What is the 2020 Major League Baseball season going to look like? Well, nothing you've ever seen before, obviously. The season will only be 60 games long. It will be played in the midst of a global pandemic. The NL will have the DH. Extra inning rules are changed. Roster limits are changed. Some high-risk players may choose not to participate. We can't treat it like a normal season, because it isn't. While we keep one eye on the field, we keep another on the global health situation. You can't have one without the other.
That all means that this season is going to be ever so weird, and not all of that weirdness is going to be good. But a lot of it will be, or at least might be. Let's touch on eight of the most interesting and unusual things you'll see this year.
1) The sacrifice bunt is going to disappear.
This one is so interesting to us that we went and wrote a whole separate article on it, so please go take a look at that. But here's the short version, anyway: In 2019, there were only 776 sacrifice bunts, or .16 per team game. That's the lowest in history, and new lows have been set regularly each year for many years now. You don't need us to tell you that sac bunts are not cool.
But, as you might expect, most of them come from pitchers -- 56%, to be exact, in 2019. Guess who won't be hitting in 2020? Pitchers. Not in National League games, not in games where AL clubs are visiting NL parks, not anywhere, ever. (They can still pinch-hit, to be sure, but that's unlikely.) So long, more than half of an already record-low number of sac bunts.
As we got into in detail in the fuller piece, it's not just that pitchers can't hit, even though they can't. They can't really bunt, either, contrary to the popular belief that a bunt attempt is a guaranteed win. Remember, you might be envisioning that perfectly placed bunt to move the runner along, but what's really going to be gone is a lot of, well, this:
2) Some starter is going to go an entire season undefeated -- and others, winless.
Over a 60-game season, with a traditional five-man rotation, you'd expect a starter to receive 12 starts. Obviously, nothing about this is going to be traditional, and maybe you'll see aces squeeze in some more on short rest later on, but let's go with a dozen for now. What can happen over 12 starts?
That's easy enough to look up, so let's check back on 2019, and see how many starters made it a dozen consecutive starts without a loss, and ... oh, wow. It happened 14 times, if we exclude Ryne Stanek's opener situation. Gerrit Cole lost on May 22 and then not again for the rest of the season, a streak of 22 starts. Stars like Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer, and Mike Clevinger had streaks of 12 or more games without a loss. Not-stars like Wade Miley and Zach Davies did, too. This is going to happen.
And what about the other side? What about a dozen starts without a single win? That happened 17 non-opener times, and again, it's a mix of stars (Jack Flaherty and Yu Darvish) and non-stars (David Hess and Peter Lambert). This is going to happen, too. Some poor starting pitcher is going to enter his 12th and final start of the season on Sept. 25 or so with the big goose egg next to his name. Count on it.
3) The strikeout rate will go down, finally. Probably. By a little.
We set a new record for strikeout rate pretty much every year -- 23% in 2019, up from 18% in 2009, and 16.4% in 1999 -- and the reasons why are clear: Pitchers are nastier than ever, velocity keeps going up, and no one gets to face a tired starter 130 pitches deep for the fourth time through a lineup anymore. The only way this changes is if life gets harder on pitchers.
Well, it's about to, in the NL, anyway. No longer will NL pitchers get to the bottom of the lineup and get the breather offered by facing the opposing starter. You already know that pitchers strike out more than regular hitters do, but let's just list this out to be sure.
2019, pitchers hitting: 43.5% K rate
2019, non-pitchers hitting: 22.4% K rate
Another way to say that is that pitchers took 2.7% of all plate appearances, but were responsible for 5.2% of all strikeouts. Obviously, there's more to strikeouts than just this; we don't know how effective pitchers on the mound will be after this incredibly long offseason. But just in the terms of "removing the worst batters from the equation," we might not see quite as many whiffs.
Speaking of which ...
4) The 8th hitter in the NL is no longer going to get pitched around.
"Pitch around, or intentionally walk, the eighth hitter to get to the pitcher batting," goes the age-old wisdom.
It's arguable that this is actually the right strategy, because by doing this, you cost yourself the chance of getting the eighth hitter out and having the pitcher lead off the next inning, but it's clear this has been a go-to move forever. Just look at the walk rate of the top eight spots in the lineup, split by league, over the last three years. The largest gap is at the eight spot.
And if that's happening because there aren't any pitchers batting, you know what else is going to happen?
5) So long, pinch-hitters.
Okay, not entirely. There are still going to be platoon matchups, or a star hitter taking the day off coming in to take a high-leverage late-inning swing. You'll still hear the PA announcer intone, "Now hitting for the shortstop, number 24," etc. But you know who is most often being hit for in the first place, right? Pitchers. Obviously.
Over the last three seasons in games with the DH available, there were 3,676 pinch-hit appearances. Over the last three seasons in games without the DH available, there were 13,027 pinch-hit appearances. So that's about three-and-a-half times as many pinch-hitters in games without the DH, and we don't need to tell you where those are coming from, do we?
We do not. Let's do it anyway. Over the last three years, in games without the DH, the pitcher's spot was hit for 10,687 times ... or about 82% of all pinch-hitting appearances in those games, and 64% of all pinch-hitting appearances in all games. Those are gone now, and that's maybe bad news for someone like San Diego's Greg Garcia, who by far has the most pinch-hitting appearances since 2017, with 164. (On the other hand: maybe he can get some DH time now.)
And if there are fewer pitchers hitting in the NL, you know what might else happen?
6) The NL could be the higher-scoring league for the first time in nearly five decades.
Guess when the last time the NL outscored the AL? Go ahead, guess. If it was "not really at all since the AL got the DH" you'd be right, or close to it. (The AL got the DH in 1973; the NL slightly outscored them in '74, but not once in the 45 seasons since.)
That is almost entirely due to the fact that pitchers were taking up so many low-value plate appearances in the NL, which has been enough to overcome the fact that the NL has Coors Field, which is almost always the highest-scoring ballpark.
Could that change in 2020? We took a spin over to the FanGraphs projected standings, which have been updated to account for the 60-game season and the NL DH, and guess what they say: The AL is projected for 4.82 runs/game. The NL? 4.91. It could happen.
7) Home field advantage may or may not be an advantage.
This almost never changes. Home teams won 52.9% of their games in 2019, and the average dating all the way back to integration in 1947 is 53.8%. There has never once been a season where the home team didn't win more than half the games, and you have to go all the way back to 1917's .506 home winning percentage to come even close. You'll get small movement around that 53% number, but it's safe to say that the home team has a slight 53/47 advantage in baseball.
But why? The advantage of batting last certainly plays a role, and that won't change this year. But ... is it that, or the comfort of one's own bed, or not having had to travel into town the night before, or the roar of the crowd in your favor, or the chances of getting more favorable calls? The correct answer is probably "some combination of all of the above," but in a world where fans won't be in attendance for some or all of the season -- and almost certainly won't be packed into a full house at any point -- we're about to find out how much this matters.
There's no one right answer to this, of course. But there have been some studies done to try to figure it out. One, for example, noted that the home team got slightly more full count calls going their way. A 2016 FanGraphs analysis suggested that such an unconscious effect could account for "roughly 70 percent of home-field advantage."
Without fans, does that still hold true? For the first time, we'll have an opportunity to see.
8) You might see a true rarity: A player skipping the Minors entirely.
This has only happened 21 times, and not at all in more than a decade, since Mike Leake went right from Arizona State to the Reds back in 2010. Even that came with a caveat, because while Leake never pitched in the Minors after being drafted in '09, he did pitch in the Arizona Fall League first.
Then again, if we're talking about caveats, the fact there potentially might not be Minor League baseball this year due to the pandemic certainly qualifies. That being the case, several teams added top prospects and 2020 Draft picks to their 60-man player pools, in hopes of at least getting them some practice reps. But it's not out of the question that in the right situation, one or more of them make it up to the big team.
Who? It won't be a high schooler. It's probably more likely to be a pitcher than a hitter, because you can always make room for another arm. Teams out of contention may be less likely to bother. Our guess: Cubs lefty Burl Carraway, described as "a fast mover" by Cubs vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz, because you generally don't draft a reliever that high unless you think he really can help you pretty soon -- and the Cubs expect to be in the race.
This is going to be the oddest season in baseball history, of course, at least until the next one. If it's not the baseball you're used to, well, the state of the world has a lot to say about that. For our part, we're going to hope for the best. We're going to revel in the weirdness. It might be all we have.