely end up hurting the game even more.

The universal DH

MLB’s level of stupidity and greed throughout the negotiations with the MLBPA is perfectly reflected in this rule change.  It really took the pandemic for everyone to realize the NL should have a DH?

It just never made sense for them not to.  It never has.  There’s never, ever been a good argument for pitchers to be hitting.  It makes the game worse.  Sports is about athletes competing to the best of their incredible abilities and pitchers swinging bats looks like if you pulled a guy from stands who said he played second base in high school and put him up at the plate.

The common argument for no NL DH is: “Well, that’s the way it’s always been.”  If you have to resort to that statement in any argument then you probably don’t have anything more meaningful to say.  It’s basically like admitting you lost as soon as you use that phrase.  You know many problems in the world would be solved if we didn’t think in terms of “That’s the way it’s always been”?

The lack of a universal DH has also given a completely unfair advantage to the AL throughout the years, which had nine guys who can competently swing a bat in the lineup compared to eight who can and one who literally has no chance.  That makes a difference. 

The DH in the NL is going to help multiple teams who have roster jams.  Those teams tend to be ones who are really good and have a lot of depth, like the Dodgers, Cubs or Reds.  For teams that aren’t so good, well, let’s look back on the competency aspect and make it clear that anyone who’s a position player is probably a better option than any pitcher at the plate.

The hope is that the universal DH sticks for 2021 and beyond.  It’d be incredibly stupid to do it for one year and go back.  No one can possibly be that outraged about pitchers not hitting.  There’s literally so many things more important in life.  

This change was a long time coming.  Be happy about it.  It’s one of the few things MLB did right this year.