Jul 23, 2020 - Sports

The weirdest baseball season ever is here

A bell made out of a baseball.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The baseball season starts in a matter of hours, and we still don't know where the Blue Jays will play their home games, or how many teams will make the playoffs.

Welcome to the 2020 MLB campaign — a masked, fanless adventure into the great unknown.

Driving the news:

  • Nomadic birds: Canada won't let the Blue Jays play in Toronto, and Pennsylvania won't let them play in Pittsburgh. The next option is Baltimore, per ESPN. If that doesn't work, the Blue Jays could play their "home" games in road cities.
  • Expanded playoffs: MLB and the MLBPA are discussing expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to 16, per multiple reports.

The backdrop: As recently as February, the biggest story in baseball was the Astros' sign-stealing operation — a scandal so shocking it would have taken a global pandemic to make people forget about it.

  • Now, four months and one global pandemic later, MLB's investigative report and Houston's cringeworthy apology feel like distant memories.
  • And suddenly, the absurdity of grown men banging on garbage cans pales in comparison to the absurdity of grown men playing quarantine baseball.

What to know:

  • Regional schedule: Teams will play 40 games within their division and 20 interleague games against the corresponding geographical division (i.e. AL and NL Central).
  • Rule changes: The NL has temporarily adopted the DH to protect pitchers, extra innings start with a runner on second base and pitchers must face a minimum of three batters (or pitch to the end of a half-inning).
  • Health and safety: No high-fives, fist bumps, hugs or spitting. Players not likely to participate in the game will sit in the stands. Managers and coaches will wear masks in the dugout and bullpen at all times.
  • Roster sizes: Opening Day rosters will feature 30 active players (up from the normal 26) culled from each team's 60-man player pool. The active roster will be trimmed to 28 players on the 15th day of the season and then to 26 players on the 29th day.

What to expect:

  • Black Lives Matter support: Teams have the option of stenciling "Black Lives Matter" or "United For Change" on the back of the pitcher's mound during opening weekend games, and players can wear patches with either phrase on a jersey sleeve, per AP. In exhibition games this week, multiple players kneeled during the national anthem.
  • High-scoring games: "A number of [pitchers] admit that they feel far behind hitters in terms of preparedness — that the extra weeks they get to fine-tune pitches in a standard spring training make the difference between success and failure," writes ESPN's Jeff Passan. "Compound that with the muggy summer months ... and a run-scoring paradise is about to be unleashed."
  • Designated runners: More roster spots means more room for specialists, and pinch runners can change the game in an instant. Plus, with the extra innings rule, you could ostensibly pinch hit your pinch runner in an advantageous spot, sending them up to strike out so they can be placed on second base to start the next inning.

The beauty of a 60-game season

Data: Baseball Reference; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Baseball Reference; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

MLB's 60-game schedule will be unlike anything we've ever seen, transforming a marathon into a sprint, and turning statistical frontiers like a .400 batting average into (relatively) achievable goals.

  • Yes, but: As it turns out, there's a strong correlation between a team's 60-game and 162-game record, so 2020 won't be a total fluke. And, while a shortened season increases the likelihood that someone hits .400, it isn't as likely as you'd think.
  • Since the strike-shortened 1994 season, only three players — Tony Gwynn (1997), Larry Walker (1997) and Chipper Jones (2008) — have hit .400 through their team's first 60 games.

The intrigue: While there's something magical about a baseball season that starts in spring and ends in fall, the urgency of a 60-game season might actually make it more enjoyable, explains The Ringer's Rodger Sherman.

  • "A 162-game baseball season is an endless summer where there's seemingly always a tomorrow. Wins are pleasant; losses generally aren't worth losing sleep over. ... I enjoy having baseball on my TV, but rarely feel as if any regular-season game is a must-see event."
  • "In a 60-game season, however, each game is worth as much as an entire series in a 162-game season ... and the importance of every game is magnified. ... As a result, I'm going to do something I've never done: watch every game that my favorite team plays."

What they're saying:

"I think you're going to see more of a playoff-attitude managing ... more aggressive decision-making early in the game as opposed to what you would do in the first couple of months of the regular season."
— Angels manager Joe Maddon, per NYT

The bottom line, per Sherman: "While I can appreciate the beauty in baseball's 'Groundhog Day' (or 'Palm Springs') dust-it-off-and-come-back-to-the-park ethos, giving up a walkoff homer shouldn't be something that you can just dust off. It should be devastating. In a 60-game schedule, it will be."

American League preview

Reproduced from FiveThirtyEight; Table: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from FiveThirtyEight; Table: Axios Visuals
  • The juggernaut: The Yankees scored an MLB-best 943 runs last season, despite Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton playing 120 combined games. If those two can stay healthy, and $324 million ace Gerrit Cole delivers, New York should repeat as AL East champs for the first time since 2011-12.
  • The dark horse: After years of MacGyvering their way to 90-win seasons with triple-switches and "openers," the Rays will be right at home navigating this bizarre season. And thanks to expanded rosters, manager Kevin Cash will have more in-game substitution options and bullpen combinations than ever.
  • The villains: The Astros are the most hated team in baseball (and perhaps all of sports) at the moment. How will they respond?
  • The team on the rise: The White Sox trusted the process and are now legit AL Central contenders. The youth, power and excitement in Chicago is palpable, and if nothing else, the shortened 2020 season should provide a glimpse of the club's bright future.
  • The Big 3: Mike Trout confirmed he will play this season, and will headline perhaps the most gifted trio in baseball. New addition Anthony Rendon is the best teammate Trout's ever had, and the return of Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player (didn't pitch in 2019) will be must-see TV.

Awards predictions:

  • AL MVP: Mike Trout (Angels)
  • AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole (Yankees)
  • AL ROY: Luis Robert (White Sox)

National League preview

Reproduced from FiveThirtyEight; Table: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from FiveThirtyEight; Table: Axios Visuals
  • The juggernaut: The Dodgers might be the best on-paper team in MLB history. This is a club that won 106 games last year, then added Mookie Betts.
  • The champs: Despite losing Anthony Rendon, the Nationals' roster is still championship-quality. And they'll be able to ride the league's best rotation harder than usual thanks to the short season.
  • The team for sale: The sale of the Mets (valued at $2.4 billion, per Forbes) is a significant and rare event, so expect the expect the rumor mill, New York tabloid gossip and wall-to-wall coverage to continue through the summer.
  • The team on the rise: Cincinnati's rotation — led by Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo and a full season of Trevor Bauer — is superb, and they added sluggers Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos in a rare free agent splash.
  • The rookie skippers: There are a whopping 10 new MLB managers this season. Four of them are first-timers, and they're all in the NL: David Ross (Cubs), Luis Rojas (Mets), Derek Shelton (Pirates) and Jayce Tingler (Padres).

Awards predictions:

  • NL MVP: Fernando Tatís Jr. (Padres)
  • NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler (Dodgers)
  • NL ROY: Carter Kieboom (Nationals)

Fantasy baseball: Player rankings

An illustration of a baseball player.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Fantasy sports began with baseball, and has since evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. The strategy/mantra for the 2020 fantasy baseball campaign: Let's get weird.

Top 25 hitters:

  • 1–5: Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL), Christian Yelich (MIL), Cody Bellinger (LAD), Mookie Betts (LAD), Mike Trout (LAA)
  • 6–10: Francisco Lindor (CLE), Trevor Story (COL), Juan Soto (WSH), Trea Turner (WSH), Nolan Arenado (COL)
  • 11–15: Jose Ramirez (CLE), Alex Bregman (HOU), J.D. Martinez (BOS), Rafael Devers (BOS), Fernando Tatís Jr. (SD)
  • 16–20: Bryce Harper (PHI), Freddie Freeman (ATL), Starling Marte (ARI), Anthony Rendon (LAA), Javier Baez (CHC),
  • 21–25: Xander Bogaerts (BOS), Jose Altuve (HOU), Pete Alonso (NYM), George Springer (HOU), Gleyber Torres (NYY)

Top 25 pitchers:

  • 1–5: Gerrit Cole (NYY), Jacob deGrom (NYM), Max Scherzer (WSH), Justin Verlander (HOU), Walker Buehler (LAD)
  • 6–10: Stephen Strasburg (WSH), Shane Bieber (CLE), Jack Flaherty (STL), Mike Clevinger (CLE), Clayton Kershaw (LAD)
  • 11–15: Charlie Morton (TB), Blake Snell (TB), Luis Castillo (CIN), Patrick Corbin (WSH), Chris Paddack (SD)
  • 16–20: Lucas Giolito (CWS), Josh Hader (MIL), Zack Greinke (HOU), Yu Darvish (CHC), Aaron Nola (PHI)
  • 21–25: Kirby Yates (SD), Tyler Glasnow (TB), Jose Berrios (MIN), Trevor Bauer (CIN), Brandon Woodruff (MIL)

Ballpark peanuts get a summer break

A man delivering peanuts at a baseball game.
Peanut vendor at Dodger Stadium circa 1980. Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Baseball fans consume between four and seven million bags of ballpark peanuts each season — and that doesn't even include the minors or independent leagues.

  • This year, that number will likely be zero.

History lesson: Baseball's union with peanuts began in the 1890s, when British immigrant Harry Stevens moved to Ohio and fell in love with the game.

  • Stevens then invented scorecards, and an enterprising peanut company traded bags of their product in exchange for ad space on his cards.
  • With more peanuts than he could possibly eat, Stevens sold them to ballparks, who then sold them to fans as concessions.

By the numbers: Of the four peanut varieties — Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia — Runners and Virginias make up about 95% of the market, per the National Peanut Board.

  • 80% are runners, which are used to make peanut butter, while 15% are the bigger Virginias — the ballpark staple.
  • Though Virginia peanuts have been in their own form of quarantine, the peanut industry at-large has thrived during the pandemic thanks to families stocking their pantries with peanut butter.
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