The time has finally come, with opening day festivities launching on Thursday, July 24th. The cardboard cutouts in the stands are on their feet and the piped in crowd noise through million dollar speaker systems is positively electric.
In case you haven’t noticed, the global pandemic is shifting things around regarding our baseball landscape. Here, I’ll attempt to run down all of the things you’ll need related to league rule changes, covid-19 precautions, and roster moves for your hometown kids.
League Rule Changes
First off, we need to go over the in-game rule changes that MLB has decided to implement over the course of this long offseason. The most impactful change is probably the three-batter-minimum, in which relief pitchers must now face a minimum of three batters per appearance in an effort to speed up the game. If you watched last season’s ALDS against the Rays, you surely remember those marathon games in which the crafty Rays staff pick matchups and attack them with many pitcher changes. This change lowers the effectiveness of specialist pitchers, and rewards your workhorse middle relievers for their reliability. Look for guys with good splits against both LHB and RHB to have more productive seasons. My pick would be Chris Devenski.
Extra innings games will now have an interesting twist, where a runner is placed on second base at the beginning of each half from the 10th innings onwards. The runner will be the last out of the previous inning, or a pinch runner for that player. Again, this change is presumably made to quicken the pace of play and prevent an 18 inning gauntlet of baseball games we’ve seen in years past. With a runner already in scoring position and no outs, it will be interesting to see how some teams choose to employ small-ball, or simply allow their hitters to knock the guy in.
Roster sizes have changed drastically, with each team fielding a 30-man major league roster in addition to a 30-man alternate roster, good for a 60 player pool per team to begin the year. The 30 man MLB roster will decrease to 28 on August 5th, staying at that capacity until August 18th, and then drops to a 26-man roster for the rest of the season. You will notice plenty of fresh faces in team’s alternate player pools, as more than half of the teams in the league have their own first round draft picks from only a month ago at the alternate sites in order to develop. The trade deadline will take place on August 31st, and that will surely be a complete whirlwind of a day.
And finally, with so many injury concerns in such a shortened season (a minor injury now accounts for much more missed production than before, regardless of the virus) the league has decided on implementing a universal DH. Pitchers will no longer be hitting in national league ballparks, which means less injury risk for them, but you will also be seeing competent hitters for the entirety of baseball games. You’ll also be missing out on the thrill of the occasional MadBum or Zack Greinke interleague nuke. Plenty of teams stand to benefit from this (the Dodgers and Reds come to mind, with excess bench bats), but it’s all I can ever hope for to see Yordan Alvarez launch an 800 foot home run now that he’s able to DH from Coors Field.
Speaking of Yordan Alvarez, he and Jose Urquidy are the two Astros with Major League time who have been unable to report to summer camp at all. July 21st makes the 18th day in a row of no update on their conditions. If you’re curious as to what’s going on, there’s a good bet it’s virus related. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prevents organizations from releasing reports of confirmed cases without the player’s explicit permission, so they have to keep us in the dark for legal reasons.
Players are tested every few days, with spit and blood work. The league has introduced a COVID Injured List, that does not count against the 30-player MLB pool. If a player tests positive, they will isolate and are required to test negative twice 72 hours after their fever goes away before being able to re-join their teams.
Teams around the league are all struggling to navigate this new landscape, and plenty of COVID precautions will be visible to us as fans. No longer are players allowed to spit during baseball games. Handshakes and high fives will be kept to a minimum. Games are played primarily in the afternoon, then travel takes place in the evening in order to get 60 games in from this condensed season. Travel possesses its own problems regarding sanitization of planes. Pitchers are allowed to bring a wet rag to the mound, as well as their own rosin bag since they can no longer lick their fingers. Gone are the crowds, replaced with piped-in cheering (or boos, depending on how things go), and you can even buy yourself a cardboard cutout to place in a seat in the ballpark.
So How About My Houston Astros?
To begin this year, the Astros as you know and love them are mostly back and in one piece. Urquidy and Alvarez are out for undisclosed reasons, of course, but they should be back and worked up to speed sometime during the second week of the season. The bullpen has some glaring gaps, with Roberto Osuna “behind” in his preparation and not quite ready to go. Ryan Pressly will slot in as the closer in the meantime. Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt are both dealing with inflammation in their throwing arms, so they are shelved as well to begin the year.
Young arms will need to step up, and with a 30-man roster there will be even more of them than usual. Framber Valdez looks to be the fifth starter in place of Urquidy’s absence, with Cristian Javier (your 2019 Astros MiLB Pitcher of the Year) hot on his heels after a dominating spring and summer camp. Chris Devenski and Bryan Abreu will be relied upon heavily out of the bullpen until the more veteran relievers can get healthy. Joe Smith, who would have been among the most impacted by the 3 batter minimum rule, has opted out of the season for the sake of he and his family’s health. Brandon Bailey, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, and Cy Sneed are all names to watch out for as they fill in the bullpen gaps.
Aside from all of that, the stars are healthy and have put on a show in the exhibition games against Kansas City. After what feels like an eternity of waiting, we will have real, live baseball on our screens.