As they’ve done throughout the COVID-19 plague, Major League Baseball teams have had to adjust to another new normal this spring training as the first weeks of exhibition games in Florida and Arizona are just about in the books.
The adjustments are many, beginning with the length of each game. Through March 13, the usual nine-inning contests can be shortened to between five and seven, while after March 14, a seven-inning game could still be the norm. The managers facing each other in any given game are supposed to come to a decision.
“When we first started on this it was presented as if it was going to be a gentleman’s agreement between managers,” veteran Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said the other day. “But there are a lot more people involved than that, and, of course, the fans. It’s incumbent on us to get that message out as soon as we can.”
Plus, any manager who wants to pull a pitcher after 20 pitches can do so and end an inning even if there are two outs or less and the bases loaded. Furthermore, any pitcher removed from a game can re-enter later in that same game.
It’s dubbed the “rollover pitcher” and means that limited free substitution has finally come to pro baseball, causing the collective heads of the traditionalists to explode.
“I guess so,” said David Ross, the second-year manager of the Chicago Cubs, referring to the introduction of free substitution. “In spring training 2021, this after the weirdest season anybody’s ever seen last year.”
The new spring rules all come after a 60-game season, abbreviated by COVID and sans fans in the stands. Without minor league seasons, MLB teams had to use alternate camps and taxi squads. They shortened doubleheaders to seven innings each, added the universal designated hitter and expanded the playoff field from 10 to 16 teams.
When this full 162-game regular season begins on April 1 with limited fans in the stands, only the seven-inning doubleheaders will be carried over.
The three-batter rule for relief pitchers will also return after being implemented by MLB pre-COVID, and it will be enforced during exhibition games from March 14 until the end of the spring.
“I’m fine with the rules. They told us with plenty of time in advance,” San Diego Padres second-year manager Jayce Tingler said. “I love the idea of especially the starting pitcher being able to roll the inning and go back out.
“When you roll the inning you don’t have to carry four or five more pitchers traveling with you on the road that day. It helps you follow the protocols and maintain a certain spacing between players [on the bench and in the bullpen].”
This distinct spring is also bereft of split-squad games on the same day or many typical “B” games on the backfields. Minor leaguers aren’t expected to arrive in camps until their Major League counterparts leave, meaning managers are limited to players on the 40-man rosters and a smattering of non-roster invitees.
“We’re trying to rustle up ‘B’ games, but we just can get ‘em,” Maddon said. “We’re throwing our line out in the water, but we’re not getting a lot of bites. I’m not so much into the split-squads, quite frankly. I prefer setting up a ‘B’ game in the morning, then everyone can be there for the afternoon game. I just like that method better.”
This all raises the question of whether there will be enough work for everybody when the season begins, as teams in both spring-training states deal with travel and rule restrictions.
In the Cactus League in Arizona, clubs are traveling from one side of the Valley to the other to play games. Not so in Florida, where teams on the east coast are not traveling west.
The New York Mets, for instance, are playing their entire spring schedule against the Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins—all located in three camps about 25 miles apart along the Atlantic coast from Port St. Lucie to West Palm Beach.
That limits travel and exposure, but it also curtails playing time and preparation.
“You think of the position players while the pitchers are getting their reps,” second-year Mets manager Luis Rojas said on Wednesday. “We have 21 games left after today. You wonder if they’re going to get the at-bats they need. You wonder if the pitchers are going to get their innings.
“We feel pretty good now. We share that with the guys. No split squads, no ‘B’ games. We do have some sim games we can get going. At the same time you want them to leave camp healthy. That’s the No. 1 goal in camp.”
The Cubs fell right into line by playing seven-inning games in Arizona on Monday and Tuesday. Their 1-0 win over the Padres at the Peoria Sports Complex on Monday took an hour and 54 minutes.
Under the new spring rules, a manager has two choices when a pitcher reaches the 20-pitch limit: He can stop the inning or put in a reliever to finish it. The manager can then put the offending pitcher back in the game in the next inning. It happened Monday in Fort Meyers, Fla., to Boston Red Sox newcomer Garrett Richards, who had loaded the bases and allowed an Atlanta Braves run. Boston manager Alex Cora pulled the plug after 23 pitches and ended the first inning, but Richards returned to toss a flawless second.
Tingler did something similar Wednesday prematurely ending the fourth inning after Padres reliever Pierce Johnson allowed a three-run homer to Pablo Reyes of the Milwaukee Brewers.
No matter how much he might not like the concept, the rule creates flexibility, said Ross, a backup catcher by trade who won World Series titles with the Red Sox in 2013 and the Cubs in 2016.
“As much as we want to keep things real for the fans, our goal is to get through spring training healthy,” Ross said. “And thus, give fans a full season of health and performance at a high level. This is a training camp. It’s not about winning and losing, although we all love that. It’s about getting ready. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that.”