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The Four Biggest Tactical Innovations We Could See This MLB Season

Between a 60-game regular season and 30-man rosters, there are a lot of changes coming to baseball this summer. And enterprising managers will have the chance to expand their bags of tricks and take advantage.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As MLB hurtles toward its delayed Opening Day, it’s become abundantly clear that the 2020 season will be unlike any other in baseball history. This goes for the unprecedented regional schedule, ballparks that will be empty of fans, and the stringent in-stadium hygiene rules. Most conspicuous, of course, is the looming threat of COVID-19 infection among players, coaches, umpires, and staff. Already, 13 players—ranging from David Price and Buster Posey to rookie Michael Kopech—have chosen to sit out the season, while numerous others are or have been absent from camp after testing positive for the virus.

Those conspicuous absences will only multiply during the season; on Monday, Astros general manager James Click stated this uncomfortable truth bluntly when he told reporters, “Whichever team has the fewest cases of coronavirus is going to win.” It’s impossible for teams to plan for attrition via preventable disease, no matter how resolutely the threat looms in the background. But they can plan for two unprecedented changes: a 60-game schedule and a 30-man Opening Day roster.

With the shortened season, baseball’s customary 162-game drag turns into a two-month sprint, in which each game takes on NFL-like importance and chaos has less time to revert to the predictable. And in deference to the difficulty of ramping up to play after a three-and-a-half-month layoff, managers will have expanded rosters for the first four weeks of the season: 30 players for the first two weeks, then 28 for the two after that, before settling in with 26-man rosters for the rest of the season.

The increased urgency and added (if temporary) roster flexibility mean managers can’t simply push the same buttons they would under a normal schedule. With no set template to follow, teams have a chance to break new tactical ground—or reach back into the past to expand their bag of tricks. Here are a few exciting things that enterprising managers could pull out of their quivers in this season-long sprint.

Designated Runners

Back before spring training shuttered in March, I was planning to write about the players who might benefit from MLB’s planned expansion to 26-man rosters. Dodgers outfielder Terrance Gore, baseball’s foremost pinch runner, was the first name that popped into my mind—and now that rosters are even bigger, more players with Gore’s skill set could find their way onto teams.

In the first five seasons of Gore’s big league career, with the Royals and Cubs, he batted just 19 times and reached base four times, once on a single, once via walk, and twice after getting hit by pitches. But as a pinch runner, Gore made his way into 45 regular-season games those two years and nine more in the playoffs, scoring 22 runs in total.

Add in Gore’s 2019 campaign in Kansas City, where he played a more traditional backup outfield role, and he’s scored 32 runs in regular-season play despite having reached base just 25 times. Only three players in history have scored more runs than Gore with a higher ratio of runs scored to times on base. All three—Matt Alexander, Allan Lewis, and Herb Washington—played for Oakland in the early 1970s as the A’s were experimenting with pure baserunning specialists.

In a high-leverage playoff situation, Gore’s speed could change a game, and by extension, a series. In 61 career regular-season pinch-running appearances, he’s stolen 31 bases and scored 24 runs, plus five steals and three runs in nine postseason games as a pinch runner.

Back in March, with just 26 roster spots available, Gore was a long shot to make a team as stacked as the Dodgers, particularly given his limited utility at the plate and in the field. But with 30 roster spots, and with every game potentially representing the difference between the postseason and an early return to the monotony of solo workouts and Zoom happy hours, a particularly aggressive manager could make good use of a designated fast guy like Gore, San Francisco’s Billy Hamilton, or Houston’s Myles Straw.

Starting Rotation Changes

The five-man rotation has been a myth for close to a decade now; teams have learned to plan for multiple starting pitchers to miss time each season for reasons ranging from workload concerns to the sudden inability to find the strike zone. Competitive clubs might count on only two or three pitchers for 30 starts each, and fill in the gaps with openers, bullpen games, injury-prone part-timers, and conveyor belts full of interchangeable quad-A innings eaters.

The 2020 campaign, being as it is only about 37 percent the length of a normal season, will not be a test of endurance. Instead, this baseball season will be distilled almost entirely to the pennant race, and each team will have to adapt according to its own strengths.

The Angels, for instance, are going with a six-man rotation, because while they have numerous live arms, they don’t have an ace whose performance and durability demand that he throw more frequently. Not only is Shohei Ohtani coming back from Tommy John surgery, but Griffin Canning has been recovering from an elbow injury since March, and Felix Peña is still ramping up after blowing out his knee last season. Matt Andriese, Julio Teheran, Andrew Heaney, and Dylan Bundy have all pitched effectively out of the rotation in recent years, but all of them could benefit from a little extra rest between starts.

The Twins, by contrast, plan to lean on ace José Berríos out of the gate, and are preparing as many as a dozen pitchers to go through the order a couple times in long relief, spot starts, or tandem starter roles—Devin Smeltzer and Randy Dobnak could ultimately end up as swingmen, a throwback to the days of Earl Weaver. The Phillies’ rotation consists of Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and a collection of names that suggest that GM Matt Klentak is the only optimist in Philadelphia sports. New manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Bryan Price are also preparing a reserve army of potential spot starters in case Plan A doesn’t work.

But so far, nobody seems to be willing to shorten their rotation to four pitchers, at least not right off the bat. Which is disappointing—there’s nothing in team sports quite like a pitcher’s duel, that sort of semigladiatorial tête-à-tête that showed up a lot in last year’s playoffs: Gerrit Cole vs. Blake Snell, Walker Buehler vs. Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer vs. Zack Greinke, and so on. A corollary to this phenomenon is the dominant ace stretch run, when a pitcher finds his groove late in the summer and puts the team on his back: Jack Flaherty last year, Jake Arrieta and David Price in 2015, or CC Sabathia in 2008.

There’s something Homeric about the ace standing up alone every fourth or fifth day and beating back the adversaries, and something audacious about a manager who empowers his pitchers with such a grand stage—all the more so given the modern trend toward turning pitchers into mere cogs in a machine, rather than the pitcher himself constituting the machine.

The Nationals look to be the team that could benefit most from going with four starting pitchers, if not for the whole 60-game run then at least for the final few trips through the rotation. Washington’s top four pitchers—Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Aníbal Sánchez—will all be at least 31 years old on Opening Day, with at least $100 million in guaranteed career earnings, which eliminates the moral hazard of pushing a young pitcher too hard and causing him serious career-altering injury. And since the Nats won the World Series last year in large part due to manager Dave Martinez’s berserk bullpen management, they have the ability to take some risks while still basking in the glow of being defending champions.

Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg all swung from rotation to bullpen and back last October, sucking up huge quantities of innings—almost 60 percent of Washington’s postseason total, 70 percent if you toss in Sánchez’s 18 innings over three starts. Of those four, Sánchez is the only one who hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a season at least twice, though he’s thrown 195 innings three times. The point is, they can all handle big workloads. With an extra four months to recover from a long postseason, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that they could treat September—if not September and August—like October.

Platoons and Pinch Hitters

Under last year’s 25-man rosters and 13-man pitching staffs, the average NL bench comprised four players: a backup catcher, a backup infielder who had to be able to play shortstop, a fourth outfielder who had to be able to play center field, and one miscellaneous player. The freewheeling platooning and substitutions that persisted into the 1990s had either vanished or required creative in-game managerial shenanigans: If Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts wanted to bring in David Freese for Joc Pederson with a tough lefty on the mound, he could have Freese play first, move Max Muncy from first to second, then move Chris Taylor from second to left.

This season, most of teams’ extra early-season roster spots will probably go to relief pitchers. But if clubs carry even one or two additional position players, that opens up a world of possibilities. The most obvious of those is platooning. Going back to the Nationals: One of their big acquisitions this past offseason was first baseman Eric Thames, who hits right-handed pitching better than Bryce Harper but hits left-handed pitching worse than Cory Spangenberg. On the long end of a first base platoon, Thames could hit in the middle of the order, but his utility elsewhere is limited. Given that Ryan Zimmerman has opted out of the season, and with Howie Kendrick not yet in camp, the Nats could roster another right-handed first baseman without worrying about running out of space.

Another opportunity comes in the form of a third catcher. The actor Ryan Reynolds has told a story about a skydiving trip in which his primary parachute failed, but he hesitated to engage his backup, because if he did that then he wouldn’t have any parachutes left. MLB managers sometimes have a tendency to view catchers the same way. An in-game substitution behind the plate leaves them one foul tip from having to show a backup infielder how to strap on the Tools of Ignorance. But fear of that unlikely possibility sometimes keeps a potential pinch hitter on the bench. For instance: the White Sox, between Yasmani Grandal, Zack Collins, and James McCann, have not one but three catchers who can hit. If all three end up on the roster, manager Rick Renteria could use them all over the lineup.

The DH in the NL

That this is the most obvious tactical change to the 2020 season does not diminish its importance. Teams like the Padres, Reds, and Braves have stocked up on corner outfielders almost as if they’ve been anticipating this moment for ages, and finally getting to use the designated hitter allows managers to put their best offensive team on the field each night.

As much as purists (like me) dislike the DH, it’s not without romance. Sure, there’s some truth to the idea that a designated hitter allows old, slow players to hang around long past their prime, taking up roster spots that could go to new, more exciting, more athletic players. But sometimes we like those old guys and aren’t ready to see them put out on an ice floe just yet. From Eddie Murray to Frank Thomas to Edgar Martinez, the DH has extended the careers of numerous Hall of Famers in its relatively short (in historical terms) lifespan.

With this new rule in place, we’ll likely see Matt Carpenter, Hunter Pence, and Ryan Braun get an extra valedictory spin around the starting lineup. But with respect to those guys, one NL veteran who could benefit from this policy stands out.

Friends, Yoenis Céspedes is back.

After more than 24 months off due to foot- and ankle-related injuries (boar-related and otherwise), the hero of the 2015 NL pennant race might not be able to run like he used to, but lucky for him he won’t have to as a DH. Living with the designated hitter in the NL will be an adjustment—one imagines a particularly fidgety manager like Roberts or Gabe Kapler leaning over the railing late in a game, staring dolefully at a lineup card devoid of double switches. But it’s a small price to pay, for 60 games, to get Céspedes back in the lineup.