Baseball’s Ability to Shine in the COVID-19 Era

Like many others, I am an ardent fan of the game and I wish to see it return in some capacity this year. Even though I want to see baseball played, I can’t help but think that there are various geopolitical issues surrounding this pandemic and the proposed plans by MLB.

Each affected area has a unique position that they must deal with, and playing baseball in each of these affected areas has the potential to go south, very quickly.

Baseball has the opportunity to be in a position in which it hasn’t been in for decades: it can unite our country in a time of need.  The sport has the ability to be a driving force for the return of commerce (in some capacity) to our economy. While the idea of an untraditional season is intriguing, we need to have the utmost caution before returning to play. The proposed plans for the Florida-Arizona season might be our best shot at returning to play, but it needs to be modified. 

These globalized commercial areas in the Northeast (like New York and Boston) are why this virus spread so quickly, and why certain areas have been hit so hard. These areas’ economies and cultures are incredibly globalized, and have dense populations that rely on others for transportation, employment, and food. This undoubtedly is one of the many reasons why there was an uptick in these urban areas, and the person-to-person contacts commonly associated with living in an urban area is what makes dealing with this pandemic in an urbanized setting so difficult.

The plan to return baseball to teams’ home cities is not the answer.

Traveling amidst the pandemic is the largest issue surrounding a return to play… Players can’t be expected to bounce from potential hotspot to hotspot throughout the season, even at a lesser rate than a normal season. Players would inevitably opt-out and forgo their contracts and sit out the season if they think they or their families are put in harm’s way, which will have a ripple effect throughout the sport.

As we saw with Blake Snell’s recent comments, players are feeling apprehensive about returning to play. Aside from financials, health will remain the priority. If All-Star caliber players opt to sit out, what would be the point of having a season at all?

Baseball can be played in 2020, but how can we have a season without putting players in harm’s way? 

In terms of the game played between the foul lines, this season has the opportunity to be an experimental one. 

I have long been a dissident of “robot umpires,” but I think in light of this situation it would be the right call (pun intended). 

With robot umpires, it would mean that there is one less person on the field, and the person-to-person contact with players and outsiders would be minimized. The contact between the catcher and umpire would be eliminated completely; it would be one less avenue for infection to spread while the umpires could still maintain their jobs and perform remotely from the booth.

Another change that I have vehemently opposed in the past is the universal DH. With a tight timeframe for the season, it is imperative that managers have the capacity to make personnel changes with their players’ bodies in mind. While some NL teams would be at an immediate disadvantage compared to AL teams with currently established DH hitters, having the flexibility roster-wise would outweigh any drawbacks from roster issues. 

In addition to the universal DH, expanded rosters should be in play. The need to fill a roster spot with a minor leaguer who had to travel to camp would be a big question mark amidst this crisis, so having a reserve squad training and isolating with the major league team would be necessary. 

The biggest of the many challenges that baseball faces in 2020 lies in determining where the season should be played. Having a season outside of teams’ home ballparks is a strange concept, but if there aren’t fans in attendance, why risk having players travel?

If baseball is to be played this season, it needs to be at a localized facility with multiple fields that can be used simultaneously. A rural complex with ample infrastructure in the form of hospitals and hotels located in a warm area is crucial if a season is to be played. If the MLB can find a site that has the ability to host an entire league, it can be a great way to pump some revenue into a local economy. Even though aiding a localized economy would only be the tip of the iceberg in this crisis, the league could pave the way for other major sports to finish their leagues.

Before any game is to be played, players would need to isolate for 2-3 weeks prior to preseason training. If early July is circled on everyone’s calendar, this plan needs to be hashed out posthaste. 

The Days of the Prototypical Leadoff Hitter Are Numbered

In a rapidly evolving landscape, the traditional build of a leadoff hitter is hard to find in today’s game—the days of the Rickey Henderson-type leadoff hitter are long over. 

Admittedly, I looked at my phone screen a bit cock-eyed when I read David Ross’ announcement that Kris Bryant would be the Cub’s leadoff hitter for the 2020 season… He is the closest thing to a five-tool player on their roster and surely belongs in the heart of their order.

The Cubs have notoriously tried 17 different players in the leadoff spot (i.e. Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo) since Dexter Fowler’s departure in 2016.  Their experiment with Schwarber leading off ended in a dismal season for the outfielder.  In the games that Schawrbo led off, the Cubs won just 26 games and lost 30.  While his ability to hit the longball never left, he saw a slight dip in batting average in the leadoff spot during the 2019 season.  

Kris Bryant, the leadoff hitter, could have made the Cubs a contender again.  Without the virus’ impact on society as a whole, we might have seen this bold move pay off for the Cubbies.

In today’s game, there is a large emphasis placed on a player’s athleticism, and it is expected that most batters in a lineup have sufficient wheels.  Concocting a carefully crafted batting order comes out of necessity in the wake of a hitting revolution.  Metrics like exit velocity, WAR, and OPS have become so prevalent in today’s game, it has streamlined so many facets of the game. Teams need to adapt or die, which forces Darwinism to run its course. 

Maximizing the most out of a given game from the jump is incredibly important, but it is also equally as important to have an explosive and productive back-end of the lineup.  Having the compatibility and effectiveness in any combination of three batters can maximize a team’s ability to produce runs efficiently.  If your most dynamic player is only seeing the batter’s box 4 times per game as opposed to 5, as insignificant as it sounds, it could mean the difference between a win and a loss. 

In the wake of the now-infamous Mookie Betts trade, Boston is left without an outright leadoff hitter.  The only person on the roster who has experience leading off is Andrew Benintendi, who notoriously was experimented with in the leadoff hole during the 2019 season.  The Benintendi Experiment did not last for more than a few weeks even with Mookie on the roster; Benny is not “the guy.”  He had a largely uninspiring 2019 campaign at the dish, posting career lows in BA, OBP, and OPS.  When leading off, Benintendi hit .267 in the first half of the season.  These statistics alone do not discredit his efforts, but he is not the sparkplug that belongs at the top of the lineup.   

One player currently on the Red Sox comes to mind when thinking about those who could benefit from “top loading” the batting order. 

Looking at Xander Bogaerts’ physique, one would correctly assume that he belongs in the heart of the order. His 6-foot, 1-inch frame is well-suited for hitting in the 2-5 holes in the lineup where it would be able to do the most damage by being sandwiched between great hitters. 

When purely looking at his hitting capabilities, Bogaerts has the ability to get behind the ball and drive it to all parts of the field.  He also displays plate discipline beyond his years; not the type of maturity one would expect from a 27-year-old. 

Filling Mookie’s role is no easy task—he was 10th in the entire league in OBP with .391, ahead of some very big names.  One of the players following Mookie at 13th in the league in OBP however, is our boy, Xander.  Bogaerts posted a .384 OBP and saw lots of growth in his batting abilities.  He even posted an OPS that was 14th in the league.  Xander also has the slight speed advantage over Mookie, with Xander posing a 28.0 ft/sec as opposed to Mookie’s 27.9 ft/sec. 

At any level, every ballplayer should be prepared to lead off an inning—even the not-so-fleet-of-foot DHs out there.  Whoever leads off a game is no different.  A leadoff batter’s approach could differ depending on the pitcher, as he could set the tone of the game either by jumping on a pitcher early in the count or working to wear the pitcher down via attrition. The one thing that remains a constant throughout all leadoff hitters, though, is the ability to work the count and get on base often.

“Top loading” lineups with a team’s best five-tool players will be the way of the future.  Shifting players who typically belong in the heart of the lineup to the top of the order will become more prevalent in years to come.