Home Featured Extra Innings: MLB’s testing problems, importance of depth, two regular season schedules announced

Extra Innings: MLB’s testing problems, importance of depth, two regular season schedules announced

by Chris Brown

If all goes according to plan, the 2020 Major League Baseball season will be underway two weeks from now. There’s still plenty to be sorted out before then, though, including the testing delays which have frustrated players and teams in recent days. 

Every Friday, Extra Innings will get you caught up on the biggest storylines across the baseball world and provide analysis of what lies ahead. Let’s get right to this week’s edition:

MLB’s testing problems have continued, with new questions emerging.

One week ago today, MLB and the MLBPA released preliminary data on the COVID-19 intake tests administered to players, coaches and team personnel upon arrival to training camps across the country. With a positive test rate of 1.2%, there was general optimism about the numbers overall. But in the days that followed, evidence emerged of how MLB’s testing system was failing from the very start. 

Several teams, including the Nationals, Astros, Cardinals, and Cubs, were forced to delay or cancel altogether team workouts due to significant delays in receiving test results. Results which were expected to arrive within 24-48 hours were taking as long as three to four days or more. Many players and front office personnel expressed frustration with the delays. Among the notable comments, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant told reporters, including The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma, in part, “I wanted to play this year because I felt it would be safe and I would be comfortable. Honestly, I don’t really feel that way.”

On Monday, July 6, Major League Baseball put out a statement saying that “unforeseen delays” over the holiday weekend led to the delays, and the league did not expect a recurrence of the issues. But over the course of this week, we’ve continued to see testing problems impacting teams and individual players.  On Tuesday, the Giants became the latest team to suspend workouts due to delayed results. On Wednesday, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman missed team workouts because he had not received test results. Both of those situations were eventually resolved.

While these instances themselves are not horrible, there are much bigger implications: 1) The ramifications of slow results will be much greater if the same problems occur during the season, as games would have to be canceled and/or players held out. 2) Quick test results are essential in helping to control any possible spread of COVID-19. 3) If player trust in the testing process erodes much more, the season will certainly be in serious jeopardy. 

Regarding that last point, Astros outfielder Michael Brantley told reporters on Wednesday, “Since we started this thing, I haven’t heard much from (commissioner Rob Manfred) or from that side. I know that we had to iron out some kinks together, but at the same time, all the players are kind of saying the same thing: We need clarity. And once we get clarity, I think we’ll feel better about this.”

Furthermore, a number of questions about the testing process have arisen in recent days. Veteran Twins starter Rich Hill said on Tuesday that clubhouse personnel are only tested twice per week, and he believed they should be tested every other day like players. And in a 10-day period, Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo tested positive twice via MLB’s sanctioned lab tests and negative twice via a private Dallas lab, the Dallas Morning News reported. This itself leads to a number of concerns regarding protocols and test accuracy. One thing is for sure, though: Major League Baseball needs to get this testing process figured out, and fast.

Uncertainty abounds for player return timelines, and teams’ depth will be tested.

Some MLB players who have tested positive for COVID-19 have reportedly not been experiencing symptoms, at least at the time of those reports. Others, like Braves star first baseman Freddie Freeman and Phillies infielder Scott Kingery, have experienced significant symptoms. One thing that will be consistent: All players who’ve tested positive will require two negative tests before they are able to return to their teams. Given the unpredictable nature of the virus itself and the protocols involved in a return, the timelines for players who’ve tested positive potentially taking the field again are entirely up in the air. 

Of course, player health takes priority over the game itself in every aspect, but with the season just two weeks away, it’s impossible to ignore that player absences will have a significant impact on teams’ on the field performance. Some teams may start the season without several key rotation members, hitters, and/or their closer. That reality, combined with the DH in the National League, means depth may be more important than ever for teams this season. From an on-the-field results perspective, teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Rays may be set up for success with their impressive depth in key areas. The caveat, as always, is that this is all highly unpredictable.

Two regular season schedules were announced this week.

That’s right, after months of being scheduleless, we’ve now gotten two regular season baseball schedules dished out in the last five days. On Monday night, the full schedule for the 60-game 2020 season was unveiled. There were no major surprises, though there was some inequity given the circumstances. For example, seven of the 10 games between the Yankees and Red Sox will be in New York, and seven of the 10 games between the Cubs and Cardinals will be in Chicago. With no fans likely in attendance, any home field advantage will likely be mitigated to a significant degree.

The 2020 season will kick off on Thursday, July 23, with Opening Night featuring the Yankees at the Nationals and the Giants at the Dodgers. The rest of the teams will begin play on Opening Day, July 24. The Twins, Indians, and Cardinals will have the easiest strength of schedule (per last year’s records), while the Marlins, Angels, and Orioles will have the hardiest. The league will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues on Aug. 16, Jackie Robinson Day on Aug. 28, and Roberto Clemente Day on Sept. 9.

Then just yesterday, MLB announced the schedule for the 2021 season, more than a month after such an announcement usually comes. The Athletic’s Matt Gelb tweeted that the early release was in part to “entice season-ticket holders to roll over their unused packages to next year.” The 2021 season is slated to begin on April 1, will all MLB teams playing on the same day, and end on Oct. 3. The schedule is highlighted by a Yankees-Mets contest on the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001.

Quick hits: Opening Day starters, team names, revisiting impact of shortened season on pitchers.

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will make his ninth Opening Day start for the team, extending a franchise record, manager Dave Roberts told reporters Tuesday. Per MLB’s Sarah Langs, Kershaw’s 1.05 ERA in his previous eight Opening Day starts is the lowest of any starter whose made more than five such starts since earned runs became an official statistic on both leagues in 1913. Other Opening Day starters named in the last few days: Marco Gonzalez for the Mariners and Sonny Gray for the Reds.

Amid the current national movement, the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins have both announced in the last few weeks that they will review their nicknames. Indians manager Terry Francona and star shortstop Francisco Lindor are among those with the team who’ve expressed an openness to a name change in recent days. The Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, are not considering a name change but are having ongoing discussions regarding the Tomahawk Chop, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported.

One assumption myself and several media members have apparently held going into training camp is that, with the shorter time for pitchers to get stretched out in a game environment, starters were likely not going to go more than four or five innings to start the season. Reds manager David Bell said Wednesday, “We’re confident our starters can go deep into games from the beginning.” Yankees starter Gerrit Gole threw five innings in the team’s first full team simulated game, while the Rangers’ Lance Lynn threw 83 pitches across six frames in his first training camp outing. Perhaps some starters will be ready to go deep in games to start the season after all.

What’s on deck?

With roughly two weeks until the beginning of the 2020 season, teams will begin to really ramp up their workouts at training camps in the days ahead. Some clubs have already held multiple intrasquad games, while due in part to testing delays, others are just getting started. 

We’ll likely get more clarity on whether some players missing from training camps or dealing with injuries will be ready for Opening Day in the next week. And hopefully we’ll see fewer testing delays in the days to come.

Photo by “slgckgc” / Flickr

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