Call it Spring Training 2.0. Call it Summer Camp. Call it whatever you want. It’s July and Major League Baseball is ramping up once again for its season – with games slated to begin in a few weeks.
It figures to be the strangest Twins season in recent memory – maybe ever? – and to get you ready here are 10 of the biggest oddities that figure to play out:
*Every Twins game will be against one of nine opponents. The schedule is only 60 games, which will feel strange enough, but all of it will be vs. either the AL Central or NL Central. A full 40 games – 10 apiece against Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City – will be within the Twins’ own division. That’s 67%, and it’s a big reason the Twins could do well this season. They went 50-26 against those teams a season ago. In a typical year, the Twins play AL Central teams a healthy 47% of the time. But if you thought you got sick of the same teams in a regular year, wait until this season. And yeah, that means no games against the Yankees. So at least there’s that. At least until — gulp! — the playoffs.
*Designated hitters in every game. This might not seem that strange since most Twins games already feature a DH, but MLB has adopted the rule in both leagues for 2020. That means Nelson Cruz will get to hit in the Twins games in NL ballparks – presumably 10 of the 20 against NL Central foes.
*Speaking of Cruz, this almost certainly will be the first season since 2013 that he doesn’t match or exceed his age with his home run total. He smashed 41 last year in his age 38 season, but hitting at least 39 homers in 60 games this year is even too much to ask for a slugger of his stature.
*There is huge potential for statistical oddities. Our La Velle E. Neal III wrote about the possibility of a .400 hitter. A pitcher could post a very low ERA. You might see an out-of-this-world OPS because one or two extended hot streaks will cover a much larger overall percentage of a season than they normally would over 162 games. But how would such things be counted? If, say, Luis Arraez (for example) hits .402 does he go down in history? Or is there a huge asterisk, with Ted Williams still recognized as the last true .400 hitter?
*Counting stats, of course, will be all messed up. A good season might encompass 15 home runs for a batter. A strikeout pitcher might hope to get to 100. One of the weirdest things will be how few starts each member of a rotation makes. Figuring on a five-man staff, most healthy starters will top out at 12 or 13 starts. Better make them count.
*Speaking of which, the urgency of every game will give them a different feel and could make them managed differently. Sunday lineups? Experimenting with inexperienced pitching? It’s hard to justify those things when you only have 60 games – 37% of a normal season. Baseball used to be played at a much more casual pace, understanding the grind of a long season. That might change this year.
*With no fans in ballparks, at least at the outset, it will make for strange TV. Soccer doesn’t look all that odd without fans. Similarly, I imagine football will look just fine. Those sports tend to have pretty tight shots of the field of play focused on a horizontal grid. Basketball and hockey should be OK, too. Baseball, though, switches views constantly. Every medium-deep fly ball, or even a foul ball into a corner, will be a reminder of the emptiness.
*It will be strange to see how the process that led up to this season – and the looming showdown between players and owners – impacts the on-field product in 2020. The year could very well be played under a cloud of suspicion and acrimony.
*Maybe given everything, the strangest thing is that the season is even going to be played at all. The labor bickering was one thing. Now coronavirus is surging in many states, and you can’t scroll a news feed without seeing another story about a batch of athletes testing positive. Leagues seem to be being purposely vague about what it would take to shut down again. For now, there’s this weird contrast between all the bad Covid-19 news and all the leagues, including MLB, making plans to play.
*Or … maybe the strangest thing about 2020 is that it might not be as strange as we think. Maybe once players get between the lines, it will feel like baseball as usual. And maybe the season will simply feel like we skipped ahead to pennant races and the more urgent final two months of a typical season. In a world of constant surprises, that would qualify as a pleasant one.