MLB’s 2020 season was unlike any we had ever experienced, featuring, among other new wrinkles, an abbreviated 60-game regular season, a 16-team playoff format including an additional “Wild Card Series,” a first-of-its-kind neutral-site World Series, spectator-less stadiums (for the most part), expanded rosters, a universal DH, seven-inning doubleheaders and, perhaps quirkiest of all, extra innings beginning with a runner on second base. That’s a lot of change for one year, though most would agree a bizarro season with designated “alternate sites” and cutouts substituting for actual fans is better than nothing at all.
The hope was that the COVID pandemic would be wrapped up in a neat bow by the time the 2021 season kicked off. But as cases rise across the country with vaccines being distributed at a snail’s pace, it’s become abundantly clear that will not be the case. So what new tricks does MLB have up its sleeve? That remains to be seen, though from the looks of it, many of last year’s tweaks—specifically the move to seven-inning doubleheaders and starting extra innings with a runner on second base—will remain in place for 2021.
While momentum is building for the National League to adopt a permanent DH, it’s unclear if that change will go into effect this year or if it will have to wait until players and owners negotiate terms on a new collective bargaining agreement (the current CBA expires after this season). Per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the league is also torn on whether to keep rosters at 26 (a change necessitated by COVID) and how many teams should make the postseason. MLB beefed up its playoff field from 10 to 16 teams in 2020 and while there is a financial benefit in keeping with that number, the league reportedly prefers a middle ground with a 14-team postseason being floated as a possible compromise.
Last year’s overhaul was no doubt prompted by COVID, though many of the changes were inevitable as MLB fights to survive amid stagnant attendance and dwindling television viewership. With attention spans shrinking, especially among phone-obsessed millennials who are flocking to other, more accessible sports like football and basketball, baseball has to do all it can to remain relevant, whether by speeding up games, inventing new gimmicks (the new extra-inning format would certainly qualify) or expanding the playoffs to involve as many markets as possible. These changes born out of desperation likely won’t sit well with purists, but as Brad Pitt posited in Moneyball, in an evolving media climate, baseball has no choice but to “adapt or die.”