Neither the universal designated hitter nor expanded playoffs were a part of the 2021 health and safety protocols announced this week by MLB and the MLB Players Association, but it’s still possible they could be adopted in 2021.
Players report to spring training camps next week and the exhibition season opens Feb. 27, as MLB finally confirmed. Thus, there’s still plenty of time for further negotiations on both the DH and postseason before the regular season begins April 1.
Support for instituting the DH again in National League lineups after its debut during the COVID-abbreviated 60-game 2020 season seems to be universal among baseball executives, managers and the players. Meanwhile, there’s resistance among union members to expand the playoff field again from last year’s 10 to 16 teams.
“As rules go, in general, we need to be progressive in MLB,” Miami Marlins and 2020 NL Manager of the Year Don Mattingly said during the offseason. “We have to continue to put a product out there people want to see.”
As far as the DH is concerned, there’s virtually no one in baseball who thinks it’s a good idea to have pitchers hit and run the bases this season because of health and safety concerns. Last season was a tough one for pitchers in particular. They trained for a month before MLB shut down on March 12 because of the spreading coronavirus, then didn’t pick up balls again in a collective atmosphere until July. Because of the shortened season, starters threw a limited number of innings.
To wit: Zack Greinke tossed 208 2/3 innings in 2019, but only 67 last year. Clayton Kershaw 178 1/3 innings in 2019, and 58 1/3 in 2020.
While that may seem like a minute sample size, consider there were more than 200 pitching arm injuries in 2020, up 22% from 2020.
Now pitchers have to stretch out again for a normal 162-game season. Despite a yearning from many NL fans for the traditional strategy of the game when pitchers hit, hurlers are highly susceptible to leg, oblique and other non-arm related injuries when they do so.
“I know moving forward that MLB is going to continue to do what’s best for the game,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. “I know they’re on the cutting edge to make things work the best way possible. You don’t want to blow up your entire [pitching staff] for the next game or the next series.”
To that end, the DH, which has been used every season in the American League since 1973, was negotiated into last year’s playing format as part of the health and safety protocols at the end of June. The two sides didn’t come to terms on an expanded playoff format until the regular season finally began in late July after a four-month delay.
The NL quickly adapted.
“I certainly have been bullish on the old-school pitcher hits,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But I liked the DH. I really liked it.”
“Every time you do [a new rule] everybody complains—it’s changing the game, it’s changing the world—and then two weeks later nobody’s talking about it,” Mattingly added. “I’m just for anything that creates that action and makes our game a better game to watch.”
This year, the DH was removed from health and safety issues and used by MLB to barter against expansion of the playoffs to a more limited format of 14 teams, said multiple sources familiar with the negotiations who asked to remain anonymous. Under that framework, postseason expansion thus far has been a non-starter for the union.
“The DH and having one set of rules still makes sense,” union executive director Tony Clark told Sportico late last year. “But like the expanded playoffs, it might be something that’s unique to the 2020 season.”
The DH is a boon for players and earns a much higher salary than the league minimum, which this season is $575,500. The median MLB salary for the last full season in 2019 was $1.5 million. Last season, all salaries were prorated for 60 games.
The expanded playoffs, which last year created a week of eight best-of-three Wild Card Series before the traditional three rounds of playoffs, was a television revenue generator for both sides, bringing in a $50 million postseason windfall for the players. Even though all of those games were played in the home parks of the team with the better record, fans were not allowed to attend.
“I loved that first two weeks of the playoffs with the two-out-of-three,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Sportico last year. “That was really good for us.”
The players, though, think expanding the playoffs cheapens winning the division and alters competitive balance. Last year, the top two teams in each division and two Wild Cards in each league qualified for the playoffs, as opposed to the usual format where the division winner and two Wild Cards in each league are in.
Once again, MLB is anticipating opening the season with a limited number of fans in some ballparks, none in many others. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday that New York pro sports teams are now clear to play at 10% capacity in their arenas and stadiums. The Yankees, who can open the season in front of about 5,000 fans at 50,000-seat Yankee Stadium, called that “an encouraging first step.” As more of the U.S. populace is vaccinated this year, that may change for the better. Even so, expanded playoffs would generate more money for everybody.
The two sides are operating under the last year of the five-year Basic Agreement, which expires on Dec. 1. Tough negotiations this summer are forthcoming and a lockout by the owners is anticipated if the deal’s not completed by the time it expires. The current contract includes the DH in the AL only and the standard 10-team playoff format. It doesn’t contemplate players vaccinated for a pandemic, either, and that must still be negotiated under the health and safety protocols.
The existing agreement doesn’t have to be completely reopened to adopt any of these rules, which again could be separately negotiated, a source said.
Still, as NL teams are building rosters toward the regular season, resolving the DH is the most pressing issue. For the entire spring training exhibition season, teams can utilize the DH if both clubs playing agree to it.
Like Roberts, second-year Chicago Cubs skipper David Ross is a bullish convert to the DH.
“When I was a player I hated the thought of the DH coming in,” said Ross, a catcher on World Series-winning teams in both leagues, with the Cubs in 2016 and Red Sox in 2013. “Then I got out, and I did TV, and as a fan I was like, ‘Man, I don’t care about the pitcher hitting. I wanted to see guys like David Ortiz hit.
“As a manager, it made my job a lot easier last season, selfishly speaking. So, I enjoyed that.”