High-Tech Contact Tracing, Vaccines, and Runners on Second in Extras: A Dive Into the 2021 Health and Safety Protocols

They’re baaaack. If you didn’t get enough of the runner-on-second in extra innings rule or the seven-inning doubleheader games that were introduced at the major league level in 2020, fear not, because they’re part of the package of health and safety protocols agreed to between Major League Baseball and the Players Association for this coming season. Those two breaks with tradition, which received mixed reviews from fans but surprisingly favorable ones in other quarters, were adopted in an effort to reduce the amount of time players and other personnel spend at the ballpark and thus lower their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Their continuation is the most noticeable from among a comprehensive set of practices designed to build upon what the league and players learned in completing the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, both from their own experience and in watching how other leagues completed their seasons.

Developed as a collaboration between the league and the union, and in consultation with medical experts, infectious disease specialists, and experts from other leagues, the agreement keeps major league baseball on track to open spring training on February 17 and the regular season on April 1. It was finalized on Monday night, though it’s subject to adjustment depending upon the circumstances related to the pandemic — including, hopefully, the relaxation of some practices as conditions improve due to mass vaccinations. Most notable among the new rules are wearable technology for the purposes of contact tracing as well as potential fines and even suspension for players who violate protocols, and limited access to in-game video. Left out is the fate of the universal designated hitter, which last year was included within the health and safety protocols but which MLB is intent on reclassifying as an economic matter. Both that and an expanded playoff structure, two issues the league attempted to tie together in previous negotiations, could still be revisited before the start of the season.

Prior to 2020, the extra-innings rule and seven-inning doubleheader games had both been used in the minor leagues to varying degrees. Their adoption not only was intended to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus but to preventing pitching staffs from being overtaxed, particularly within the context of making up games postponed due to weather or health and safety matters.

The extra-innings rule calls for each half-inning after the ninth to begin with a runner on second base, creating an immediate level of urgency and increasing the chances that extra-innings games end more quickly. In that regard, the rule did what it was supposed to do. As I noted in November while polling FanGraphs readers on their reception of last year’s rules changes, extra-inning games averaged 10.29 innings in 2020, down from 11.14 in ’19 and 11.04 in ’18. The percentage of games going past 11 innings dipped to 0.7%, down from 2.3% in 2019 and 2.8% in ’18. More than three-quarters of our readers who participated in the poll (the full results of which are here) did not want to see the rule retained.

The seven-inning doubleheader game rule, which actually wasn’t put in place until August 1 of last season, was necessitated by the number of makeup games created by COVID-19-related postponements. A total of 110 shortened doubleheader games were played — 55 doubleheaders, about one per day from the time the rule was introduced through the end of the season, with the Cardinals (22) leading the way. Per the Associated Press, the total of 56 doubleheaders (including one played under pre-pandemic rules on July 28) was the most since 1984, when 76 were played as part of a full 162-game season. About 12% of games were part of doubleheaders, the highest percentage since 1978 (13.6%). Just over two-thirds of our poll participants did not want to see the rule retained, but they were collectively much less passionate about this change, pro or con, than the extra-innings rule.

As for everything else in the 108-page agreement (a copy of which FanGraphs has obtained), it’s a lot, governing everything from the protocol for covered individuals (players, coaches, managers, umpires, and essential staff) in the days prior to reporting to spring training to the potential use of neutral sites in the postseason, which was a first for MLB in 2020. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has a detailed run of the Operations Manual’s key points here, and MLB outlined it here while releasing a more concise memo that hits the highlights:

What follows here is my own breakdown of the agreement, though there are far more details than can be digested even in this format.

Health and safety

As with last year, a Joint COVID-19 Health and Safety Committee consisting of one representative apiece from MLB and the MLBPA and one physician appointed by each side will oversee the day-to-day management of testing and other protocols. Each of the 30 teams will appoint an Infection Control Prevention Coordinator and, following up on one of last year’s in-season additions, a Compliance Officer (Assistant GM or above in seniority) responsible for monitoring and enforcing teams’ adherence to the protocols. Clubs are now subject to discipline for failing to monitor and enforce compliance; everybody’s been through this once and ought to know better.

For covered individuals, the process starts with observing a mandatory five-day quarantine before reporting to camps and undergoing intake testing, which includes a temperature check, PCR test and rapid antibody test. Testing for covered individuals will be conducted at least every other day from spring training through the end of the regular season for all personnel, and through the end of the postseason for those whose teams are still participating. Individuals who test positive will be required to isolate for at least 10 days and be cleared by the Joint Committee before returning to play.

Family and household members will have voluntary access to expanded testing as well. MLB is again offering “charitable testing” to healthcare workers, first responders, youth organizations, and “other members of MLB communities,” though as the New York Daily News‘ Bradford Davis reported last September, the league did not deliver as promised, so this bears watching. New for this year is that players and staff will have access to mental health and well-being resources throughout the season.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 are voluntary but will be strongly encouraged, with educational programming presented to all covered individuals and made available to their families and household members. The league and the union will work with public health authorities as to the availability and timing of vaccinations, though covered individuals may be vaccinated if otherwise eligible under applicable regulations, such as those based on age or elevated risk.

One thing I find puzzling is that neither MLB’s press release nor the outline at MLB.com mention of the importance of vaccinations, though the Operations Manual has a section devoted to them as well as several other references. Quite simply, nothing MLB does will help to restore normalcy to the game to the extent that getting players and other personnel vaccinated will. As the Manual puts it, “The development, authorization, and distribution of multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is a critical advancement in the parties’ efforts to promote and protect the health and safety of all Covered Individuals who are subject to these protocols, and for the health and welfare of the public at large.” Tiptoeing around that with the rollout of this policy does the game a disservice.

Players and other personnel are required to wear face coverings fully covering the nose and mouth at all times in the dugouts and bullpens, except for pitchers and catchers warming up in the bullpen; those coverings are not required on the field. After two written warnings (yeesh, two?), violators will be fined $150 per incident; the fines will be donated to charities. Teams will appoint at least one Facemask Enforcement Officer.

Flagrant or habitual violations, such as arguing with an umpire for a prolonged period without a mask, will be subject to discipline beyond the warnings and fines. Fighting is strictly prohibited, with violators subject to severe discipline. “The danger of inciting a close gathering will be considered an aggravating circumstance for any onfield discipline,” according to the Operations Manual. As with last year, unsportsmanlike conduct is prohibited as well. Players or managers who come within six feet of umpires or opponents for the purposes of argument or altercation are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.

Spitting is again prohibited in all club facilities, including on the field. The infamous “wet rags” of yesteryear’s agreement — permissible for pitchers to carry in their back pockets for use when in need of moisture “in lieu of licking their fingers” — are gone.

Contact tracing

MLB and the union have made major changes here, based not only on advice from public health experts but also their own experience and those of other leagues. Covered individuals are now required to wear Kinexon contact tracing devices (wristbands or lanyards) at club facilities and during club activities including travel. Via Sporttechie’s Joe Lemire, NBA and NFL players wear Kinexon SafeZone proximity sensors, which compute the distance between individuals as well as the duration they’re in proximity, so if somebody tests positive, the data about whom they’ve been around is available. The devices can also flash or sound an alarm if individuals get too close to one another.

To alleviate the understandable privacy concerns, the data gleaned from this can only be used for the purposes of tracing potential exposures, and can’t be shared with or used by teams, the league, or any third party for any other purpose, including for the purposes of disciplining a player. After 21 days, the data will be deleted and destroyed on a rolling basis.

According to the Operations Manual, “Repeated failure to wear the devices or repeated failure to return the devices to the Kinexon device docking station may be a basis for discipline.”

Code of conduct

Where last year’s agreement left each team to determine its own code of conduct for off-field behavior, this year, there’s a league-wise code prohibiting certain activities. Covered individuals are subject to discipline, including suspension and forfeiture of salary for time spent away from the team while in mandatory self-isolation or quarantine resulting from violations.

For spring training, the regular season, and the postseason (where applicable), covered individuals are prohibited from any indoor gatherings of 10 or more people. They’re also banned from indoor restaurants, bars and lounges, casinos and gaming venues, fitness and wellness centers, and entertainment venues as well as any activities prohibited by state and local governments. During spring training, covered individuals are quarantined except for club-directed baseball activities, travel, outdoor activities where government or industry guidelines on COVID-19 safety and prevention are being followed, and essential activities (grocery shopping, medical care, take-out dining); children may attend school and school-related activities, and household members may attend non-MLB jobs. Outdoor dining will be allowed (except for at bars, lounges, casinos, etc.) as of March 1, subject to approval by the Joint Committee.

During road trips, covered individuals aren’t allowed to leave team hotels except for activities along the aforementioned lines, subject to approval by the team’s compliance officer. They may not meet with anyone who’s not part of the team’s traveling party (recall that an incident along these lines last August led to Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac being quarantined, placed on the restricted list, and sent to the team’s alternate training site, costing them service time).

For teams participating in the postseason, another quarantine bubble is possible, though it will require the consent of the union.

Spring Training

With regards to spring training, teams will be limited to bringing 75 players and 75 staffers to their complexes. That suggests later report dates for minor leaguers and a later start to the minor league season, though those do not appear to be spelled out in this agreement.

Because there will also be fewer pitchers in camp and stretched out, early spring games (from February 27 through March 13) will have relaxed rules, with games shortened to five or seven innings if both managers agree, and defensive managers allowed to end an inning prior to three outs being recorded provided a plate appearance has ended and the pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches. As Baseball America’s JJ Cooper explained:

From March 14 onward, spring training games will be nine innings, unless both managers agree to seven innings. Substitution rules for all spring training games will be relaxed to allow for re-entry of pitchers, which could in theory reduce the number of pitchers needed to complete a game but has the potential to overtax those re-used pitchers’ bodies.

Rosters

Roster-wise, teams have to submit their 75-player lists by 4:00 PM ET on February 12. Regular season active rosters will be 26 players until September, when they will expand to 28 players (29 for September doubleheaders). There is no limit on the number of pitchers a team can carry, or on position players pitching — two rules that were initially adopted for the 2020 season but scrapped as part of the COVID-19-related health and safety protocols. Beyond the active roster, up to 28 players can either assigned to Triple-A affiliates or an alternate training site. Players on the Injured List can either remain with the club or be assigned to the alternate site, though they won’t count against the 28-player maximum.

The new rules expand taxi squads from three players to five, including at least one catcher. As with last year, those players will travel on all road trips and are permitted to work out with teams but can’t be in uniform and in the dugout during games. They won’t receive major league service time but will get the MLB allowance of $110 per day while on the road.

In addition to the standard 10- and 60-day Injured Lists (the latter of which has been restored to its stated length as opposed to 45 days during the pandemic-shortened season), there will again be a COVID-19 Related Injured List that has no minimum or maximum length of placement time. Placement on the list does not require a positive test and should be used for players with confirmed exposure or requiring isolation until it’s clear that they’re not infected. By the way, the 7-day Concussion Injured List still exists, but as with last year, there’s no mention of it in the Operations Manual.

In one significant new roster-related wrinkle, teams that experience outbreaks of COVID-19 and need to add players to the active roster will get some additional flexibility. Those teams won’t have to go through the process of optioning, waiving, or outrighting the added players off the 40-man roster when those that they replaced return from the COVID-19 Related Injured List. As Cooper wrote for BA last year in connection with the Marlins’ outbreak, which saw the team picking players off the waiver wires and fringes of other rosters, “It makes no sense to add a prospect as a fill-in because sending the player back down starts their options.” The threshold for what constitutes an outbreak isn’t defined within the Operations Manual beyond “a significant number,” and the relaxation of the roster rules for such instances is at the sole discretion of Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Scheduling, venues, and fans

As with last season, MLB has the right to relocate teams to neutral sites, spring training sites or other teams’ home ballparks if it’s necessary to comply with governmental restrictions or the completion of the schedule. MLB can postpone games for health and safety reasons but not for competitive ones provided a club has enough players available via its taxi squad and alternate site to replace those unavailable due to COVID-19.

The league can also conduct all or part of the postseason at neutral sites, and delay the start of the postseason if it’s necessary to complete the regular season schedule. Again, the structure of the postseason is not addressed here but could be revised from the existing format (three division winners and two Wild Card teams per league) via a separate agreement which, presumably, would also outline the conditions under which tiebreaker games to determine playoff qualification would be played; last year, they would only have been played to determine whether a team was in or out, and not for the purposes of seeding.

As for the public attending games, “Clubs may permit fan attendance at games with the approval of MLB and relevant local authorities.” That’s the same language from last year’s Operations Manual, though no paying fans were allowed until the League Championship Series and World Series, and then at reduced capacities.

In-game rules

Moving beyond the aforementioned rules regarding extra innings and seven-inning games for doubleheaders (and the in-limbo status of the DH), the use of communal video terminals is prohibited, but during games, players can access tablets under the Dugout iPad program that can be loaded with content before and after games. New for 2021 is that via those dugout iPads, players will have access to in-game video again. Recall that many players who had subpar seasons, such as Javier Báez and Christian Yelich, pointed to the loss of in-game video as factors in their season-long struggles; without it, they found it harder to make adjustments in game, or to confirm that pitches they were seeing were balls or strikes. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris had a good piece on the topic last month.

Note that while access to in-game video is being restored, it will be in a format that cannot be used to steal catchers’ signs — fallout, of course, from the illegal sign-stealing for which the Astros and Red Sox were penalized. Whether that means the catcher’s hand will be blurred or blacked out isn’t specified in the Operations Manual.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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bglick4
Member
bglick4

I wonder if the lack of emphasis on vaccines is a PR move. I mean, if it looks like a bunch of healthy young men are getting a vaccine to play a game while people in high risk groups can’t, the league is going to look bad.

D-Wiz
Member
Member
D-Wiz

Yeah, while I’m the last one to give MLB the benefit of the doubt, there does seem to be a risk of emphasizing the vaccine so much that they seem to be arguing MLB players should get it before the rest of the (potentially more vulnerable) general public. But on the other hand the messaging shouldn’t really be that complicated, whether the target audience is baseball players or anyone else: Get the vaccine as soon as it’s your turn in line!

tung_twista
Member
tung_twista

Also, we know Simmons is pretty openly anti-vax.
If MLB playerbase is representative of Americans, the number of players who won’t get voluntarily vaccinated is likely to be in triple digits.
Given how sensitive athletes are about what goes inside their bodies, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a high share of both strongly pro-vaccine and strongly anti-vaccine than the public.
MLB probably thinks it is not worth it to ram it in against players’ wishes.

bglick4
Member
bglick4

They travel all over the place and are in close contact with others so, the seem to be high risk of getting the virus – meaning there’s some justification to putting them towards the front of the line. That being said, the risk of harm is low and, once high risk people are vaccinated, they are, for the most part (though not entirely) only risking their own health by refusing. Maybe the league just doesn’t think this is a fight worth having. If they don’t require it, will we even know if players refuse it?