It’s been a mangled, peeps-in-the-chili baseball season, and anyone who tries to tell you different is either selling something, thinks the sky is green (not when it’s actually been orange), or is just clinging to one of the pillars of their life so desperately in order to believe that something, anything is normal that you’d better just let them have it. The season has been distorted for some because one team couldn’t resist licking doorknobs at a podunk casino, or going out to quarter-filled bars in Chicago, or whatever else caused teams to sit at home/lose important players. Injuries became season-enders that would normally have just been a few weeks and a minor-league rehab. Innings have been lopped off in the pursuit of some mythical “efficiency,” even though rosters were expanded for that exact reason. The whole purpose has been “let’s just get through it to say we did, and then they’ll give us our big checks in October. Oh, also, let’s make sure every team has 12 guys on the roster who can at least loosely claim to be pitchers.”
We don’t know what will stick out of this season, and the hope of that answer being “nothing” is almost assuredly forlorn. The DH in the National League will almost certainly stay. The worst part of this, the expanded playoffs, might as well stick around if Rob Manfred finally can realize his erotic dream of allowing his 30 bosses to never aim higher than the middle, with barely an effort to get out of the yacht barcalounger The Real American Dream!
The season was basically pointless, and if it wasn’t, it was certainly nothing resembling the norm. But if there’s one thing that we grizzled baseball viewers can cling to while peering through our self-inflicted malaise of bitterness, it’s that for once, and almost certainly only once, the actual playoffs will look like the baseball that we just watched for weeks.
At least it will once it gets through this maniacal three-game dice-toss that will kick off the MLB playoffs called “The Wild Card” round..
It took me a while to get to it, but much like the sport I still somehow claim is my favorite (and even I do that with a conviction that seems emptier by the day, but that might just be a product of watching this pod-person that has replaced Kris Bryant on a daily basis) I move slowly. There will be no off-days in the Division Series and the League Championship Series. Finally, something in this charred baseball landscape that makes me smile.
Maybe this wasn’t a problem that anyone else felt needed solving, but there was something inherently stupid that the games that actually decided who got banners and memories and who got regrets and boosted alcohol sales in their home base for years, didn’t resemble the games everyone had played for six months to get there. Yes, baseball isn’t like any other sport and probably needs to stop trying to be, but while playoff hockey, football, and basketball certainly see the intensity upped, the game itself is pretty much the same as you saw during the regular season. Sure, maybe you cut your fourth line’s ice-time by a percentage in hockey, or your rotation goes from nine to eight men, but how you used your team was still basically the same.
It wasn’t so in baseball, where never having to play more than three days in a row meant starters were cut off before a third-time through the order, or even a second-time, relievers could be used every single game if need be and/or for multiple innings, or starters were wheeled out of the pen a couple days after making their start. These were things you’d never, ever do in July, because you had a season to get through.
Sure, most would argue that it kept October baseball on a “best-vs-best” track, in that you’d get more of Max Scherzer staring down Jose Altuve than you would normally. And there’s nothing that baseball followers enjoy more than endlessly debating who should have been brought in for what in Game 3 for months, if not years, on end. Yes, these kinds of endless arguments are part and parcel of being a fan, but fear not, we’ll find something else to argue about.
And the pressure on managers, who basically spend six months making sure no one shits themselves on the field or in the dugout for six months — though with managers skewing younger and younger this is less of a concern now, but let’s not rule out Gabe Kapler — before suddenly having to be more tuned in than Belichick, for every pitch was a true test.
But it wasn’t how we figured out who was the best team over six months. The beauty, or at least the idea, was that 162 games were needed to see who had the best team. That meant your 4th and 5th starters had to take their normal turns. Your 11th and 12th relievers, and these days even deeper than that, had to take innings. Your bench guys have to rotate in once or twice a week and start, and have to contribute a hit here and there to pile up the wins that make the difference between getting a playoff spot or missing out. Everyone gets a turn. That’s baseball.
And then suddenly everything changed. The baseball season became more about qualifying for a tournament that wasn’t really the same.
The Nationals won a title while basically only using two relievers regularly and three starters all the time (and they paid the price for that this year). The 2018 Red Sox used three relievers basically as well, and then their starters again, whereas a pen that light in the regular season would have sunk them for sure. They didn’t have to solve their Craig Kimbrel problem with anything other than just wheeling Nate Eovaldi or Chris Sale back out there again. The Astros had only two or three relievers they could use, which would be fine if they could just throw every starter for seven innings. But only Justin Verlander averaged more than five innings per start.
Sure, some of baseball’s most dramatic October moments are a starter marching out of the pen unexpectedly. Actually, they’re Randy Johnson doing so, both in Game 5 against the Yankees in 1995 and Game 7 against the Yankees again in 2001 (god bless Unit). But those were elimination games, when rules can go out the window because there might not be a tomorrow. Getting to do this in Game 2 warps everything.
The Dodgers aren’t a juggernaut simply because the top of the roster is that much better than everyone’s. Pretty much every team save the Pirates has a star or two. What turns them into something unholy is that they sport Julio Urias or Dustin May in rotation spots a lot of teams can only produce a guy that was holding a squeegee or a pitchfork a week ago. Their pen has nine guys with ERAs under 4.00. The playoffs come and suddenly that depth doesn’t really matter, they look more like everyone else, and this is why their trophy-case doesn’t have a recent Commissioner’s trophy in it at the moment. Essentially the team they built to be special for six months at a time has to change gears because the rules and rhythm change, which is why poor Clayton Kershaw is punted out to the pen and made to throw every three days because that’s what they feel forced to do. Even after we spent six months seeing that they’re clearly the best team.
With no off-days, lineup, rotation, and bullpen usage will return to normal, and resemble the game that teams have been built for, i.e. a regular season where you play every day. That’s how it should be. The whole team will actually have to contribute.
It won’t stick, of course. ESPN and TBS are not going to want to have to juggle four games per day every day for a week, or having their league championship series air in the afternoon at times. They prefer this staggered method that only sees four games on one day, a Saturday anyway, and possibly another if every Division Series goes four or five games. And that’s it. Every game gets its own slot basically.
But at least there will be one thing in this furshlugginer 2020 season that I can nod in agreement with.