The first week of the 2020 MLB season has given us a little over a week’s worth of games. Well, a week’s worth minus something like fifteen postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that aside, there have been games going on for a week.
So, what have we learned?
Well, obviously, we learned that the league has no handle whatsoever on the pandemic. That it underestimated just how quickly the virus can work its way through a clubhouse and just how quickly the schedule they worked so hard to hammer out can be thrown out the window. As it is now, Major League Baseball is in full-on damage control/reaction mode, and we’re approaching a point where the competitive integrity of the season is at stake. To the extent it had any anyway, what with only 60 games being played and the usual division and playoff structures completely blown to bits.
But there was some baseball played in the past week too. And, though it’s still a vanishingly small number of games, we have learned and observed quite a few things. Some neat. Some not so neat. Let’s look at them, shall we?
The New Rules
There have, obviously, been loads of context changes and rules changes in the first week of the 2020 MLB season. Most notably the universal designated hitter and the new extra innings rules which places a runner on second base once you get past the ninth.
The DH hasn’t, at least as far as we can tell, been that big of a deal. Most of the people who complained about it to us before the season began have been quiet about it anyway. If anything it’s probably helped mask a more serious problem, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The extra innings rule has been fairly interesting in the first week of the 2020 MLB season. As we predicted, we have not seen many sacrifice bunt attempts to move that runner on second over to third. That’s a one-run strategy and one run doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Indeed, we’ve seen a number of extra innings games decided by several runs. On Thursday night we had one decided by five. We’ve had a walkoff grand slam and a walkoff bases-loaded triple. Starting the runner on second may not be your cup of tea, but it hasn’t been boring.
If Major League Baseball manages to keep this season afloat, we’re going to see two new rules in play: doubleheaders consisting of two seven-inning games and a 16-team postseason. We’ll reserve judgment on those things if and when we see them. Though we did examine who might benefit from the expanded playoffs.
Everyone expected the Yankees and the Dodgers to be the best teams in baseball in 2020. And, yes, they’re doing just fine, thank you, with the Dodgers leading the league in run differential heading into Friday night’s games and the Yankees standing at 4-1 atop the AL East. But there are three teams who have turned heads out of the gate worth noting: the Cleveland Indians, the San Diego Padres, and the Colorado Rockies.
Heading into play Friday evening, the Padres were 5-2 a +18 run differential. A big key for San Diego in the early going: plate patience. They’ve seen more pitchers per at bat than anyone in the league, lead all of baseball in walks and are second in on-base percentage, behind only the Phillies, who have not played a full schedule due to their COVID-related layoff.
The Indians are also 5-2 with a +9 run differential in the first week of the 2020 MLB season. Starting pitching has been their strong suit, with none of their starters having pitched fewer than six innings in a start. Ace Shane Bieber has started twice. He has struck out 27 batters in 14 innings and hasn’t allowed an earned run. Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac have all been strong as well. If you want to make it through the sprint that is the 2020 season, you had better have a well-rested pitching staff. At this rate the Indians’ bullpen isn’t going to break a sweat before October.
The Indians don’t have the best overall pitching staff in baseball so far, however. Nope. The quite surprising answer to that is the Colorado Rockies who, heading into play on Friday night, have a team ERA of 1.84. To be fair, they have played all of their games on the road. We’ll not get too excited until they’ve played a mile high up in the air. Still, it’s been a good sign for them to be getting strong early starts from Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland, each of whom we noted in the Rockies season preview will have to regain their 2018 form if the Rockies are going to have a chance to compete.
There are some bad teams who were expected to be bad like the Giants, the Pirates, the Tigers, and the Orioles.
As far as surprises, however, we have the Chicago White Sox, who were many people’s pick to make a big move in 2020. That big move may still come but for now they’re only 2-4 with a -9 run differential in the first week of the 2020 MLB season. Starting out their season against the defending division champ Minnesota Twins and then facing the shutdown rotation of the Indians hasn’t helped. They have the Royals on tap this weekend, however, so perhaps it’s time to right the ship.
Also raising eyebrows with a poor early start are the Reds, many people’s choice to win the NL Central, who began the season 2-4. Not helping that cause was the absence of Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel, each of whom were placed on the COVID injured list after experiencing symptoms, but each of whom have been reinstated.
A team seen as flawed — the Boston Red Sox — have been even more flawed in one way than expected. Their starting pitching fared poorly in the first week. The offense has bailed them out, but they are definitely in need of someone to step up in the rotation.
Strikeouts are spiraling out of control
It’s still early, obviously, and one can only give a given statistic so much weight to the first week of the 2020 MLB season. However, there is one thing happening thus far that is in line with clear trends which have been accelerating for years, so it’s likely not just a blip: strikeout insanity.
Major League batters are hitting a combined .230, which would be the lowest figure since before the DH went into effect if it held up. A full twenty-four percent of at bats have ended with a strikeout on the young season. Imagine what those numbers would look like if pitchers — who hit way below .230 collectively and who strike out nearly 50% of all of their at bats — were still in the lineup.
The batting averages will likely go up. The strikeout rate, we’re not too sure about that. The trends of nearly every pitcher being a hard-thrower, every batter swinging for the fences, and every umpire calling very low strikes are pretty well established at this point and they are making plate appearances all-or-nothing propositions. Maybe we’ll get a few more “alls” once the bats heat up, but the nothings — at bats ending in strikeouts — are likely not going away. Which is, frankly, kinda boring.
Pitcher injuries are a big problem
There’s another trend in the first week of the 2020 MLB season regarding pitching: pitcher injuries. We’ve had a load of them. So many that, if we make it until September, maybe you, me, or your mom will be pitching and I doubt that we could strike anyone out, even if we get that low strike.
A week into the season over 30 pitchers have been placed on the injured list with arm/back/muscle/elbow problems, including some of the game’s biggest names such as Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Miles Mikolas, and Alex Wood. Many have cited baseball’s erratic start-stop-and-start spring/summer training as a possible contributing factor. Given all of the cancellations we have seen so far, we’re going to have a lot of lost days off and a lot of doubleheaders. Even if the doubleheaders only last seven innings per game, a great many games in a short period of time is going to lead to a lot of tired arms. In light of that we fear that the current rash of pitcher injuries is only going to continue.
Everyone still hates the Astros
A common talking point between March and July was how lucky the Astros were to have the subject changed away from their sign-stealing scandal. Some suspected that, due to all of the upheaval in the world, it might be largely forgotten or, at the very least, ignored once games resumed.
Nah. The Dodgers — victims of the Astros’ sign-stealing in the 2017 World Series — played Houston in the second series of the season and it immediately got chippy, with Joe Kelly of the Dodgers throwing at Astros hitters and taunting them, leading to a benches-clearing incident and, subsequently, Kelly getting suspended for eight games. A few days later Astros owner Jim Crane gave an interview in which he lamented that everyone is still mad at the Astros and asking, rhetorically, what else they could possibly do to get the heat off of them.
The answer: likely nothing. Most people who aren’t Astros fans are still mad at the Astros and, we suspect, there will be more incidents involving them this year.
Those are all storylines of various amusement and interest, but really, they all pale in the first week of the 2020 MLB season compared to the path Major League Baseball is trying to cut through the pandemic. It’s not going well a week into the season. If things don’t turn around soon, there won’t be a full second week.