Baseball has been different in so many ways this season, including on-field rules put in place specifically because of the pandemic. Some of those rules could end up as permanent fixtures.
A sport that tends to stubbornly resist change found that even what seemed like exotic rules actually made sense.
“There were a few things I didn’t think I’d like that I came around on once we started playing,” former Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said.
So, what stays and what goes?
Extra-inning tiebreaker: The gimmick everybody wanted to dislike turned out to be largely popular. Putting a runner on second base to start the 10th inning worked out. Only six games went beyond 11 innings, none beyond 13.
As Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, the rule cut down on teams being forced to make roster moves following lengthy games or sometimes arriving in the next city at 6 a.m.
The strategy was fun to watch, too, as managers were aggressive instead of laying back waiting for the other team to give up a home run.
Seven-inning games for doubleheaders: This was a concession to the pandemic designed to eliminate day-night doubleheaders that had the teams at the park all day. Players and managers welcomed it. But Major League Baseball has indicated it’s unlikely to remain. Doubleheaders are a product of rainouts and teams will want to bring back separate-admission twinbills to avoid financial loss.
Why not schedule some seven-inning doubleheaders? Fans would love it.
Universal DH: National League teams actually scored fewer runs with the DH this season (4.71) than last (4.78), but teams also didn’t have time to adjust their rosters.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has indicated it may be up to NL teams to determine where this goes. Did anybody actually miss watching pitchers try to hit?
Expanded rosters: The roster limit was going to 26 before the pandemic. It went to 30 for two weeks then dropped to 28. The expectation is it will go back to 26.
Three-batter minimum: This rule was in place prior to the pandemic, but requiring a pitcher to face three hitters with the exception of ending an inning didn’t seem to affect strategy often as teams were already evolving away from one-batter specialists.
This rule is likely to stay in place for 2021, if only to give MLB a chance to gather more data and determine what impacts it makes, if any, in shortening games.
Playoff format: The 16-team format, which cheapened winning a division, is almost surely a one-and-done.
Manfred supports a larger field, but next season is more likely to be a 14-team field that would reward the team with the best record in each league having a first-round bye.
“I like the idea of a broader format. We have to have a conversation with the Players Association,” he said.
Microphones on players: This was a bargaining point before the season between MLB and the Players Association that was left up to teams.
It’s largely a positive for viewers to hear the sounds of the game, particularly the conversations between players. In-game interviews work, too, depending on the player.
But some of ESPN’s interviews during the first round of the playoffs seemed more intrusive than entertaining. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts put the kibosh on it after Justin Turner was chatting away during Game 1 of their series.
“I’m not a fan of it. Baseball is evolving, but yeah … I just, I don’t know,” Roberts said. “That’s a decision Justin made, but I don’t see that happening going forward. I don’t want our guys to do that.”
One unquestioned positive was that MLB completed 898 of the 900 scheduled games. Only two games between the Cardinals and the Tigers were canceled, as they would not have affected the postseason.
There were a few days in early August when it appeared the sport was in danger of being shut down. But the season was saved with better adherence to the safety protocols.
READY TO RUMBLE
AL Division Series could be fiery
It’s a shame the American League Division Series that start on Monday will be played at neutral sites in empty ballparks because there are legitimate bad feelings in both matchups that fans of the respective teams would love to take part in.
The Rays and Yankees have been feuding going back to late in the 2018 season.
“We don’t like them; they don’t like us,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said on Sept. 2 after an ugly game that included Aroldis Chapman firing a 101-mile-per-hour fastball over the head of Mike Brosseau.
The benches cleared after the game and Rays manager Kevin Cash pointed out he had a “damn stable” of hard throwers with which to take revenge. Monday’s meeting in San Diego will be the first between the teams since that game.
The Astros and Athletics, who will play at Dodger Stadium, also don’t get along.
Oakland righthander Mike Fiers, who played three seasons for Houston, was the whistleblower on the Astros' cheating scheme in 2017.
The teams brawled Aug. 9 when Oakland’s Ramon Laureano took exception to being hit by a pitch for the third time in a three-game series. He went to first base peacefully then charged the Astros dugout trying to get at Houston coach Alex Cintron, who was taunting him.
That led to a full-out brawl. Cintron was hit with a 20-game suspension. Laureano was suspended for six games, which was shortened to four after an appeal.
Fiers has not pitched against Houston all season, something Athletics manager Bob Melvin was careful to arrange. Fiers started Game 3 of the wild-card series against the White Sox and lasted only 1⅔ innings.
But Oakland came back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 3 to win its first playoff series since 2006. It was the Athletics’ first victory in a winner-take-all playoff game since they won Game 7 of the 1973 World Series against the Mets.
“We want to make sure [the Astros] know what they’ve done and we can prove it to them and make sure we’re also the top team in the AL West,” Athletics closer Liam Hendriks said. “But there’s also not being petty and not letting our emotions get the better of us by trying to be over the top and vengeful.”
The Astros, 29-31 in the regular season, blew through the Twins in two games to advance.
“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”
Both best-of-five series are scheduled to be played in five days.
Red Sox are in rare position
It’s not official yet. But the draft order will be based on this season’s records, according to multiple sources. That would put the Red Sox picking fourth.
The Sox haven’t been in that neighborhood since 1967, when they took righthander Mike Garman with the third pick.
The pandemic has complicated the process. Red Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni said the better high school players were able to be seen in showcase events. But college summer leagues, with a few exceptions, were shut down, as was the Team USA program. Fall baseball programs also have been restricted at many schools.
MLB rules limited teams to three scouts per event and teams weren’t allowed to work out players. Many teams, the Red Sox among them, imposed stringent travel restrictions on their scouts for safety reasons.
But with the draft pushed back to July 11 to coincide with the All-Star Game, teams will get roughly an extra month to do their homework. That will help.
Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker is unlikely to fall to the Sox. But keep tabs on his rotation mate, Jack Leiter. Miami catcher Adrian Del Castillo is a great hitter, and high school shortstops Jordan Lawlar (Texas) and Brady House (Georgia) have impressed.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Soon-to-be free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. has always sparked debate among fans. Some traditionalists can’t see past his career .239 batting average, but most folks understand the value of his stellar play in center field combined with a .769 OPS the last six seasons. The AL average during that time was .744.
Bradley was an All-Star in 2016 and played in 21 playoff games, starting 19. He also showed up to play, appearing in 90 percent of the games after he was called up for good in 2015.
That’s making an impact.
“Be successful. Be a winning ballplayer,” Bradley said of his approach. “Give your all every single day.”
Beyond the statistics, Bradley cared about where he played. He and his wife, Erin, were always involved in charity events around Boston, particularly when children were the focus.
Bradley, it also should be noted, was the only player who paid tribute to the 40 front office staffers who were laid off last month.
“That was important,” he said. “Those people had been in the organization for such a long time and have had an impact on my life. I got to talk with a couple of them.”
If Bradley lands with another team, which is expected as the Sox rebuild, plenty of the people who work at Fenway Park will miss seeing him around. He was a cheerful presence through the ups and downs of the season.
“I tried to make sure no matter how bad I felt or how angry I was at myself for not performing the way I wanted to, that I tried to treat everyone with respect,” Bradley said.
▪ Rafael Devers finished with minus-6 defensive runs saved, tied for fifth-worst in the majors during the regular season. Only two other third basemen — J.D. Davis of the Mets and Austin Riley of the Braves— had more, and they’re both utility players.
Yairo Munoz was plus-4 in left field despite playing only 56 innings. J.D. Martinez managed a minus-2 in only 52 innings in the outfield.
Martinez was once a decent outfielder, but he has cost his teams 43 runs over the last five years.
Partnership possible for MLB, CCBL
As part of its reorganization of the minor leagues, MLB has turned the Appalachian League into a wood bat amateur summer league for rising college freshmen and sophomores.
MLB will work with USA Baseball to run the league as part of a new Prospect Development Pipeline. This is all under the umbrella of the “One Baseball” concept that would eventually give MLB greater influence in all levels of baseball and softball.
So, where does this leave our local treasure, the Cape Cod Baseball League?
President Chuck Sturtevant said the CCBL has been discussing its future with MLB for three weeks and a partnership, which would include financial support, is possible.
“MLB came to us to see what’s possible,” Sturtevant said. “We want to work with them.”
The CCBL did not play this season because of the pandemic and plans to return in June. But finances are a concern as many of the Cape businesses that traditionally help support the league are struggling themselves.
“We’re working very hard on next season,” Sturtevant said. “Our plan is to continue to have the best talent like we always have.”
One of six big leaguers passed through the Cape League, and it’s a favorite of scouts. The league also improved its playing fields, at great expense, to maintain its level of play.
Finding enough players for the Appalachian League, the CCBL, and other premier summer leagues shouldn’t be a problem. The five-round draft pushed hundreds of high school players into college programs. The NCAA also gave college players an extra year of eligibility.
“There are going to be a lot of players who need a spot,” Sturtevant said. “The best players will want to play on the Cape. When you talk to the players, you always hear that.”
Seven teams from the AL and NL Central made the playoffs. They finished 2-14 and scored only 44 runs . . . You could put together a pretty good team of former Red Sox players who made the postseason. The rotation is a little light with Jon Lester and Wade Miley, but the bullpen has Craig Kimbrel, Mark Melancon, Andrew Miller, Joe Kelly, and Drew Pomeranz. The lineup would include Mookie Betts, Mitch Moreland, Yoan Moncada, Josh Reddick, and Travis Shaw … Rays manager Kevin Cash used 59 different batting orders over 60 games. That’s how deep the Rays go trying to find advantages … Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor on playing games without fans: “It’s terrible. That’s the only way I can put it. Fans make the game fun. When you’re growing up you say, ‘Bases loaded, 3-2 count, the crowd is going crazy.’ Here, it’s just loud noises from the speakers. It sucks. There’s no one to throw the baseball to. There’s no one to tell to be quiet when they’re talking trash. There’s nobody to prove wrong. There’s nobody to look and laugh at them because they’re coming down with five hot dogs and two beers and they can barely hold the hot dogs and beers, you know?” … The Indians did find a way to get one loyal fan somewhat in the park. They used a recording of Progressive Field drummer John Adams during games this season. Adams has been thumping a drum in the left field seats for nearly every home game since 1973 … The first round of the playoffs produced some unexpected lineup moves. The Blue Jays started Matt Shoemaker, who did not have a win all season, in Game 1 against the Rays. He pitched three scoreless innings in a 3-1 loss. The Twins also did something unusual, having 22-year-old Alex Kirilloff make his major league debut in Game 2 of their series against the Astros. He was 1 for 4 batting sixth. Kirilloff was the first player to make his debut in the playoffs since Adalberto Mondesi with the Royals in the 2015 World Series. The only other player to do that was Mark Kiger with the 2006 Athletics in the ALCS. Kiger played two innings in the field and never appeared in the majors again … The Reds, who hit .212, were the first team since the 2007 Diamondbacks to finish last in their league in batting average and make the playoffs. Cincinnati then failed to score over 22 innings in its series against the Braves. The Reds were 13 of 77 (.169) with 28 strikeouts and one extra-base hit … Happy birthday to Billy Hatcher, who is 60. The outfielder was with the Red Sox from 1992-94 and started 241 games. Hatcher had a steal of home in 1992 against Toronto.