Bill O'Neill: Brrrr … and yawn: another MLB season is here
Another Major League Baseball season has arrived.
This one comes after a 99-day lockout as the Players Association and team owners haggled over money and assorted “privileges” for their over-privileged selves.
So, after a truncated Spring Training of 3 ½ weeks in sunny Arizona and Florida, the season start backed up one week to April 7 – and welcomed by the same crappy weather that always greets baseball and the fans who pay for baseball.
Pitchers who have had less time to condition their arms, now get to throw in cold and snow and sleet in many MLB cities. Same for position players who use Spring Training to get their bodies game ready.
Baseball should wait at least until May Day for baseball weather. Not play in football weather.
Baseball, while still a dreadfully slow game watched in person or on a screen of any scale, is getting some things right. This season, after 49 years (1973) of only the American League having the Designated Hitter, the National League now will do the same. We no longer have to watch pitchers make designated outs in National League and NL-hosted Inter-Divisional batters boxes.
My buddy Jamie astutely points out this will certainly hurt beer sales and consumption among National League fans.
More good news: After a trial run the past two COVID seasons, teams will be able to save their pitching staffs a bit during long games that get longer. Extra innings start with a ghost runner on 2nd base, “opportunizing” scoring and limiting games that in the past could easily go 14, 17 or 20-plus yawnings – all the while burning through lots of pitchers.
The National Hockey League now solves its ties by players competing 3 vs. 3 (instead of 5 on 5) for up to 5 minutes in overtime, then going to a shootout if overtime hasn’t settled an outcome. Sudden victory happens in relatively short order. And, unlike baseball, hockey is exciting for the full 60 minutes of regulation it is played; overtime and a potential shootout session are just bonus time for fans.
Another COVID-era temporary change that baseball has cancelled: 7-inning games in rare double-headers. This one had a practical sense to it – reducing the total innings played and pitched in a single day, thereby sparing some precious pitching. But analytics will tell you that some percentage of games are won or lost in the 8th and 9th innings. And baseball runs on analytics.
Also in 2020 baseball implemented a rule change that a relief pitcher must pitch to a minimum of three hitters, or to the end of a half-inning, upon entering the game. This is crucial. It alleviates some of the mid- and late-game boredom when teams shuttle in pitcher after pitcher to get matchups against certain right- or left-handed hitters. That’s why a game can take 1 hour to play 5 innings, and 2.5 hours to play the final 3 ½ or 4 innings.
Ah, but analytics don’t conquer all. Coming next season in 2023 will be a ban on the “shift.” Teams will be required to keep two infielders on each side of second base, damning the analytics that tell them to do otherwise to best defense certain hitters. Kinda counter-intuitive, this one is. I’d much rather have teams do an “illegal” shift than figure out some way to gain advantage by covertly stealing pitch signals issued by the opposing catcher.
The thinking is this will increase batting averages and offense throughout the league. I’m for that, even if it took only a half-century for baseball to resolve making the DH league-wide.