We do not engage in April Fool pranks here. The sportswriting standard for such things has been set beyond the creative levels achievable here; George Plimpton’s article in Sports Illustrated in 1985 about the Mets’ rookie phenom Sidd Finch has never been approached let alone topped. If you are too young to know about Sidd Finch, Google will enlighten you…
My educational career and my professional career were centered on the physical sciences. Nonetheless, here in Curmudgeon Central, the findings and the definitions of astronomy do not hold sway when it comes to the seasons of the year. Neither do the feelgood stories of folklore prevail when it comes to my anticipation of Spring. Let me be clear:
- Punxsutawney Phil can wake up or drop dead on 2 February as far as I am concerned when it comes to the anticipation of Spring. Here in Curmudgeon Central the single determinant of an imminent Spring is when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.
- I know all about the vernal equinox and when it happens – – but Spring really starts on Opening Day of the MLB season. And in 2021, that day is today!
So, today’s rant will be devoted entirely to baseball and the upcoming season. It is a day of renewal that we were denied last year…
In the 2020 truncated season, MLB existed with more than a handful of “special rules”; some of them will be carried over into 2021; some others will be sent to the minor leagues on an “experimental basis”. So, here is some of what we can expect in the 2021 season:
- Last year, the DH was used in all MLB games. This year, that practice will revert to previous times; the DH will be used in AL games and in interleague games played in AL stadiums. That’s all… [I hate the DH, so I like this.]
- Last year, rosters were expanded to 30 players for a while and then shrunk to 28 players for a while before settling down to 26 players for the duration of the 60-game season. This year, that roster expansion will go away; teams will have 26-man rosters in 2021 and will expand to 28 players when September arrives. [I see no reason for roster expansion in 2021.]
- Last year, double-headers presented 7-inning games nominally to minimize exposure of players/managers/umpires to one another. That rule will carry forward to 2021. [I do not like this rule but can live with it – – if the rule dries up and blows away in 2022 when there will hopefully be no pretense that it is “beneficial”.]
- Last year, MLB games that went to extra innings began each extra inning with a man on second base. That rule will carry forward into 2021. [I hate this rule; this is only better by a tiny margin than determining the winner of an extra inning game by holding a Home Run Derby contest between the two teams. Yuck!]
- Last year, MLB “contracted” the minor leagues eliminating about 40 teams that had affiliations with MLB teams. The minor leagues have been re-shuffled and fans in lots of towns/small cities now have a much dimmer view of MLB than they did two years ago – – but the owners think they know what they are doing. On a positive note, MLB is going to use minor league baseball games to test some potential rule changes for the future. That may not be a perfect situation, but it is methodical and rational.
- In Triple A minor league games, they will use larger bases. Instead of the bases that are 15 inches on a side, the games in Triple A baseball will use bases 18 inches on a side. The idea is that this will encourage more base stealing attempts which might add some action/excitement to more games. [This rule change is one of “wait and see” for me. I am neither excited about it nor opposed to it.]
- In Double A minor league games, they will impose a limit on “The Shift”. For Double A games, the team in the field “must have a minimum of four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt.” MLB has also signaled that if this rule increases the number of base hits/runners on the bases, it may then be expanded to “require two infielders to be positioned entirely on each side of second base” later in the Double A season. [I am of two minds here. MLB needs more in-game action involving baserunners and base hits; MLB also should not reward hitters who cannot figure out how to get on base against a shift that opens half the infield to them.]
- In Single A games (High-A to be specific) pitchers will be required to “disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base, with the penalty of a balk in the event the pitcher fails to comply.” This is another rule modification that might increase stolen base attempts – – but I am not sure how it will achieve that end. [I guess this can’t hurt but I do not see any huge benefit either.]
- In Single A games (Low-A to be specific) MLB will experiment with robot umpires to call balls and strikes. [This is worth a try since human umpires simply will not call the strike zone that is in the rule book that the umpires are there to enforce.] AND in Single A games, pitchers will be limited to two “step offs” and or “pickoff attempts” per plate appearance. Obviously, this also relates to a desire to increase stolen base attempts and to speeding up games. [I do not know if I like this or not; let me get back to you on this one.]
` In addition to these codified rule changes/ rule adoptions for 2021, MLB is also going to try to “crack down” on pitchers doctoring baseballs. The focus is supposed to be that they will be strict about pitchers using “foreign substances” as a way for them to enhance “pitch movement”. In addition to getting umpires focused on this issue – – which umpires have fundamentally ignored for about 100 years or so – – MLB will be using stats on things like spin rate for pitches and relying on “Gameday Compliance Monitors” that will keep tabs on players not in the open dugout who might be involved in getting foreign substances onto baseballs that will find their way into games. These Compliance Monitors are sort of like MLB’s version of the Safety Patrol many of us encountered in our elementary school days; they are going to be the ones who sound the alarm if there is a violation of the rules… Pardon me while I snicker.
Last year, there was no live attendance at games on “Opening Day” which did not happen in the Spring as interpreted by Curmudgeon Central or any knowledgeable astronomer. In fact, there were no fans in stadiums until the playoffs began in October. This year, various sites will be hosting fans in the stands on Opening Day. Things vary from city to city based on the orders of State Governors around the country. Here are two comments from Bob Molinaro of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot to give you an idea of the state of play:
“In wide-open Texas, the Rangers are planning for a full house at Globe Life Field for opening day, with masks required for all fans except when eating or drinking. Who isn’t always eating or drinking at a baseball game? The Rangers will go to reduced capacity with social distancing for subsequent games. So a full house is fine to start, but not so much later? Follow that? Because I can’t.”
“Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that sports venues will be allowed to open in his state at 50% capacity. Judging from the Baltimore Orioles’ 2019 attendance figures, this is about 30% more than what’s needed at Camden Yards.”
Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times had another view of the restrictions – or lack thereof – on stadium attendance in Texas:
“Gov. Greg Abbott has lifted all COVID-19 restrictions in the Lone Star State, meaning the Texas Rangers’ home opener might be a sellout.
“The rules there are now so lenient that even catcher’s masks aren’t mandatory.”
Everything that precedes this point in the rant simply must take a backseat to the fact that MLB is going to begin “when it is supposed to begin”. There are no “gimmick starts” in Japan or anywhere else; MLB will start on time, all at once, as it should be. Importantly, every fan of every MLB team needs to recognize this unassailable truth:
- As of this morning, every MLB team has a “Magic Number” of 162 to win their division. Hope springs eternal – – in the Spring when baseball starts…
Now, before I get to my swami-like predictions for the upcoming season, let me suggest 4 storylines that I need not hear about any more as the 2021 season unfolds:
- I am more than merely tired of former players who lament the state of the game today. Enough already! If you do not like baseball anymore, please find something else to do with your time and then have the decency and grace not to tell us what that new thing is. I too liked “old-time baseball” with its 2-hour games and lots of .300 hitters. The fact of today is that baseball is a different game now and if you do not like it, please have the grace to let those of us who do enjoy ourselves.
- Let it be that the truncated 2020 season has put an exclamation point on repeated references to the “sign stealing scandal” in Houston. It happened; it was shameful; it should never happen again – – although we know it will – -; we all agree on all of that. Now can we move on please?
- I am way beyond tired of players getting a giant case of the red-ass when other players “show them up”. If a pitcher does not want to see a hitter slow-trot around the bases after a home run, don’t give up a home run. If a batter does not want to hear a pitcher yell at him after a strike out, hit the damned ball. MLB players are chronological – – and nominal – – adults. Is it too much to ask of them to act like an adult?
- The MLB replay system is a major impediment to pace of play and more than an annoyance to fans. Every close play in a game results in the manager checking with his “eyes in the sky” about challenging the play or not. Meanwhile players stall to give him the time he needs to get that “intel”. The entire replay system – – and even the idea of using replay at all – – needs a thorough re-examination by all the folks associated with MLB, the MLBPA and the MLB Umpires Association.
Because it is not yet clear how MLB will structure its playoffs this year – – will it be the expanded version with 16 teams as it was in 2020 or will it revert to 10 teams as it has been in the recent past? – – I will not even try to structure the playoffs here. Nonetheless, here are my prognostications for the 2021 MLB regular season:
- AL East: The Yankees are the best team here by a comfortable margin- – unless Gerritt Cole and another starter get hurt. Will the Rays be able to keep up with the Yankees over a 162-game schedule? I don’t think so. The Blue Jays improved over the winter significantly and should seriously contend for a wildcard slot. Heck, if the Yankees suffer a lot of injuries, the Jays just might come on and win the Division. Who knows what the Red Sox are doing with their roster over the past couple of years? Other than JD Martinez, no one in that line-up is “scary”. Just pretend the Orioles are not there and spend the year wondering why they have not been relegated to the minor leagues.
- AL Central: Losing Eloy Jimenez for the season prevents the White Sox from being the odds-on favorites in the Division. Which version of the Twins will show up this year; the run scoring machine from 2019 or the ho-hum team from 2020? The Indians pitching staff is solid, but they may struggle to score. Both the Royals and the Tigers look to be over-matched here.
- AL West: The Astros lost George Springer in free agency over the winter and that cannot help the team. But I still think they have the best team top to bottom in their Division. Maybe the A’s can make the Astros sweat it out a bit, but I doubt it. Maybe this is the year that the Angels break through and get a wild-card slot in the playoffs? Or will Mike Trout win the MVP (for the 4th time) and be home in October? The Mariners, and the Rangers are merely along for the ride in this Division.
- NL East: The Braves are young and very good – – assuming their starting pitching remains intact. The Mets got a lot better over the winter acquiring Francisco Lindor. [Aside: The loss of Robinson Cano to a 162-game suspension for PEDs might be a blessing in disguise for the Mets.] The Nats’ starting pitching with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin at the top of the rotation is formidable. The Marlins were a surprise last year; lightening is not going to strike twice in the NL East in 2021. The Phillies’ bullpen let them down a lot last year; they made changes there but how significant those changes are remains a mystery.
- NL Central: The Cardinals got a lot better when they acquired Nolan Arenado; the question in St. Louis is the starting pitching. If everything breaks right for either the Cubs or the Brewers, they could make things interesting here – – but it is difficult to see how all that happens. The Reds will be better this year than in recent years, but they are also-rans. Let us not even think about the Pirates; their season in 2021 might give tanking a bad name. Ke’Bryan Hayes is the Pirates’ rookie third baseman and they offered him an extended contract before he played a full season at the MLB level; he turned it down. So, he is a good player and a smart player too…
- NL West: There is a two-team race in this Division – – the Dodgers and the Padres just might be the two best teams on paper in all of MLB for this year. The Dodgers are solid at the plate, on the mound and in reserve. The Padres have Tatis and Machado as a one-two punch plus a solid starting rotation. The Giants, D-Backs and Rockies are playing for third place here.
Of course, here in Curmudgeon Central there is always an eye for failure or the potential for failure. So as things get underway for the 2021 season, an important question here is this:
- Can there be an epically bad team this year?
I doubt that any MLB team will ever sink below the level of incompetence shown by the Cleveland Spiders in 1899. That team posted a record of 20-134 which is a win percentage of .130. There were some roster shenanigans associated with that team that would not be tolerated today, so I will ignore that level of ineptitude.
MLB went from a 154-game season to a 162-game season in 1961. Other than last year, that has been the modus vivendi MLB for the last 60 years. So, over that span, here are the worst records (with win percentages) posted by teams:
- Mets (1962): 40-120 (.250)
- Tigers (2003): 43-119 (.265)
- Orioles (2018): 47-115 (.290)
- Tigers (2019): 47-114 (.292)
Note that two of the four worst records since MLB went to 162 games per season happened in the last two full seasons of MLB. Moreover, the Tigers and the Orioles who only won 47 games in their seasons of ignominy do not appear to have made significant changes since they stunk out the joint in recent seasons. But wait, there’s more…
The Pirates have traded away or bought out a bunch of players and the projected salary for the 26-man roster on Opening Day is $41.7M according to Spotrac.com. The AVERAGE projected salary for a 26-man roster on Opening Day for MLB in 2021 is $120.5M. I know that Pittsburgh is a small market; nonetheless, it appears as if the team is not even going to try and be competitive in 2021. Baseball fans in Pittsburgh need to circle September 6,7,and 8 on their calendars:
- The Steelers’ season will not have started yet.
- The Pirates are at home hosting the Tigers for a 3-game series.
- Both teams could be vying for the worst record in MLB for the season.
- Both teams could appear on the list of futility above after 2021.
- Tix will not be hard to come by for these games…
Finally, here is one more observation by Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times regarding various moves by MLB teams in the off-season:
“And, in news about free agents, the Blue Jays signed George Springer, the Phillies signed J.T. Realmuto and the Royals slammed the door on Prince Harry’s possible return.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………