Embrace the Weirdness: Five Ways to Make a 2020 Season Compelling

The 2020 season will be unlike any other we’ve seen before. Indeed, there may not even be a season. The COVID-19 pandemic has already altered baseball to an even greater degree than the World Wars did. While finding a way to resume play has become a rare point of common interest for MLB and the MLBPA, a contagious illness that spreads easily and is more dangerous than the seasonal flu presents a whole host of problems that need to be solved before a new Opening Day can be announced. Do you quarantine players? How long do you play without fans? What happens if a player tests positive in mid-August?

But let’s assume for a moment that the IHME model is on target. The model predicts that if we can keep up our current social distancing efforts (and the straggler states join in), the worst effects of the virus will be behind us by early-to-mid June. The return of baseball would be a welcome symbol of normalcy, and a baseball season that starts in July could largely be played without too many compromises other than the number of games. But I think it would be a mistake for baseball to just go back to the regular structure. The game will be returning against the backdrop of an international tragedy. In this dark time, baseball should focus on the enjoyable parts of the sport, even if things get a little…weird. 2021 can return to normal business, but let’s make 2020 fun.

United we stand, divided we Fall…Classic

Divisions have been a part of baseball for a half-century — even longer if you consider leagues to be de facto divisions. They’re a convenient way to group teams engaged in competition for playoff spots and to create additional meaningful races beyond simple seeding. But one of the problems with divisions is they just don’t make all that much sense in a severely shortened season. Whether the season is 80 or 100 or 120 games, it will provide less of an opportunity for teams to prove themselves superior to their division rivals. And the shorter the season, the less likely it is that a team will run away with a one-division league and make things boring.

So, for 2020, let’s axe the divisions. 15 teams per league, a balanced schedule, and the top X teams in each league advancing to the playoffs. Since seeding isn’t as much of an advantage in baseball as it is in other sports, and teams are closer to each other in quality, we can maintain some kind of bye situation for the first team or two in each league to make winning the league matter.

And the races would likely be extremely exciting. Over the last 10 seasons, only twice in 20 opportunities has an AL or NL team had at least a five-game lead on the rest of the league on July 1. For 2020, let’s focus more on the baseball and less on the endless traditional rivalries. Maybe we can hold off on a full round of contempt for the Astros until things are more normal in 2021?

Players Weekend? How about Players Year?

For something that people are supposed to watch and enjoy, baseball seems to have an endless case of the Very Seriouses. Baseball’s keepers love nothing more than reminding you just how much gravity everything has, from flipping a bat apparently defiling Babe Ruth’s grave and making the Statue of Liberty cry, to a panoply of unwritten, arbitrarily applied rules that are enforced mainly by hitting someone with a baseball.

Allowing a player to wear a wild set of cleats for an entire year, or watching a whole season of “Cookie” or “Phone Home” on the back of a jersey won’t end baseball. In fact, this kind of levity might help to leech off some of the sport’s surfeit of self-importance, and anything that makes players less anonymous to the general public ought to be welcomed.

An important caveat: please don’t bring back the black vs. white uniforms. Kids today play games like Fortnite and are used to a wide array of costumes. Nobody’s saving up virtual currency to make their characters look like lost salt or pepper shakers.

Can the traditional All-Star Game

The Home Run Derby is fun in all the ways the All-Star Game is not. There have always been proposals for baseball to do more “fun” events. For just one year, let’s make the All-Star Game a baseball carnival. Foot races, throwing competitions, precision hitting. Have an actual bat flip competition as part of some hitting challenge. Settle all the silly questions like who can eat more cheesesteaks than Chris Sale (it’s not like he’s pitching). If Formula 1 drivers can have online races and NBA players can hang around and host NBA2K tourneys, why can’t major leaguers? Hell, let them play Fortnite or whatever; a large percentage of them are doing that anyway.

40-Man rosters all season long

Yes, there are some significant service time issues to iron out with this one. Just do it. It seems even less likely that there will be meaningful minor league games this year than major league games. Give some of those players who would otherwise be on optional assignment and not have much to do actual playing time. Now, we don’t want the games to become marathons, so we’ll make it so that teams have to declare 25 active players and all uninjured players have to be on the roster for at least two games every calendar week.

Make MLB.TV free

MLB is already offering a lot of free baseball to viewers. As are other major sports leagues, movie channels, and websites that Dayton Moore doesn’t want the Royals players to know about.

Whenever baseball returns, we’ll have seen the longest period of people not watching baseball ever. So let’s make it as easy as possible for people to get back into (or start) the habit of following baseball. And use all possible carrots and sticks at the commish’s disposal to stop the blackouts for at least 2020. Is it really so bad to let a baseball fan in Iowa watch a Cardinals game online? Will the world end if Montana residents can watch Mariners games?

There will be plenty of time to short-sightedly try to wring every last penny out of baseball in 2021. If it returns in 2020, let’s make it about something else. Let’s make it about fun.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Is there a petition anywhere I can sign to fire Rob Manfred and put Dan in charge instead?