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20 ways MLB in 2020 is like nothing we’ve ever seen before

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No assumption in baseball is more sacrosanct than this one: Lefty batters hit righty pitchers better, and righty batters hit lefty pitchers better. Hundreds of major league careers, and literally millions of managerial decisions, have depended on the reliability of so-called platoon advantages.

So in a consideration of just how normal baseball is or isn’t under pandemic rules, let’s start with that steadiest truth: One-third of the way through the 2020 season, the hitters’ platoon advantage is gone.

  • Pitchers’ advantage: .244 batting average, .738 OPS

  • Batters’ advantage: .238 batting average, .734 OPS

There has never been a season with anything close to a reverse split. The year with the smallest platoon advantage — 1950 — still saw batters produce about 10% more offense, or 35 points of OPS, when they had the edge. This year, through 25,000 plate appearances, it’s a slight reverse split. If you crave normalcy, it’s like a taunt.

This isn’t the only way that some of baseball’s core statistical trends are shaky this year. In the past century, the home team has won 54% of the time. This year, the home-field edge is nearly nothing: 50.6% through Tuesday, the lowest in more than a century. This year, batters are hitting .241 — the second-lowest average ever, ahead of only the infamous “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968.

These are three relatively shocking developments, but they probably tell three different stories about this strange, memorable, discomforting season. The first one, about the evaporated platoon advantage, is probably just statistical mischief created by the short season’s inherently small samples. The second one, about the collapsing home-field advantage, is a potentially illuminating revelation on how much home-field advantage is about the influence of fans in stands — though it might also be about the small sample. The third, about the low batting average, might be the small sample, might be about the lack of fans, might simply be a continuation of Normal Baseball trends that had already been pushing averages lower, or might be something else.

Saying what it all means is harder than ever, and there’s a question at the heart of it that’s especially hard to answer:

What exactly are we watching this year — and is it any good?


As I’ve watched baseball this year, I’ve been keeping a little log of everything pandemic-related that could be affecting how well the ballplayers are performing. This isn’t about things like the composition of the ball, which can tilt the edge toward pitchers or hitters but doesn’t affect anybody’s actual talent. I’m talking about things that would cause the median major leaguer this year to be better or worse. There are several dozen, some of which seem likely to raise the quality of play we see, some of which would hamper it.

The grind

1. Players will travel, on average, only about 8,000 miles this year, or about 130 miles per game. Last year, they traveled 34,000 miles per team, or 210 miles per game. A 2017 study found that jet lag impaired both offensive and defensive performance at the major league level, but this year few teams will have to hop more than a single time zone. The Brewers’ total travel is only longer than a single flight from Seattle to Miami would be.

2. The season will be considerably shorter, which — in theory — allows managers to use their better players more often, without having to worry about the cumulative effects of innings totals and the summer grind. To give one example: In 2019, there were 39 players who started every one of their club’s first 16 games, 10% of that season. This year, there are 53, not counting any Cardinals (who haven’t played 16 games).

3. The season will be considerably shorter, which reduces the actual effects of the grind itself. In 2014, Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton found the physical and mental strain of a long season really did cause players to get worse in later months, as measured (by Carleton) in a loss of plate discipline. Every player this season is, in theory, going to be relatively fresh to the end.

4. However, the season is also considerably more condensed this year. Every team has fewer off days, on average, than in a normal summer. And after the Marlins and Cardinals saw entire weeks of their schedule wiped out by positive COVID-19 tests, they’re now scheduled to set records for most games played in the fewest days.

5. Teams also had a shorter preseason immediately before the season began, which would mean less grind but also less preparation. Some of the early part of the season was likely spent just catching up.

Who is playing

6. A dozen and a half major leaguers have opted out of this season, for health and safety.

7. Dozens have missed time after testing positive for COVID-19, including about 2% of all players at the beginning of preseason camps. At least 27 Marlins and Cardinals tested positive after the season began. MLB requires players who test positive to sit out at least 10 days, but for many the illness has taken much longer to recover from. Not all players who tested positive before the season have returned, or will.

8. With no minor league baseball, scores of players who would likely have played their way onto major league rosters over the course of a 2020 season are instead inactive, and clubs’ depth is limited to 60 total players. The nonactive players are at alternate sites, playing, but not exactly in the routine of daily, intense games: “Because the alternate site has a maximum of 30 players, some games wind up with staffers playing positions,” Jeff Passan just wrote. “There are not enough arms to stage daily nine-inning games, either.”

9. There’s been a huge spike in pitcher injuries this year. That’s likely a combination of two things: the typical start to the season (which historically produces a swell of arm injuries) and the atypical start to this season, with a spring training in March followed by a long layoff followed by a second, short preseason camp in July and then Opening Day.

10. When players come back from their injuries (or illness), there aren’t any competitive minor league games for them to make rehab starts in. That could affect stamina for pitchers, as when Stephen Strasburg returned from nerve issues in his throwing hand and hit a wall after about 40 pitches in his first start. It could affect hitters’ timing: Even hitters who do get rehab at-bats show some rustiness from absence, which could only be made worse by a lack of minor league games.

The setting

11. There are no fans cheering. If some part of home-field advantage is about players feeling encouraged by cheers, that’s missing this year. And it could well be that the energy of fans makes both the home team and the visiting team better. (That’s just speculation. It could also be that empty stands help players stay calm. Or, likely, that different players react differently to the presence of fans.)

12. There are no fans in the backdrop. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh suggests this as a hypothesis for why batting average is down: Without fans’ multicolored wardrobes, defenders might be picking up the ball off the bat better. Without fans’ noise, they might even be hearing the crack of the bat better. The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen and Joshua Robinson found that NBA players are making more corner 3-pointers and free throws this year, suggesting a similar “backdrop” effect in other sports.

The competitive drive

13. More teams are “in it.” On Aug. 18, 2019, there were 16 teams whose playoff odds were in the single digits. This year, with the short season and the expanded playoffs, only three teams’ playoff odds were that low — and even those three teams were no more than six games out of a playoff spot, putting them within a winning streak of October. That gives nearly every team motivation to try every night.

14. There are few statistics to chase. Almost nobody is setting any career highs in home runs or strikeouts this year, and the traditional benchmarks of individual achievement (100 RBIs, a 30/30 season, a record chase) are out of reach. There’s some evidence that players actively “target” and are motivated by round-number milestones, but those aren’t available this year. And for some players, “bad” seasons are already all but guaranteed, with a third of the season complete. It’s already all but certain that this year will be an underwhelming blip on the statistical line of Jose Altuve or Madison Bumgarner‘s career page.

15. But, if there’s less competitive drive this year, there’s also less pressure. Not one player will be booed on his way to the plate, and every underwhelming blip on a career line can be dismissed as “the COVID year.”

The one-year rule changes

16. There’s the universal DH. It isn’t as though there were 15 Nelson Cruzes waiting around for an NL team to hire them, and the 15 “new” designated hitters in the NL have collectively hit only about .220/.300/.400. But that’s nearly infinitely better than what pitchers normally hit — .130/.160/.160 — in about 5,000 plate appearances a year, and also superior to the .650-ish OPS that batters pinch hitting for pitchers usually hit.

17. There are shortened extra innings and 28-man rosters. Removing the threat of a 16-inning game lets managers empty their benches and bullpens a bit more liberally earlier in games. To give one example: Teams have used at least two catchers in a game 80 times, about twice as often as they did last year. Starting position players at all positions have been replaced more often this year than in any of the past 10 years, and even with the shorter games there have been more relievers used per game. Those could mean different things, but one possibility is that managers have more options and tactical flexibility to get their best players in the game for each situation.

The mood

18. There are no high-fives — or a lot fewer. At least some part of a player’s motivation must come from the positive responses he gets from the group he identifies with. There are fewer butt pats to go around this year.

19. There is a lot less time spent hanging out in the clubhouse, bonding with teammates. As Russell Carleton has written, “We should think of [clubhouse] chemistry as the answer to the question, ‘Why should I bother?’ There will always be a time when you just don’t want to, and the answer is going to have to be ‘because my teammates are counting on me and I don’t want to let them down.'” If we believe in the power of clubhouse chemistry, then it implies some skill is lost by our social distancing this year. (There’s also less opportunity for players to share observations with each other.)

20. There is all the same lack of social support that many of us have: They can’t go out at night, they worry about their kids losing time with friends. A lot of them probably haven’t seen their parents in months.

A lot of them are probably dealing with clinical depression or anxiety.

A lot of them are probably in grief, and wonder constantly about the value of performing something frivolous in the middle of national mourning.

You could wonder for hours about how other, smaller things might matter. The corner outfielders don’t have a ball boy to warm them up between innings this year. That can’t matter much — can’t really matter at all, right? — but they must do it for a reason, and now they can’t. Who knows what spitting and throwing the ball around the horn and sitting next to a teammate while watching the game are worth?

“It doesn’t pass the sniff test for real baseball,” a front-office analyst told The Ringer’s Lindbergh, but that seems hyperbolic. Statheads will try for years to figure out precisely and specifically how the pandemic affected play, but for the most part all of these crisscrossing pressures haven’t lowered the level of play in a clear, obvious, obnoxious way:

The average four-seam fastball is 93.3 mph, comparable to last year’s 93.4 mph average. Four-seamer and slider spin rates are up slightly. Hitters’ exit velocity is down slightly from last year, but within the range of the past five years, and by other measures of quality contact, 2020’s hitters have been typical. Defense, as measured by percentage of batted balls turned into outs, has been better than it has been in recent memory.

Pitchers have probably been a little wilder. The league’s rate of strikes is 63%, down from 64% — though that could be wilder pitchers or it could be more selective hitters. When they’ve had to throw a strike — in 2-0, 3-1 and 3-0 counts — they’ve thrown slightly fewer pitches in the zone, but only slightly. And batters have probably been a little worse, too. When they swing at pitches down the middle, they’re whiffing slightly more often this year — on 14% of swings, up from 13%. Taken together, the league is probably slightly less talented this year. But so are we all.


Major League Baseball always changes. Over the past century, the style of play has changed in some ways, stayed the same in others, gotten more extreme or doubled back on itself. Chart it, and almost any measure of Major League Baseball looks like one of two stories:

Or

In the first — strikeouts per game — a line goes up and up and up and might never stop going up. The ability to strike out batters is the core skill of pitching, and decades of pitcher development, scouting, physical training and technique are geared toward throwing the ball harder so as to strike out more batters. The line reflects progress.

In the second — runs per game — a line goes up and it goes down, often in hunks of years. Scoring turns out to be sensitive to environmental changes: ballpark designs, the constitution of the baseball, the number of teams in the league, even things like weather. The line is always moving in response to the environmental conditions but, for the most part, always gets back to its fairly narrow range. That’s the game’s central balance between pitching and offense. It can’t get too out of whack, or it stops seeming fair, stops seeming like baseball. Various forces naturally keep this balance in line, and when that fails the league steps in to do it. The line reflects balance.

We should be prepared for this year to be an anomalous blip in a lot of those charts. Walks are up this year, higher than they’ve been in two decades. Hit by pitches are higher than they’ve ever been in history. Doubles are less frequent than they’ve been in any year since 1991, and they aren’t turning into triples — those are lower than any year in history. Intentional walks are lower than any year in history. Batting average on balls in play is way down, for some reason. Center fielders are playing deeper this year, for some reason. Time of game is up, for some reason.

Those all might be continuations of trends, or they might be caused by the pandemic, or they might be caused by our responses to the pandemic, or they might be simple weirdnesses that can show up in any three weeks of any baseball season.

On Tuesday, in the 10th inning, the Twins brought left-handed reliever Caleb Thielbar in to face left-handed hitter Ben Gamel. The Brewers responded as teams have always responded: They pinch hit for Gamel with a right-handed batter, Orlando Arcia. There isn’t a manager in the world who believes that 100 years of platoon advantages have suddenly gone poof because of a virus. This season might be weird, but at its core is a belief that normal still exists, and if we’re not living in it right now we might still hold out hope that it will come back soon. Arcia flied out.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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