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MLB Is (Maybe) Back. What Now?

The owners and players have agreed to a 60-game season that will start on July 23 or 24, but there’s still a pandemic looming. What should we expect from the abbreviated campaign?

MLB/Ringer illustration

It’s finally official: Major League Baseball is back.*

*Major League Baseball still might not be back. We’ll get to that.

Almost three months after MLB and the Players Association agreed to a deal that gave the league the power to impose the owners’ desired schedule as long as the players received a prorated portion of their salaries and approved MLB’s health-and-safety protocol, the two parties called off their fruitless further negotiations, temporarily suspended their public war of words, and abided by those existing terms. On Monday, the MLBPA rejected the owners’ last offer for a 60-game season that would have included provisions for expanded playoffs, a universal DH beyond 2020, and other economic measures. (The owners had previously rejected a 70-game proposal from the players, which followed an earlier 60-game offer from the owners—the first that actually included prorated pay.)

The union’s 33-5 vote against MLB’s offer from Friday kicked the can back to commissioner Rob Manfred, who acceded to the players’ previous request to stop stalling and get the postponed season started. On Tuesday, the players confirmed their intention to report to their home stadiums by July 1 to prepare for a second spring training (or a first summer training) and a 60-game, 66-day season tentatively scheduled to start on July 23 or 24 and conclude in late September. Pandemic permitting, the 10-team playoffs will then proceed as planned.

While the ugly way in which this process played out, the specter of COVID-19 and the pressing social and economic crises occupying the country have sapped much of the excitement that usually accompanies the approach of Opening Day, there would be plenty to rejoice about if the season can start and finish safely. (That’s an enormous “if.”) Mookie Betts would wear Dodger blue, for a few months at minimum. Shohei Ohtani would get back to moonlighting on the mound in addition to doing his day job in the batter’s box. Mike Trout’s career WAR would keep climbing. Yu Darvish would debut his 11th pitch, “The Supreme.” And the also-ran teams of 2019 that spent big last winter in bids to return to October—the White Sox, the Reds, the Diamondbacks, and others—wouldn’t have their efforts entirely wiped away. Those are a few of the first-blush takeaways from the news that MLB could be back in business soon. While we wait and hope, perhaps futilely, for a full 60-game season, such as it is, let’s examine some of the other short- and long-term effects of the foreplay.

MLB avoided a disaster scenario.

In fairness to MLB owners—who don’t seem all that interested in fairness themselves—MLB’s PR problems in the past few months weren’t wholly self-inflicted. Baseball’s protracted economic kerfuffle was caused by COVID-19, which subjected the sport to an unprecedented stress test. MLB flunked that test, but it also faced more difficult questions than some of the leagues that handled the situation more smoothly. The NBA and NHL had completed most of their regular seasons (with fans in the stands) when the pandemic hit. Those leagues had accrued most of their projected revenue, and their players had already received most of their salaries. The NFL season wasn’t due to start for five months and may still start on schedule. What’s more, the NFL, NBA, and NHL—in contrast to MLB—have prearranged revenue-sharing agreements that reduced some of the economic uncertainty. Unlike the leagues it’s commonly compared to, MLB had to postpone the start of its season; figure out how, when, and where to host a second spring training; haggle over the length, layout, and safety of a fully fanless season; and divvy up the revenue in concert with a stronger union than those of other sports.

In other words, timing didn’t do baseball any favors. But MLB still almost fatally fumbled an opportunity to generate interest in and loyalty to its product by making it as difficult as possible for its fans to feel good about baseball. Granted, MLB couldn’t have come back safely much sooner than this, and a longer lead over other sports’ start dates probably wouldn’t have pumped up baseball’s long-term popularity any more than it would have pumped up marble racing’s or cornhole’s. Still, the sport turned people off at a time when it could have bolstered its somewhat specious claim to traditional “national pastime” status. The only consolation is that MLB managed to scamper back to base safely just short of a total TOOTBLAN.

While the pandemic made MLB’s struggles to conceive and cement a season understandable, it also made the economic aspects of the dispute less publicly palatable. If COVID-19 had killed the campaign—and it still might—no one would blame MLB. But if squabbles over salary had done the season in, the fallout might have had an impact akin to the 1994 strike. A nation hurting from a pandemic, racial injustice, and record unemployment wasn’t in the mood for billionaire owners’ unsupported claims about baseball being unprofitable—and regardless of the relative strengths of the arguments on each side, many fans had just as little sympathy for the players. The good news now is that even if the season doesn’t start, or has to stop prematurely, MLB can convincingly claim that COVID-19 was the culprit (although some suspicion about management’s motivations may linger, considering some of the owners’ assertions that they’ll lose money on unattended regular-season games, and their resulting reluctance to give the green light). This saga did damage to baseball, but the worst was averted, and barring additional ass-showing, the league can come back next year with something close to a clean slate.

The pandemic isn’t done with baseball yet.

It’s hard to argue with the headline of Stephanie Apstein’s Sports Illustrated piece from Monday: “With Coronavirus Surging, MLB’s Return Plan Doesn’t Matter.” Not only does the season pale in significance to the existential issues dominating the news, but it also seems like a blend between naive and overly optimistic to sketch out the season down to the last detail considering the likelihood that the coronavirus will make it all moot.

Over the weekend, MLB shut down team training camps for cleaning after 40 players and team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreaks spanned several teams—including the Phillies, the Yankees, the Blue Jays, the Giants, the Astros, and the Angels—in multiple locations. The number of known infections has continued to climb. And that’s before most of the players report. Hours after the MLBPA signed off on the health-and-safety protocol, Charlie Blackmon and two other Rockies reportedly tested positive, which seems like a sign of things to come.

Teams can ban brawls and buffets, discourage players from fraternizing, prohibit spitting, limit travel, and set aside a special place on the injured list for players who test positive. But under the circumstances, protecting players is a “monumental task,” one that may grow even harder as the weather cools. Even now, case counts and positive-test rates are rising in roughly half of the states that are home to MLB teams. Yes, young athletes are less likely, on average, to suffer severe consequences from the coronavirus than older, more vulnerable individuals, but they aren’t immune from adverse reactions or future complications, and non-player personnel—coaches, managers, and other team and stadium support staff—are at even greater risk. No matter how many pages the league tacks on to its health and safety protocols, there’s no surefire way to insulate the sport from the effects of an insidious, microscopic foe that brought the country to a halt.

Sports are an important source of solace and stress relief for a large portion of the population (though their healing and unifying powers are often exaggerated). But it would be irresponsible to pretend that MLB and the coronavirus can coexist without collateral damage. Here’s hoping the league and the players and staffers who’ve volunteered for or been pressed into service can avoid the worst-case scenario of a death brought about by baseball. And even if an incipient season is the sole casualty, that could be a bigger blow to morale than never taking the field.

The MLBPA held firm.

Here’s a sobering truth bomb for fans who are happy to have this messy labor battle behind them: This was just the tremor that preceded a longer economic earthquake to come. MLB’s CBA expires in December 2021, and if this spring is any indication, the next negotiation isn’t going to be a friendly affair. Tensions between the league and union have been building since spending on free agents slowed over the winter of 2017-18, and the recent sniping in public statements and leaked letters suggests that economic strain and more time at the bargaining table have only exacerbated the bad blood. (A possible grievance over whether MLB made a good-faith effort to play as many games as possible, which the players retained the right to file by rejecting multiple MLB proposals that would have compelled them to waive it, wouldn’t repair any fractured relationships.) MLB and the union couldn’t get together on a follow-up to their March accord, and it’s possible that they won’t get together on a new CBA, which would lead to a work stoppage and the potential for more missed games.

Those talks won’t really ramp up until next year, but this spring’s skirmish took place against the backdrop of another negotiation to come. By refusing to allow the owners to squirm out of their commitment to prorated pay, the players effectively fired a shot across MLB’s bow, sending a signal that they won’t be browbeaten into settling for less than they believe they’re entitled to earn. The union also preserved one of its most valuable bargaining chips by declining to approve proposals that would have instituted expanded playoffs, a cash cow for the league. While the owners were reportedly divided over whether they even wanted games to take place without fans, the players appeared to pull together and largely stuck to a similar (or, at times, identical) script in their public comments.

The players even scored some points in the court of public opinion, where they historically haven’t fared well. Fans have dependably sided with ownership in past labor battles, swayed by rhetoric about “greedy” players whose salaries are accessible and easy to stew about (unlike the owners’ much larger but less visible bank accounts). This time, though, a Morning Consult poll found that fans who had an opinion were slightly more likely to blame the owners than the players for the impasse. Maybe that’s because the players are the ones who would be risking contracting the coronavirus in any season scenario; maybe it’s because playing more games is simply a more popular message than playing fewer games, or because players have learned to marshal support on social media, or because a more liberal sports media has been less likely to echo ownership’s talking points. Public opinion is fickle and doesn’t matter that much to the parties at the table, but perhaps for the first time, the owners couldn’t count on the fans to take their side.

Rob Manfred’s reputation took another hit.

Unsurprisingly, the same Morning Consult poll confirmed that Manfred’s handling of his sport’s COVID-19 crisis has the lowest public approval rating of any major commissioner’s. Manfred wasn’t well-liked outside of MLB ownership suites before he presided over the league’s failure to launch—or even before he responded somewhat ineffectually to the sport’s sign-stealing scandal. (Remember when illegal sign-stealing was the sport’s most pressing problem?) But after his five-day flip-flop from “100 percent” confident to “not confident” in the prospect of a season, his threats to impose a 48-game season, and his apparent inability to appeal to the owners’ instincts for self-preservation and future franchise value over one-year operating profits, he’s morphed from punch line to villain (or maybe now he’s both).

One would hope that Manfred’s role in this episode was a wake-up call for fans who still saw the commissioner as an impartial, powerful figure looking out for the good of the game, which hasn’t been true since before Bud Selig ascended to the seat from his owner’s box in Milwaukee County Stadium. Although calls to “fire Manfred” have grown a lot louder lately, dismissing Manfred alone wouldn’t do much; his job is to serve and represent the owners, and his actions, however objectionable, originated with them. Being the public face and the fall guy is part of what he’s paid for, and every insult directed at him is one that wasn’t fired at the men—at least half of whom inherited their teams or their wealth—behind the curtain.

Like most commissioners, Manfred won’t lose his job because fans despise him. (When Roger Goodell’s popularity was at its lowest ebb, the owners gave him a raise.) The only thing that could cost him his position is losing the confidence of his bosses, which we know he had recently. In November 2018, the owners unanimously approved a five-year extension for Manfred that keeps him under contract through 2024. Between that long-term contract, the sport’s rising revenues during his tenure, his history as a hardliner with labor, the upcoming CBA negotiations, and the uniqueness of the problems caused by COVID-19, Manfred probably has a long enough leash to last a good while longer. But he doesn’t seem to possess Selig’s knack for private politicking, and if he told the owners that the March agreement wouldn’t commit them to prorated pay, some owners may be miffed about the fiasco that followed.

It’s a good time to be an underdog.

Even a 162-game season is subject to randomness, and under normal circumstances, the best team on paper wins the title less often in baseball than in any other major American sport. But a 60-game season is so abbreviated that at no point will we be able to stop saying “small sample.” (Well, we might stop saying it, but we won’t stop thinking it.) As analysts Eno Sarris and Russell Carleton have demonstrated, there’s much more noise in a 60-game season, which means there’s much more chance of an upset. As FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski wrote earlier this month, “At 50 games, the ability to meaningfully differentiate between the great and the good, the mediocre and the bad, starts to fade significantly.” He went on to note that the odds of a .500 or worse true-talent team winning the World Series in a 50-game season is about one in five—roughly six times higher than it would be in a full-length season. And 50 isn’t far from 60.

For the first time, there’s little truth to the maxim that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. Throw in elevated risks of injury and illness and the possibility that some players may not be in the best shape of their lives after a long layoff, and this season is shaping up to be a great leveler. That’s a bit of a bummer if you’ve painstakingly (or expensively) constructed a super team designed to dominate over 162 games, but it’s a boon to bubble teams that once would have been long shots to stay in the race. No, this year’s championship won’t be viewed as legitimate in the way that a normal, non-sign-stealing-tainted one would—I’ll tackle that perception problem, and its implications for fandom, in a separate piece—but fans of mediocre teams can dare to dream about an upset. I wasn’t serious when I predicted last week that the Orioles would win the 2020 World Series—sorry, Mallory Rubin—but yes, I’m saying there’s a chance (albeit a tiny one).

Pitcher hitting may be gone for good.

Although the league and the players didn’t strike a deal that would have implemented a universal DH beyond this year, NL fans will be forced against their will to watch competent no. 9 hitters for at least a single season. Ironically, given the DH debate that’s been raging among fans for more than 45 years, the DH is one of the few areas where the owners and players are apparently aligned. Thus, the DH is reportedly in place on an interim basis as part of the sport’s health and safety protocol, ostensibly to protect pitchers from injury and/or fatigue.

I said (or wrote) my piece about the DH two years ago, and I won’t rehash my whole anti-pitcher-hitting take here. Suffice it to say that pitchers are, through no fault of their own, truly terrible at hitting and getting steadily worse over time; even the “good” ones are bad by the standards of real hitters. There’s no legitimate slippery slope argument about what will happen if MLB confiscates pitchers’ bats: Unlike catching or shortstopping, pitching is a distinct and ultra-specialized skill that’s virtually impossible to hone at an elite level without embarrassing oneself as a batter.

Your mileage may vary on whether the rare pitcher hitting highlight outweighs the many hitting lowlights, pulled muscles, and broken bones—yes, I know about Bartolo Colon’s home run—or whether the fairly simplistic and dwindling tactical decisions that pitcher hitting presents is worth wasting roughly 5 percent of NL plate appearances on strikeouts and sacrifice bunts (the former of which may stop soaring for this season, and the latter of which will all but disappear). I value variety, but nothing about a rally-killing K by a pitcher who’s hardly swung since Little League says “spice of life” to me. What I would miss if pitcher hitting follows the four-pitch intentional walk into extinction is the way the free-falling performance of pitchers at the plate indirectly allowed us to track the improvement in the rest of the league’s offensive talent over time.

NL fans won’t like the new normal at first, and NL teams will collectively find themselves at a slight short-term disadvantage against AL teams that were built for DH duty. That imbalance would even out after this season, though, and if AL fans’ experience is any guide, NL fans will learn to accept (and perhaps even favor) the DH in time. At the very least, they’ll likely have to resign themselves to it: Although the universal DH is technically temporary, it was rumored to be on the docket even pre-pandemic. Once the NL DH is out of the bottle, it’s hard to imagine it going back behind glass again.

The known unknowns.

There’s still a lot about the immediate and eventual ramifications of this (hopefully) one-of-a-kind season that remains murky. Will the (abominable) minor league rule about starting extra innings with a runner on second, temporarily ported to the majors in the interest of shortening games and reducing roster sizes, stick past this season? When will we see other changes that were discussed but discarded during the negotiations about starting the season, including expanded playoffs, on-field microphones, and advertising patches on uniforms? How will prospects and player development methods adapt to the absence of a normal minor league season? What strange statistical quirks will we see? Will home-field advantage still be in effect without fans? Which players might miss out on milestone stats or Cooperstown plaques because COVID-19 cost them 100 games?

What will expanded major league rosters—reportedly 30 spots at the start of the season, gradually decreasing to 26—look like? How will a mid-pandemic trade deadline work? How will teams handle their pitching staffs, given scant off days and the need to build up starters’ strength quickly without overtaxing their arms? What will happen to free agents if an economic downturn dissuades owners from spending, and how would another slow winter affect the terms of a new CBA? Will the greater importance placed on each game in a shorter season increase the calls for a permanent reduction in the length of the schedule? How would the rumored migration of future NBA seasons to a December-August schedule, and the loss of MLB’s late-summer monopolization of the sports spotlight, affect baseball’s popularity?

For now, though, one question matters most: Is it advisable, or even possible, to play ball during a pandemic?