Last night’s official word that the 2020 baseball season is on came as welcome news to baseball fans. But, as the details of the season trickled out, it became abundantly clear that this season is going to be a very different beast than anything professional sports has seen in the past, and not just because there won’t be fans in the stands.
Here, as far as we’ve been able to gather thus far, are all of the rules, wrinkles, challenges, and oddities baseball will be facing in this short, strange trip of a season upon which we’re about to embark. The information comes from official MLB and MLBPA press releases, sources familiar with the agreed-upon procedures, and reports from Ken Rosenthal, Evan Drellich, and Jayson Stark of The Athletic and from Ronald Blum of the Associated Press.
- Teams will be playing most games against their own division and a handful of interleague games against the corresponding division from the other league. Specifically, each team will play 10 games against the other four teams in its division in come combination of two-game and three-game series. The remaining 20 games will be interleague contests, East vs. East, Central vs. Central, West vs. West. Six of those 20 will be “rivalry” games, such as Mets vs. Yankees and Cubs vs. White Sox. How the other games will break down is unknown.
- There will be no scheduled doubleheaders so as to limit time spent in a ballpark on a given day. Postponements will be made up, as usual, via doubleheaders.
- There are, as of yet, no specific schedules circulating.
- We’ve had some piecemeal reports of rule changes, including the runner on second base rule. Other rule changes:
- Universal DH, which has long been reported as part of the plan. As of now it will only apply to the 2020 season and pitchers will be batting again in 2021, assuming at least 2021 is a normal season. That could be renegotiated before next year, however;
- The league is abandoning its new rule which would have allowed position players to pitch only in certain situations. It’s now all-hands-on-deck at any time;
- Games that start but then are stopped due to rain before the fifth inning will no longer be considered washouts that don’t count. They will be considered suspended games that will be resumed at the point where they were stopped at a later date. The purpose of this rule is to stop the practice of keeping people in the ballpark for hours on end to make a game “official.”
- The “three-batter-rule” for relief pitchers implemented for this year WILL remain as planned, though it may be relaxed in “spring” training.
- Teams have been under a transaction freeze since March, prohibiting trades and signings. That freeze ends Friday at noon eastern time;
- Teams will carry 30 players on the active roster for the first two weeks of the season and 28 for the two weeks after that before reducing to 26 for the rest of the way;
- With no minor leagues, teams will be allowed to retain 60 players overall, as opposed to a 40-man roster, with those beyond the active roster as set forth above existing on a taxi squad. Three players from the taxi squad can travel with a team to a game. One of the three must be a catcher;
- The injured list for pitchers was supposed to change to 15 days from 10 days. It will now remain at ten days;
- The trade deadline will be August 31. The active roster deadline for postseason eligibility is September 15;
- Hitters will now have to bring their own pine-tar rags, bat donuts and other equipment with them to and from the on-deck circle;
- There will be no bat boys/girls or ball boys/girls. Bat and ball delivery will be handled by other team staff;
- Pitchers will now have to bring their own rosin bag to the mound and use their own personal baseballs for bullpen sessions;
- Hitters who were at the plate and runners left on base will have to go back to the dugout to get their caps, gloves and sunglasses when an inning ends rather than have someone run them out to them;
- Baseballs used in batting practice can be used only that day, after which they will need to be cleaned and sanitized and not be re-used for five days.
Personal habits, physical contact
- Spitting is prohibited, including sunflower seed shells. Smokeless tobacco is prohibited. Chewing gum is allowed;
- Pitchers licking their fingers is prohibited. Pitchers will be permitted to carry a “wet rag” in their pocket to moisten their fingers before pitches;
- Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited and will be handled with “severe discipline.” Players may not make physical contact with any other players outside of making tags and other incidental contact that might normally occur in the course of a game. This includes high fives, fist bumps and hugs, which are prohibited;
- Showering at the ballpark is “discouraged but not prohibited.” Even then, only people in uniform and active dugout/clubhouse staff can shower there. The GM, for example, can’t come down and have a shvitz after a workout in the weight room during the game.
- All “covered individuals” — which refers to players, coaches, staff, and basically anyone who will be involved in baseball operations, will submit a symptoms/exposure questionnaire before arriving at spring training. Basically a “what I did during my quarantine” report;
- Covered individuals will also undergo a temperature check, a COVID-19 saliva or nose swab test, and a blood test for antibodies before arriving at spring training;
- After reporting, covered individuals will have their temperature and symptoms checked at least twice per day. Anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees can’t enter a ball park;
- If a fever or other COVID symptoms develop once someone is at the ballpark they must isolate ASAP. Teams must then conduct contact tracing procedures to see who the person interacted with and clean/disinfect all facilities;
- Players, coaches, trainers, and others who have close physical contact with players will have saliva tests every other day. Everyone else in and around ballparks and team operations will undergo testing multiple times per week. Results are supposed to come back in 24 hours;
- Those who test positive, obviously, cannot have any contact with the team and will be placed in a special sort of injured list called the COVID-19 Related Injured List, which does not have a time limit like the normal injured list;
- Players placed on the COVID-19 injured list do have a path to return. Specifically, they have to test negative twice at least 24 hours apart, cannot have had a fever in at least 72 hours, and must have taken an antibody test. Above all of that, doctor signoff and signoff of a joint COVID-19 committee created by the league and the union, must approve as well;
- Those who merely show symptoms but whose tests come back negative can resume contact with the team once test results are returned AND they are showing no symptoms AND get doctor signoff;
- As previously reported, MLB’s testing will be handled by baseball’s anti-doping laboratory in Utah;
- Players will NOT sign an “acknowledgement of risk” waiver form that MLB had proposed during negotiations
Players, family members at high-risk for/due to COVID-19
- Teams will identify “high risk” personnel, with “high risk” defined as people “who, by virtue of their age and/or medical history, are at a materially higher risk of developing severe illness or complications from COVID-19 exposure”;
- High risk personnel will be afforded special accommodations, including separate entrances to the park, separate private spaces at a ball park, will be allowed to spend as little time at the park as is necessary to do their job;
- High risk players may sit out the 2020 season. If they do, they will be placed on the COVID-19 Related Injured List. High-risk players who sit out the season will be paid and will receive service time. Pay/employment or high-risk employees who are not players and who choose to sit out will be handled on a team-by-team basis, obviously subject to normal health/disability laws;
- Players who live with or are regularly in close contact with individuals at high risk also could sit out, but would not automatically receive pay and service. It is widely expected, however, that teams may relax this or accommodate this in other ways. For example, if a players’ wife goes into labor, the player could go on the paternity list, which is paid, and have that time extended given the unusual and/or risky circumstances, well, all of this presents for people in that situation. Mike Trout’s wife is expected to have a baby in August, for example. You have to figure that the Angels are not gonna dock his pay if it takes him extra time to come back from that;
- MLB and the union have created four-person committee to oversee health matters: one doctor appointed by both sides, and one representative from both of the parties. That committee is expected to settle any problems or disputes that result from the unique circumstances of the 2020 season.
- Media access to players will be limited. It is expected that video press conference, as opposed to one-on-one or scrum interviews will take place after games. Zoom and other forms of video chat will likely be used as well;
- Press will be allowed in the stadiums but won’t be allowed to get near the players;
- There will be no visiting broadcast teams. The home broadcast video/audio crew will provide a common feed to the visiting team’s RSN and will be required to be even-handed as far as where video/sound is focused during the game for neutrality purposes. Visiting broadcasters will call games remotely.
That’s a lot to take in. If you find it all daunting, imagine how it’ll be for the teams and players.