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Five unique things to watch for during this 60 game season

How is this baseball season different from other seasons? More like how is it not. Will there be any sense of normalcy in the 2020 season?

Never in my memory of any sport starting up has there been so much uncertainty or precariousness. Never have levels of excitement both escalated and dropped at similar rates.

On one hand fans are excited to finally have something to watch. On the other hand, with no signs of the pandemic letting up in the U.S., there is every right to be concerned for the health and safety of those on the field.

Among the hype and quandary in the sport, here are five unique things that fans should watch for in the 2020 MLB season.

  1. The universal designated hitter

Since 1973, all teams in the American League have played their games with the use of a designated hitter, in place of a pitcher batting. That is, unless they are playing in a National League ballpark. For the National League teams, having a DH everyday is something they will have to get used to. For the first time, the entire league will be using a DH spot to reduce lineup substitutions. National League teams and their fans can say goodbye to the often pointless pitcher spot in the batting order. No more endless strategizing of when to pinch hit for a pitcher. 

Many see the universal DH rule as being implemented beyond this season. The issue of a universal DH is one highly contested rule change proposal. Most of the opposition is by the game’s traditionalists who are used to the original rules of every position batting 1-9. Being able to have the DH however allows for teams to have a spot for an older slugger, unproductive in the field.

This position is also a way for a team with two essential everyday bats at the same position to find a spot in the batting order. With the 60-game season being a sprint, a DH seems like the perfect way for both teams to rest essential everyday hitters from the field in certain games like veterans Giancarlo Stanton and Robinson Cano. It also gives the opportunity for essential hitters like Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets; who is both recovering from injury and whose fielding value is in question have a guaranteed spot in the lineup.

Is the universal DH here to stay beyond the 2020 season? Time will tell.

  1. How will other teams treat the Houston Astros after their sign stealing scandal?

Before the COVID-19 craziness the talk of the baseball world revolved around accusations that the defending American League champion and 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros were sign stealing. This was done by the use of monitors in the dugout during their World Series run. 

The news first broke in a story published by The Athletic in November of 2019 that the Houston Astros were banging on trash cans in the dugout as the means of signaling to hitters what pitch was coming next.

The investigation would lead to the job losses of three managers and one general manager. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager AJ Hinch were both suspended for a year and quickly fired by their teams. The same action was taken against Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and New York Mets newly hired manager Carlos Beltran (who was a part of the World Series team as a player).

With commissioner Rob Manfred claiming that it will be impossible to identify the individual players who were in and out with the operation, none of the players were suspended. 

Nonetheless, fans should expect to see the Astros players experience the ramifications on the playing field this season and possibly future seasons. In their first exhibition game against the Kansas City Royals three star Astros players were drilled, two of them Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman back-to-back with the bases loaded. This likely won’t be the last time we hear of an occurrence like that with the Astros.

  1. Baseball once again a great escape, only this time without fans

Over the years baseball has been an important fabric etched into our history. From the Great Depression and World War II to the days following 9/11, baseball has constantly given our country both an entertaining distraction and hope to carry on during tumultuous, troubling  times. Many things are different this time around. The players are putting their health more directly at risk as the pandemic is directly impacting them. It has gotten so out of hand that teams will play without fans in attendance for the first time.

It seems the league has testing procedures under control. While there is still uncertainty about making it through the full season, one thing is for sure: the games being played in front of fans television sets and on their radios will serve as a great escape from reality. The season will give the public a greater sense of intimacy with the game. It will make us cherish the value of baseball even more, something that Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated talked about in reading a letter from Eddie Martin who covered the Boston Red Sox during the 1918 pandemic.

  1. Less games, more strategy early, more of a sprint to the finish line

With only 60 games, 37% less games than the 162 that would be played in a normal season, many new rules have been implemented. But the rule that will be most important to teams is a hidden rule, no getting off to slow starts. With the dismal 19-31 start the defending world series champion Washington Nationals would not even be a playoff team this season. Not to mention the New York Mets second half record of 46-26 would be considered a dominant record in the shortened season, even if we were to subtract those six wins. 

This season will also see more strategy used, with increased bunting and stealing. This is because extra inning games will have teams starting with a runner on second base, which will be the batter that immediately preceded the last inning’s leadoff hitter. This year will test the team’s abilities to manage baserunners which will also mean that MLB speedsters like Billy Hamilton of the San Francisco Giants, Mallex Smith of the Seattle Mariners, Adalberto Mondesi of the Kansas City Royals, among others will increase in player value.

The other thing that fans should expect to see more frequently is starters hurling less innings. In a 60-game sprint it is imperative that managers don’t overwork their star pitchers. The team with the best pitching depth, especially in their bullpens will be the team with a competitive edge. Increasingly, attention will be given to the long middle inning relievers. These players are usually seen as extras in the bullpen who come out during the most insignificant moments, when a team is either way ahead or behind. This season they will play a greater role as they are actually likely to come in during crucial innings. 

Oh and did we talk about the new, permanently instituted three batter minimum rule for pitchers? Yep, gone are the days of lefty and righty specialists out of the bullpen.

  1. Can baseball make a comeback in its popularity?

In 2019 the MLB continued to see declines in fan attendance. That has brought about concern of the games declining popularity as other U.S. sports leagues like the NBA and NFL saw steady increases and flat lines in attendance this past decade. About 68.5 million fans attended baseball games this past season. 

But there is no reason for fans to lose hope. Especially if we were to look back at what happened following the 1994 strike shortened season. Baseball gradually struggled with attendance coming out of the 1994 players strike. Eventually, one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of the game took place, the home run race between baseball legends Mark Mcgwire and Sammy Sosa. This was recently documented in the ESPN 30 for 30 titled Long Gone Summer. Aforementioned, the MLB showing the tenacity to carry on after the unrest of 9/11, also aided the game in regaining its popularity. Attendance skyrocketed throughout the 2000’s from 50 million fans in the 90’s to 80 million fans in 2007. 

With the NBA bubble still in question and the NFL struggling to get safety protocols figured out, the game of baseball has a chance to take to the forefront of the sporting world. 

Baseball can be the sport that people remember as a positive force that helped get them through the pandemic. If the 2020 baseball season can do that, there is once again hope that the game’s popularity will be restored.

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