In a perfectly normal season, Major League pitchers — primarily starters, but relievers as well — spend a lot of time on the injured list. Just last season, in fact, more than a full starting rotations’ worth (Luis Severino, James Paxton, CC Sabathia, Domingo German, Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga) saw time on the shelf. In the best-case scenario, teams need to be seven or eight deep in the rotation, and even deeper in the bullpen.
This season, certainly, is not the best case scenario. Before spring training shut down, pitchers had not yet gotten fully stretched out. In the last games played, Loaisiga went three innings, Deivi Garcia 3.1, Luis Cessa 3.2, Gerrit Cole 3.1, and Montgomery 4 full innings. They needed another start or two to get fully up to game speed, at least.
That was a week ago. By the time that Major League Baseball returns in mid-May, it would be at least eight weeks since they threw in game action. And that’s best case scenario. More likely than not, we’re not going to see baseball until June or July — and with the amount of time missed, it’s likely that the league will try to use as small of a “summer training camp” as possible. While most players will undoubtedly continue working on the side, it’s no substitute for game action.
As Tom wrote yesterday, Major League Baseball could very easily expand the rosters at the start of the season in order to safeguard against this very issue. That has been done before, after all, when spring training was shortened by labor unrest. But the special circumstances of the season gives Major League Baseball an opportunity to test a rule change that has been gaining traction in recent years: the universal designated hitter.
The universal DH has been a hot topic for many years, but that is not what I want to get into today. Rather, I want to talk about why it’s the right move to try out this year.
First of all, starting pitchers are likely going to be hit hardest by the missed time. Although pitchers will continue to throw a bit, given the typical injury risks that result from pitching, I find it unlikely that they’re going to be putting too much extra stress on their arms — after all, who would want to incur a serious injury during a two-month layoff. In essence, they’re essentially going to have to “ramp up” for a second time in four months, and certainly with a shorter window of time. With all the additional injuries that will likely occur, why put extra strain on them by forcing them to hit as well?
The shortened season also serves as a perfect “experiment” year. Because of the pandemic-shortened season, 2020 will always be treated as an oddball among seasons no matter what happens. With numerous changes already being implemented this year, such as the three-batter minimum and the 26-man roster, we were already going to see things play out differently on the field than we have before. What difference would it make to turn the season into a lengthy session at the laboratory to see how players and fans would respond to the much-discussed rule? Should the league get pushback, they can undo the universal DH, chalk up its use to injury prevention so that the 2020 season could happen without a second full spring training, and return to the status quo pre-outbreak without any negative consequences. And if it proves to be a success, then keep it!
Because of the global pandemic, Major League Baseball has the opportunity to test a divisive rule change without causing a long-term commotion in the sport. When the season begins to get underway, the league should not let it slip away.