2021 MLB Season Preview: The Return of 162 Video games

It was over as quickly because it began, kind of, the strangest little season within the historical past of baseball. Sixty video games had been all we obtained, not even 10 weeks — fewer video games than a professional basketball or hockey schedule, fewer weeks than an N.F.L. season.

“Final yr was a dash, and I don’t know if everyone was ready to dash, not solely on our group however on different groups as nicely,” mentioned Dusty Baker, the supervisor of the Houston Astros. “It’s really extra enjoyable taking part in 162, as a result of then, let’s see who’s the strongest mentally, bodily and as a unit.”

The brand new season, which begins on Thursday with all 30 groups in motion, gives greater than the same old gauzy guarantees of blue skies, inexperienced grass and the heat of the solar. Precise human followers, at various capability ranges, will see the return of baseball as traditional: a six-month, on a regular basis companion that ought to give us a brand new appreciation of the common in common season.

“You’d see spider webs on the seats the place followers hadn’t sat for months and months and months,” mentioned David Ross, supervisor of the Chicago Cubs, a group that moved its weight room to the empty concourse at Wrigley Discipline final summer time. “So the truth that it’s going to be all good and cleaned up and glossy for followers — they’ll get in there and seize a canine and a beer and cheer on the Cubs — it doesn’t get any higher than that. I can’t wait.”

The Cubs’ season ended with two residence losses in a newly created playoff tier that doesn’t return for 2021. Whereas 16 of the 30 groups certified for the expanded discipline final October, this yr will probably be solely 10: three division winners and two wild playing cards from every league.

The league and the gamers’ union could not agree on extending the expanded playoff association for 2021, regardless of the clear advantages. The trade might be on edge till the perimeters agree on a brand new collective bargaining settlement, with the present one expiring Dec. 1. The game would possibly change considerably in 2022; conventional league affiliations may very well be shuffled, and the 162-game schedule — first launched in 1961 — could also be adjusted.

“There’s a variety of historical past there, and a variety of delight taken by gamers in taking part in what they expertise as a full season,” Tony Clark, the chief director of the gamers’ affiliation, mentioned in an interview final week. “This isn’t to recommend that gamers aren’t prepared to have a dialog about another construction, each from an alignment standpoint, a how-the-games-are-scheduled standpoint, all the way in which to the variety of video games which are scheduled in a season.”

Within the meantime, the previous, acquainted rhythms of the sport might be a supply of consolation for followers, a reminder of the timelessness of a sport that’s simpler than ever to observe. From an East Coast matinee to a West Coast night time sport, hours of each day broadcasts — on TV and radio — are as shut as your smartphone. Whereas typical basketball and hockey seasons final solely 82 video games, and soccer a mere 16, the sheer quantity of baseball distinguishes it from the remainder.

“It’s a separator, and that’s why, while you do discuss baseball as a nationwide pastime, it’s,” mentioned Joe Maddon, the supervisor of the Los Angeles Angels. “In any case, you come residence from work any day through the summer time, and both put the radio on or watch TV and see your favourite group play. After which there’s all this stir about that night time, that sport, your favourite participant, your favourite group, what’s happening, and you are able to do that each night time through the summer time. Each night time. You begin in class, undergo the summer time, return to high school and it’s nonetheless happening.”

Final season was disorienting for a lot of in baseball, with the 60-game season — the shortest since 1878 — representing simply 37 % of the norm. For historic legitimacy, it was useful that the World Sequence groups had been no fluke: The group with the very best document, the Los Angeles Dodgers, defeated the group with the second-best document, the Tampa Bay Rays. However different groups had been left wanting extra months to show themselves.

“You have a look at it after 60 video games, and it’s like, clearly, that’s not how we do that,” mentioned Maddon, whose Angels began 12-25 after which went on a 14-9 run on the finish. “We’d like extra time both to get good, or some guys want extra time to go dangerous, and the strengths rise to the highest. So it was awkward.”

Gamers now face the bodily penalties of the abbreviated schedule; with no precedent, groups can solely guess on the impression of taking part in a protracted season after a brief one. The Angels might be among the many groups utilizing a six-man beginning rotation to lighten the workload of every starter.

The previous starter’s benchmark of 200 innings might now be out of attain, hastening a pattern. Thirty-six pitchers labored 200 innings in 2009. A decade later, solely 15 did so. No one reached even 85 regular-season innings final yr, so few pitchers — if any — might clear 200 now. Place gamers will even want extra built-in days of relaxation.

“It’s going to be very fascinating for me to trace this over the subsequent couple of years to see what true impression the 60-game season has made,” mentioned Todd Tomczyk, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ director of sports activities medication. “I step again many occasions: ‘Oh, we’re going to have so many accidents this yr due to the 60-game season,’ however I catch myself considering, ‘Perhaps not, with all of the developments in coaching and year-round amenities and the way we are able to monitor these guys’ restoration simply from easy, subjective suggestions.’”

One other harm issue, for video games in N.L. parks, might be pitchers in the batter’s boxes and on the bases. The league and the union each needed to proceed utilizing a chosen hitter in all video games after doing so in 2020, however couldn’t agree on different modifications that might have been a part of the deal.

Such acrimony, fortunately, is just background noise for now. The principle occasion might be entrance and middle: 2,430 video games from April 1 via Oct. 3, with a minimum of some followers invited again to see the present. The groups will gladly welcome the corporate.

“The followers are what make our sport,” Ross mentioned. “As good because the stadium is, and the climate and town, the followers are what carry all of it collectively.”

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