From expanded playoffs to sponsored jerseys: Four ways MLB's shortened season may permanently alter the game
As Major League Baseball and its players hammer out an agreement to play a 2020 season that will look nothing like the game has ever seen, it’s becoming apparent that many of the adjustments may take on a more permanent look.
It’s never wise to forever alter your industry under duress, but the changes coming to baseball – both sweeping and subtle – are not of the shocking variety, more the sort that festered on a back burner for many years before a global pandemic forced both sides to adjust.
And as it turns out, some long-sought adjustments will likely get jammed into 2020 and 2021 – greatly enhancing the chances they become permanent during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement after the '21 season.
Here’s a look at key points in negotiation between MLB and the Players’ Association, as well as changes of a more evolutionary variety that may stick long after this truncated season is over:
Extra-large playoffs, shrunken season?
Since 1993, the playoffs have increasingly needed a bigger tent, expanding from four teams to eight to 10, adding knockout games and billions of dollars in revenue while largely maintaining the sanctity of the game’s greatest appeal – its 162-game grind.
Now, in this season of anywhere from 60 to 70-ish games, the sides will likely agree to expanded playoffs of up to 16 teams for this year and in 2021, providing owners and players alike crucial revenue during two seasons that may not involve fans at the ballpark.
In this 2020 sprint, an expanded playoff field makes plenty of sense: Anything less than 120 games comes nowhere near producing a legitimate playoff field. (Your NLCS participants in 2019 were nowhere near a playoff spot around the 64-game mark). So, an extra layer ensures that some slow-starting teams won’t be unduly penalized.
Additionally, since teams will have just played 60-plus games, pitchers won’t be overly taxed to get through that extra round of playoffs.
But what about next year? Asking teams to go through 162 games, a pair of best-of-five playoff rounds and then a best-of-seven League Championship Series and World Series is a lot. Not only will pitchers be gassed by the time the game’s jewel event arrives, but the likelihood of a 100-win team getting knocked off by a .500-ish upstart is greatly enhanced.
Here’s where we see this going: Owners and players alike will love the expanded playoff revenue and will find it awfully hard to wean themselves off it. So, a larger playoff format – maybe 12 teams, with byes to the top teams – will be here to stay.
Yet unless baseball commits to neutral sites for the World Series, it will likeley encounter weather problems in its annual calendar. At the same time, with attendance dropping more than 5% over the past two seasons, there is too much regular season inventory, to the point some smaller-market teams find opening up the stadium a losing proposition some nights.
So perhaps this will be the impetus to shorten the season – maybe back to 154 games – to lessen the amount of unappealing dates on the calendar while enjoying the guaranteed rake of playoff cash.
DH: Going, going, gone
MLB’s offer to enact the designated hitter for 2020 and ’21 shows that commissioner Rob Manfred has been doing some housekeeping behind the scenes. A universal DH has long been the desire of players – in that it creates up to 15 more lucrative jobs for veteran players – and a large segment of ownership. But it was always blocked by a cabal of National League owners wanting to maintain their way of life, if you will.
That certainly resonated with fans who appreciate the enhanced strategy in the NL, along with those who enjoy #pitcherswhorake. But if franchises, managers, players and fans alike all get used to life without pitchers hitting for two years, it’s likely never coming back.
The expected late-July start of the 2020 season will come with expanded rosters to reduce pitcher injury after just a three-week second “spring training.” Yet the impact on pitching staffs will likely extend into 2021 and beyond.
In a season of around 60 games, a starting pitcher in a five-man rotation will only get about 13 starts. If we generously assume he averages six innings an outing, that’s just 80 innings pitched. While veteran pitchers who know their bodies well may welcome such a respite, it will present a significant roadblock for younger pitchers who have been dutifully building up their innings count every year.
Take San Diego’s Chris Paddack, who posted a 3.33 ERA over 26 starts in 2019. Paddack pitched 140 ⅔ innings, a 55% leap from the 90 innings he pitched in 2018. It would be reasonable to assume he’d be ready to jump to around 180 innings in 2020.
Now, he will take a step backward in that progression, and who knows where that leaves him for 2021?
Let’s face it: This is a lost year for players at every level, and the effect on young pitchers will be profound. Due to injuries and volatile performance, baseball’s pitching pipeline must be constantly replenished, and an entire generation of minor-league pitchers who might have tacked an extra 20% on their odometers in preparing for 2021 or ’22 major league debuts are essentially frozen.
It’s not hard to imagine the industry responding, at least in coming years, by further marginalizing the role of the starter, leaning heavily on “openers” or piggybacking a pair of starters in a single game.
Checks over stripes
Lest we forget, 2020 marks the start of creeping commercialization onto the major league uniform: The Nike swoosh will adorn every jersey as part of a 10-year deal worth a reported $1 billion.
Now, as Yahoo Sports reports, MLB’s proposal to the players to begin the season includes a line item allowing “corporate advertising on uniforms in 2020 and 2021.”
Consider the floodgates open.
This will certainly be a thorny issue for MLB and its fans. The uniform has been relatively sacrosanct, and its appeal has always been a key extender of the league and its teams brands.
This isn’t MLS, after all, where you’d think some teams were named after a sketchy multi-level marketing nutritional company.
But once again, we go back to that key word: Revenue. With the very future of spectator sports in some doubt for several years, the need to make up the difference in gate proceeds will be profound. Remember when advertising on outfield walls was a tacky accoutrement better suited for minor league teams?
Well, the 1994-95 work stoppage suddenly made teams quite willing to slap Old Navy and W.B. Mason all over its walls. Now, MLB must find the fine line between stuffing a few bucks in its pocket and giving over too much of its threads to Chico’s Bail Bonds.