ESPN reported three days ago that Major League Baseball is considering playing the season in a “bubble” in Arizona. All teams would play their games split among 11 stadiums in Arizona, and players would have to remain in local hotels. There might also be on-field changes, including the dawn of an electronic strike zone, the removal of mound visits, and, in the absence of fans, the sight of players scattered six feet apart in the stands, instead of huddled in close quarters in the dugout.
Some of these ideas may happen, and some may not, but one thing to take away from this is that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to lead to a drastic overhaul of the way we interact with baseball.
Take, for example, the concept of “robo-umps.” We’ve had this technology for a few years; it’s been used in independent leagues and was set to debut in some low-level minor leagues this year. The biggest pushback against robo-umps is the removal of the human element, the loss of umpire jobs, and the eschewing of tradition. There’s no doubt that instituting robo-umps in the major leagues would be controversial, but what if it’s required by this pandemic? It’s often said that the best ideas come out of necessity. If social distancing is a necessity, maybe giving robo-umps a try isn’t such a bad idea.
Another possibility mentioned was the removal of mound visits. MLB has already toyed with this, first instituting a limit on mound visits to six — thanks in part to Gary Sanchez and the Yanekes during the 2017 playoffs. However, full removal of mound visits might adversely effect pitchers in trouble or catchers who can do nothing about unintentional cross-ups. So, what about the concept of giving headsets/earpieces to the pitcher, catcher and pitching coach to still allow for this vital communication? This has already been discussed as a possibility to curb illegal sign-stealing, which is another benefit.
The major impact of this would be to enhance the pace of play. Another idea suggested for this — and tested in the minor leagues and World Baseball Classic — is the placement of a runner on base in extra innings to move games along and encourage more offense. This concept has not been popular with fans or players, but if the league is desperate to get in as many games as possible, that could mean seven-inning doubleheaders or a tweak to extra innings to curtail those 15-inning marathons. If there was ever a time to test it out, it might be now.
What about how we interact with the game as fans and media? Media access would undoubtedly be difficult during this time, when credentialed press may not even be allowed into clubhouses. Some of the best stories come from the relationships made between players and press in the clubhouse. Although I would anticipate a return to conventional media rules when it is deemed healthy to do so, there is at least the possibility that the way media goes about its job could be altered by this pandemic.
We all want baseball — and all sports — back as soon as is safe, pragmatic and possible. This could mean embracing some changes to our beloved game, some temporary (such as seven-inning doubleheaders or expanded rosters) and some potentially permanent (the electronic strike zone, and the evolution of mound visits). I’m not suggesting that this season becomes a baseball mad science experiment, but there are definitely some ideas worth looking into.
30 years down the line, the way we look at baseball could be dramatically different. It’s distinctly possible that the catalyst for these changes may just be how baseball adapts to the COVID-19 outbreak.