What I love and hate about MLB’s coronavirus season

As we approach the midpoint of this bonkos Major League Baseball season, what comes to mind is the joke about the dumb guy who tries to swim across a lake, only to get exhausted halfway through — so he turns around and swims back.

Good luck finding a baseball person not drained from the ordeal just to get this far, an ordeal exemplified by this weekend’s Subway Series being sidelined by the Mets’ two positive COVID-19 tests. Amazingly, of the 32 days on the baseball calendar through Sunday, just five have proceeded without a team being quarantined by coronavirus.

Yet everyone will keep swimming toward October, energized by motivations pure and profit-related, to extend what one uniformed person — citing the empty stands, injury- and opt-out-fueled absences and wavering quality of play — called “an exhibition season on steroids.” People are watching, though. And interestingly, the societal impact of this baseball season could outlast the minutiae of who won and lost.

At the non-All-Star non-break, here’s a look at what 2020 baseball has brought and wrought so far:

More swings and misses, fewer swings and bat flips

For those who bemoan the ever-increasing counts of strikeouts and home runs, would it comfort you to know that dingers were down by just more than 2 percent through Friday’s action — from one every 24.6 at-bats to one every 25.1? Strikeouts, meanwhile, were up by 2.6 percent, from one every 3.9 at-bats to one every 3.8.

Could this year’s baseball be less bouncy, or “dejuiced”? Two uniformed folks interviewed (on the condition of anonymity) felt the ball hadn’t changed significantly, while a third disagreed, contending that the 2020 ball played fairer. Going to the numbers, Statcast reported that the percentage of hard-hit balls (those traveling 95 mph or faster) dipped ever so slightly through Thursday, from 36.6 percent to 36.4 percent. Overall, average exit velocity dropped from 88.7 mph to 87.9.

As for the modest uptick in K’s, one member of the anonymous uniformed panel pointed to the increasing usage of relievers, thanks to the half-length of spring training 2.0 not allowing starters to ramp up as much. Makes some sense. Through Friday, starters had thrown 53.8 percent of the innings, a decrease from last year’s 57.9, and relievers fanned 9.6 batters per nine innings as opposed to starters’ 8.6.

Look out, Mendoza Line!

The industry-wide batting average stood at .242, a 4 percent drop from last year’s .252. All of that can’t be attributed to the increase in strikeouts, so how else to explain it?

Shifts appear to be part of the puzzle. As per Sports Info Solutions, defensive shifting was up 35 percent from last year through Thursday, and those shifts have proven more effective, leading to outs on 77 percent of grounders or bunts. Over the prior four seasons, on the fewer shifts, defenses converted 75 percent of those balls into outs.

Don’t get too bummed about returns to 1968 levels of offense, though. The MLB batting average stood at .230 on Aug. 9 and has climbed slowly and steadily since. It appears the batters are catching up to the pitchers, in part because so many pitchers are getting hurt.

From mashed balls to M*A*S*H

Through Thursday, Day 29 of this season, teams had used the injured list 146 times for a total of 1,461 missed days. Last year at Day 29? Ninety-three times and 1,280 days. Even accounting for the expanded rosters, that’s quite a jump.

The predominant theory, and the most sensible one, is that the shutdown and quick ramp-up resulted in a flurry of ailments. One panel member pointed to relievers in particular being hurt by these developments — whereas a starting pitcher could more easily replicate his routines (a “start” every five days, then a throw day and run day in between) during the shutdown, a reliever thrives on steady game work that comes with a month of scrimmages.

A second panel member observed that the empty stands could mess with pitchers, who can’t energize as they normally would then must summon something extra when they get in a jam. That something extra could lead to extra downtime.

With so many arms down, look for relievers to be the most cherished and dealt commodity with the Aug. 31 trade deadline nearing. The Phillies and Red Sox kicked that off Friday with the swap relocation of Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from Boston to Philadelphia.

The long and short of it

Through Thursday, the average nine-inning game had gone in the wrong direction from last year’s record-high 3:05:35 to 3:07:50. All-caps reaction: YEESH! The good news? The rash of COVID-19 postponements begat the beauty of the seven-inning doubleheader, an amazing thing. Make all games seven innings by 2022 and watch that average time of game sink like membership at your local gym.

COVID

A bubble just wasn’t going to work for baseball’s regular season, and MLB learned from its early mistake with the Marlins to be more proactive and cautious when a positive test emerges. The schedule/competitive integrity is problematic, with the Cardinals having to play so many doubleheaders and possibly not playing all 60 games.

As for bubbles, if MLB can reach the postseason, odds are strong — let’s call it 95 percent likely — of multiple bubbles being established to limit travel and the possibility of outbreaks. The two most likely locals are Southern California, where teams can rotate among Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium and PETCO Park, and Texas, where Minute Maid Park and Globe Life Field as well as possibly the Rangers’ old stadium (Globe Life Park in Arlington — yes, it’s confusing) can host.

People are watching

If there’s any silver lining from the ginormous revenue lost to empty stands, it’s that commissioner Rob Manfred need not answer questions about attendance figures, which have dropped each year since 2013 (thanks, Baseball-Reference.com).

That leaves eyeballs as the only tangible measure, and baseball has plenty of positive news, if not universally so, to report:

  • Nationally, ESPN reports ratings for game telecasts are up 29 percent, from an average of 930,000 last year to 1,203,000 viewers. TBS reports a healthy 18 percent increase for its games. Fox and FS1, on the other hand, are down, the latter victimized by not having exclusive games.
  • Locally, the YES Network says the average viewers per game are at 299,000, a nice improvement from last year’s 271,000.
  • Though Mets games are down, perhaps a byproduct of their slow start, SNY reports an 83 percent rise in the critical 18-34 demographic. Regional sports networks throughout the sport are tracking similar gains among the youths.

Culture changes

Really, stunningly, baseball has shined the most in setting examples for others to follow in this COVID, post-George Floyd world. Beyond the embracing of Black Lives Matter and supporting those players who choose to kneel during the national anthem, the teams and players showed they weren’t messing around when the Indians demoted valuable pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac for violating MLB’s health and safety protocols, and putting their teammates at risk for the coronavirus. And when Plesac attempted to blame the media for turning a molehill into the mountain, he was met with a resounding, “Nope, this was a mountain.”

Throw in the Reds’ outrage when their longtime broadcaster Thom Brennaman uttered a homophobic slur when he thought he was off the air. And on a matter less vital to the world but telling of the game’s evolution, when Padres stud Fernando Tatis Jr. got scolded by both his own manager Jayce Tingler as well as Rangers skipper Chris Woodward for swinging at a 3-and-0 pitch with his team up by seven runs, Tatis Jr. received a groundswell of support from people both inside and outside the game.

Very encouraging stuff all around. More than anything, it might make this venture meaningful and memorable.

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