The 2020 Major League Baseball season, upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, was delayed by nearly four months. The typical 162-game scheduled ultimately was shortened to 60 games, and teams played in empty ballparks due to health and safety protocols.
So as Opening Day 2021 approached, fans had many questions, such as, “Is baseball coming back in 2021?” and "Will MLB allow fans in stadiums?" among other things. To help with that, here is a complete guide to everything you need to know about the 2021 MLB season.
Opening Day of the 2021 season arrived on April 1, with 26 of the 30 teams taking the field and producing an action-packed day of baseball that included a number of thrilling moments. (Two more teams, the Red Sox and Orioles, were rained out but began their season on April 2. The opening series between the Nationals and Mets was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests).
MLB and COVID-19
Last year, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic shut down Spring Training in mid-March and delayed Opening Day. The 2020 season did not begin until late July, and teams played a 60-game schedule, adhering to MLB's strict COVID rules. They then embarked upon an expanded postseason, with the field widened from 10 teams to 16.
Nearly a year later, the pandemic persists, although ongoing vaccinations -- including many at Major League ballparks -- are providing hope. However, COVID-19 will continue to affect the MLB schedule in 2021, especially early in the season. That extends to both fans (in terms of how many are allowed to attend games) and players (who once again have to abide by health and safety protocols).
MLB Rule Changes 2021
As mentioned, the expanded postseason we saw in 2020 is not returning in 2021. But what about other rules changes?
• The universal DH also is out for 2021 after debuting last year. That means the DH will only be used in AL ballparks, while pitchers are back to hitting in NL ballparks. On Opening Day, Arizona's Madison Bumgarner -- perhaps the most accomplished hitting pitcher of his generation -- celebrated with a long double.
• Two other rules that were implemented in 2020 in an effort to minimize the time spent at the ballpark will return in 2021. First, doubleheaders will once again feature seven-inning games. Also, MLB's extra-innings rule is back, meaning that beginning in the 10th, a runner will be placed on second base to begin each half-inning.
• Rosters once again feature 26 players, after expanding in 2020. Roster size will increase to 28 players in September. There will not be a limit to how many pitchers can be on a team's roster.
• Clubs may bring a "Taxi Squad" of up to five players on all road trips, in order to have reinforcements available in the event of injuries or COVID-related issues.
The regular season, All-Star Game and postseason
Until last year, there were 162 games in an MLB season. The plan is for that to be true again in 2021, with the league sticking to its previously released schedule, which runs from April 1 through October 3. Unlike during the abbreviated 2020 campaign, clubs will not be limited to playing opponents from the same region (West, Central, East).
Each of the 30 teams has announced its plans regarding attendance for early-season games, something that depends on local policies and team rules. On Opening Day, for example, there was a crowd of 10,850 at Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees face the Blue Jays, and a crowd of 20,570 at Coors Field to see the Rockies take on the defending-champion Dodgers. Stay tuned to MLB.com and each club’s site for more details, as policies continue to evolve throughout the year.
The 2021 All-Star Game remains scheduled for July 13. However, MLB announced on April 2 that it is relocating the game from Atlanta's Truist Park. The same goes for the MLB Draft, which is scheduled to be a part of the All-Star festivities for the first time. A new host city has yet to be announced.
The 2021 postseason schedule is not yet official. While the playoffs were expanded from 10 to 16 teams for 2020, that agreement was for one year only. The league and the players' union did not reach a new agreement regarding expanded playoffs for this year. In the absence of such a pact, the playoffs will once again feature five-team fields in both the AL and NL and begin with win-or-go-home Wild Card Games in both leagues.
The 2021 Minor League season
One effect of the pandemic was that the 2020 Minor League season was wiped out completely, as each team instead ran its own alternate training site in order to maintain a ready supply of roster replacements and provide hands-on instruction to some prized prospects.
A restructured, streamlined version of the Minor Leagues will return in 2021, but not right away. MLB informed teams on March 2 that, for safety reasons, the start of the Triple-A schedule will be pushed back about a month, to May 4. Lower levels also are expected to begin at around the same point. In the meantime, MLB clubs are once again operating alternate training sites.
When the Minors do get underway, things will look a bit different, as MLB announced recently that each level will be a testing ground for rule changes. The goal of the program is to gauge the effect of the changes on issues such as the number of balls put in play, the pace and length of games and player safety. Among the rules: larger, less slippery bases (at Triple-A), restrictions on infield positioning (Double-A) and a 15-second pitch clock (in the Low-A West). The results of these changes will be studied to determine whether they merit consideration for future adoption in the Majors.
Free agency and transactions
While the offseason got off to a slow start, most of the top free eventually signed prior to Opening Day. That includes reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer (Dodgers), center fielder George Springer (Blue Jays), catcher J.T. Realmuto (Phillies), second baseman DJ LeMahieu (Yankees) and left fielder Marcell Ozuna (Braves). There also were some blockbuster trades, including the Padres’ deals for pitchers Yu Darvish (Cubs), Blake Snell (Rays) and Joe Musgrove (Pirates), the Mets’ acquisition of shortstop Francisco Lindor and pitcher Carlos Carrasco (Indians), and the Cardinals swap for third baseman Nolan Arenado (Rockies).
With that said, some notable players remain on the free-agent market even with the regular season underway, including starting pitchers Rick Porcello and Cole Hamels.
Spring also tends to be a time when teams and players agree to contract extensions, as players often do not want to be involved in negotiations once the regular season begins. MLB saw one huge deal in late February, with the Padres inking superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year pact. Then, shortly before Opening Day, Lindor and the Mets agreed to a 10-year extension to prevent him from hitting the open market this coming offseason.