Explaining the MLB Pace-of-Play, Double Headers and More Rule Changes for 2021
Baseball is back. Spring training is heading into its final stretch, and April 1 marks the start of the regular season's 162-game schedule.
Last year's season was much shorter due to the coronavirus pandemic. It also introduced a slew of rule changes designed to help speed up games and reduce wear and tear on players who had to wait months for the season to begin. Some of those changes are sticking around for the longer 2021 season, while others did not make the cut.
Let's take a look at the rule changes that are here to stay, the ones that got dropped and what the league is doing to crack down on pitchers.
Runners on Second in Extra Innings Returns
Good luck to all the relief pitchers who take the mound in extra innings in 2021. They will once again be under immense pressure from the first pitch, as any extra-inning game will feature a runner on second base to start out each half inning.
The rule, which was introduced last year, worked exactly as intended, as noted by the Associated Press:
"There were 78 extra-inning games last year, and the longest by innings were a pair of 13-inning contests at Houston, won by the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 29 and by Oakland on Aug. 7. Every previous season since 1901 had at least one game of 15 innings or longer."
So don't expect any marathon games this season, unless you happen to be attending an especially grueling nine-inning affair like last year's playoff clash between the Yankees and Indians (a record four hours, 50 minutes). The tie-breaking runs won't be nearly as hard to come by in extras.
Seven-Inning Games for Doubleheaders
Here's the other major carryover from 2020 to 2021: when two teams need to play a doubleheader, both games will be only seven innings long.
This rule was introduced to help with all the COVID-19 related postponements during the 2020 season. Its hard to say if the MLB will have to deal with a similar number of doubleheaders in the upcoming season, but the league clearly felt its better to be safe than sorry.
Last year, the change wasn't implemented until roughly a week into the season. This year, the league isn't taking any chances and will go with the seven-inning doubleheaders from the jump. Some players seem just fine with that.
"During a season with the possible delays from COVID, I think the seven-inning and runner on second rules will help any teams make up for lost time," Arizona catcher Stephen Vogt wrote in a text to the Associated Press. "I would love to get back to traditional baseball ASAP, but I like them for the 2021 season."
This rule could become very useful if teams start to see injuries pile up. The natural rhythms of professional players have been disrupted for more than a year now, and this year's 162-game schedule might start to grind players down after last year's 60-game sprint. A doubleheader on the slate won't seem nearly as daunting.
MLB Plans to Crack Down on Foreign Substance Use by Pitchers
Pitchers are on notice for the 2021 season. League officials will reportedly be keeping an eye out for cheaters on the mound, and they have a number of tactics at their disposal.
According to a series of tweets from ESPN's Jeff Passan, the league plans to "increase monitoring by compliance officers, use a third-party lab to inspect baseballs taken out of play and do more spin-rate analysis.
ESPN's Jesse Rogers further explained how the league will implement some of these changes:
"If a pitcher's "normal" spin rate, measured in revolutions per minute, increases significantly, the league may investigate whether the player is doctoring balls. Baseballs taken out of play—both randomly and prioritized, if they exhibit signs of foreign substances—will be inspected by a third-party lab, according to the memo. Balls will be tracked back to whomever was pitching when they were taken out of play."
This isn't technically a rule change—doctoring a baseball has long been banned—but rather a change in protocols and enforcement. Still, its an important change that could have a major impact on the way the game is played. Hitters could have a banner year, or a team could be stuck without a key cog in the rotation if a pitcher does end up getting busted.
Not Returning: Universal Designated Hitter
Designated hitters like Nelson Cruz (above) and Jorge Soler will have less competition at their position this year. It's back to the batter's box for National League pitchers, as the league has dropped the universal DH rule it installed for the 2020 season.
The designated hitter has long been a point of contention for baseball fans. For at least one season, the DH won out. There's still a chance the league and players' association could make a change, per MLB.com, but with the start of the regular season fast approaching, it seems unlikely.
So fans hoping the days of pitchers coming into the game to lay down sacrifice bunts or jog out weak grounders will be disappointed. Purists who believe you need to be out in the field to be a full-fledged ballplayer will be delighted. Games between NL and AL teams will force the away side to adjust their lineups and strategies once again. The return of these arguments is a good thing. It means baseball is nearly back.