The abbreviated 60-game Major League Baseball season, delayed for four months by the coronavirus, is slated to open in Washington and Los Angeles Thursday before getting underway with a full slate of games Friday.
There will be social distancing, no spitting and some significant new rules, like a universal designated hitter and a runner on second base to open extra innings. But no team may benefit more from playing without fans in the stands than the Houston Astros.
The club that everyone outside of Houston now loves to hate was set to be a target this season, after revelations of the team’s sign-stealing antics during 2017 led to a hefty fine, loss of draft picks, and the firing of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch.
“It’s over now,” said Dusty Baker, a veteran of 22 seasons and now the Astros’ new manager. “I hope we don’t have to keep rehashing that over and over throughout the course of the year. It’s behind us. I’d like to leave it behind us.”
Don’t count on it.
The original 162-game season had the Astros traveling to the hostile environs of Oakland for their second series to play the A’s, a team that’s now home to former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who blew the whistle on the bang-the-trash-cans-slowly scheme.
The virus then stopped MLB in its tracks on March 12, and the revised schedule doesn’t have the Astros traveling to Oakland until Aug. 7.
Time and circumstances might have cushioned the reaction from opposing players, plus more stringent rules against fighting and throwing at hitters, but we’ll get a true measure of that reaction next week when the Los Angeles Dodgers travel to Houston for two games. The Dodgers lost a seven-game World Series to the Astros in 2017.
Those teams weren’t scheduled to face each other at all in the original schedule, but now with interdivision play slated between clubs in the National League and American League West, the Dodgers and Astros have four games against each other. The other two will take place Sept. 12 and 13 at Dodger Stadium, where Houston ripped Yu Darvish to win Game 7 and what many now think is a tainted title.
Those four games highlight the schedule. The Dodgers were particularly vociferous about how they perceive the way the Astros beat them and said so back in February, when they gathered for spring training in Arizona.
“We could probably win the next five World Series, and I’ll remember losing that one more than the five,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “It stinks. It’s just like ripping open a scab.”
Nothing is ever old news in MLB, where resentment among the players dies hard, but there are now newer issues to be concerned about. Like staying healthy: 80 players have tested positive for the virus, but only six last week during summer camp. That’s good news, although teams are now traveling to play games.
“All it takes is one guy to mess this up,” said defending AL MVP Mike Trout, who plans to temporarily leave the Los Angeles Angels in early August to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. “It’s going to be really tough and you have to be accountable especially late in the season. If you bring the virus into the clubhouse when you’re fighting for the playoffs, I can’t imagine what that would be like.”
For the first time, and perhaps now and forever, the DH will be utilized in the NL. It’s been a long time coming, having been a mainstay of the AL since 1973. Japan’s Central League is now the only organized baseball league left in the world to let the pitcher hit. Japan’s Pacific League uses the DH.
In the NL, there’s been a good financial reason for it. The median MLB salary is $4.38 million—that is, for a complete season. The minimum is $563,500. NL owners have been perfectly comfortable padding the last five spots of a 25-man roster with lower-paid players instead of shelling out for a competent DH, who can cost millions. New York Yankees DH Giancarlo Stanton, for example, makes $25 million for a full season.
NL teams obviously didn’t build rosters this year to accommodate a DH, but they get a bye as the season starts with 30 players, goes down to 28 in two weeks, and to 26 for the remainder around Aug. 1. Thus, plans are to float players into that position. The Dodgers, for example, can flip Turner, Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and even Cody Bellinger, depending on days off and opposing pitchers.
“We are very fortunate to have that kind of versatility,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Our guys, to a man, play both sides of the baseball.”
Ditto the Arizona Diamondbacks, who don’t have a regular DH.
“I wish David Ortiz was on this team and I’d pencil him in there every day for 30 [homers] and 100 [RBIs],” said manager Torey Lovullo, who was the bench coach in Boston when Big Papi was the every day DH at the end of his career. “But that’s not the case.”
Beginning an extra inning with a runner on second base is a radical departure for MLB, meant to save time and exposure for players during this era of the virus. The rule has been tried at different levels of the minors the last two seasons, and a version of it was also instituted during the last World Baseball Classic, won by Team USA in 2017.
In a WBC semifinal game between The Netherlands and Puerto Rico, by rule the 11th inning began with runners on first and second. Both teams used the same tactic. They bunted the runners over to second and third, and walked the batter intentionally to load the bases, setting up a force at each base with one out. The Netherlands hit into a double play, while Puerto Rico scored with a sacrifice fly, setting up their 8-0 championship game loss to the U.S.
Data shows that 73% of all minor league games ended in the 10th inning with the advent of the new rule, as opposed to 44% when teams start each half inning with the bases empty.
“We have to adjust,” said David Peralta, a D-backs outfielder. “If it speeds up the game a little bit, especially in this situation, we’ve got to do it. I don’t know about the long term and how it’s going to work, but for this year let’s see.”