The good news is that there will be a baseball season. The pandemic jeopardized and then truncated last year’s schedule. Next year is an open question, because the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners expires Dec. 1. But the coronavirus has largely stayed away from spring training camps, and opening day for the 2021 season is nearly here.
“Being cognizant of what it took to navigate the 60-game season last year, and what the protocols were then as well as what they are now, it gave our guys a reference point,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ association, said in an interview Thursday, a week before the April 1 openers. “And they have taken on that responsibility and responded admirably to doing everything they can to keep the game on the field and to be able to play.”
The game on the field, though, will still include pitchers hitting in National League parks, just as it has in every season except 2020. It will be that way even though both players and owners want the universal designated hitter. The absence of the universal D.H. paints a gloomy portrait of the game behind the scenes, with neither side trusting the other.
The collateral damage in this cold war, inevitably, will be a pitcher’s getting hurt from hitting or running the bases.
“This is a health and safety issue,” the agent Scott Boras said on Thursday. “I want these owners to understand that you’re putting the game, and all the investment they have in pitchers, at major risk. Hamstrings, ankles, broken fingers — when you don’t run the bases and you haven’t bunted for over a year and a half, you’re asking elite athletes to do things they haven’t done.”
Boras continued: “If you’re doing all this stuff for Covid, and you’re doing all these things to protect the health and safety of the league, then this is a primary area. Because the reality of it is: This is going to cost more time and more injuries to players than Covid will.”
The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen, a Boras client who has quietly become one of the game’s better starters, was diagnosed this week with a hairline stress fracture in his right forearm, an injury that occurred during batting practice on March 10. Gallen is still able to throw but cannot use his curveball because of the injury and is likely to miss at least two weeks.
“How about Blake Snell?” Boras said, referring to another client, who was traded to San Diego from Tampa Bay in December. “He’s been in the American League his whole career. He goes to the National League, and now he’s going to get around five at-bats and then go into a major league season. With what he means to the Padres for the next three or four years? Come on.”
Snell is 0 for 8 in his career; Gallen is 2 for 19. Other pitchers who are vital to their teams’ futures will be hitting for the first time, even if only in interleague games.
“I don’t know if I’m looking forward to it,” the Detroit Tigers’ Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018, told MLB Network Radio this week. “I think pitchers hitting, this might be probably the last year of it. I think it would be cool to get an at-bat or two, but I’ll be excited when that’s over. I don’t think I’ve ever faced over 90, so I think that would be a pretty scary thing to experience.”
There is comedy value in putting an overmatched pitcher into the batter’s box, and strategic intrigue about when to pinch-hit. In rare cases, pitchers actually contribute with the bat: Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner has 19 career homers, and Houston’s Zack Greinke, who has nine career homers and nine steals, said this spring that the only milestone he cared about was getting 10 of each; the last pitcher to reach both career totals was Bob Gibson.
In the bigger picture, though, the injury risk isn’t worth it. How would a Mets fan like it if Jacob deGrom shattered his fingers on a bunt attempt? Imagine the reaction in Philadelphia if Aaron Nola pulled an oblique muscle lunging at a two-strike slider.
The Yankees reached the playoffs every season from 1995 through 2012 — except for 2008, when their best starter, Chien-Ming Wang, tore a ligament in his foot while running the bases in an interleague game. Up to that point in his career, Wang was 54-20 with a 3.79 earned run average. He stood to earn a fortune with another strong year or two, but he was never the same after the injury, with a 6.01 E.R.A. for the rest of his meandering career.
Again, there has always been inherent risk in the N.L. rules, and while the D.H. has been part of the A.L. game since 1973, no previous injuries to pitchers while hitting or running — to Wang, Randy Johnson, Adam Wainwright, Jimmy Nelson or others — brought about change. Only the pandemic could do that. The regional schedule for 2020, imposed to limit travel, meant that teams would play a higher percentage of interleague games. That, in turn, made it logical to use the D.H. exclusively.
Logic should prevail again, and if M.L.B. gave in on the issue before opening day, the union would eagerly accept.
“While recognizing there’s a week left in spring training, should the league decide to consider it, then we would have it in 2021,” Clark said on Thursday.
Major League Baseball reiterated in a statement that the universal D.H. had been implemented because of the unusual circumstances of the 2020 season and that while the league had done its best to come to a compromise on the issue for 2021, it was too late to change the rules for 2021.
“National League games have been always been played without the D.H. and will be no different this year,” the statement said. “We tried multiple times to make an agreement with the Players Association on the D.H. without success, and it would be unfair to clubs who have already set their rosters for the 2021 season to change the playing rules this close to Opening Day.”
M.L.B. did propose a universal D.H. to the union this off-season but made an expanded playoff format a requirement for the deal; the final proposal also would have pushed back opening day and reduced the schedule to 154 games (at full pay), with frequent doubleheaders. The union rejected the offer in February, and the 2019 format remains in place.
Last year’s playoff field expanded from 10 teams to 16, allowing the league to sell a new layer of content to television networks to make up for some lost revenue. While both sides would obviously benefit financially from a similar arrangement in 2021, the league needs union approval to do it.
That makes the expanded playoff format a valuable bargaining chip for the upcoming C.B.A. negotiations, at a time when the union may push for significant changes. The universal D.H., Boras believes, should be separate from those talks.
“This is not like TV for the playoffs,” he said. “That’s a different issue. This is a safety issue, and you have to stop putting it into an economic parameter, because you’re going to be liable for the fact that you put players at risk.”
The union, of course, is also taking a risk, calculating that the possible long-term benefits of a more favorable C.B.A. outweigh the short-term danger of making pitchers hit in N.L. parks in 2021.
Barring a late concession by either side, then, it’s back to the old days of pitchers hitting, and everyone — players, owners and fans alike — hoping they make it back to the mound intact.