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Extra Innings: MLB’s plan to fix testing delays, impact of extra innings rule change, more

by Chris Brown

One week from today, the 2020 MLB season will be underway, nearly four months after it was originally slated to begin. With that in mind, 110 Sports has been previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. Check out the stories in that series thus far here

In addition to standard preseason storylines, there’s plenty of other points of discussion regarding Major League Baseball right now. 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 has a plan to fix testing delays.

Perhaps the biggest storyline of the first few weeks of training camp has been the COVID-19 testing delays, with slow turnaround times on results causing teams to postpone and cancel practices and hold out individual players from team activities. There had been reports that MLB was in search of another lab to help handle the volume of tests, and it appears the league has found just that. Back on July 10, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported that the league’s primary lab, in Utah, had subcontracted a lab at Rutgers University. Just Wednesday, Rosenthal wrote that, “The Rutgers lab not only increased the league’s testing capacity, but its east-coast location also is within driving distance of six parks, enabling the tests from those cities to arrive sooner.”

It’s certainly an encouraging development and could certainly help explain why we’ve heard of fewer problems with the process in recent days. Still, as recently as this week there have been apparent delays in returning results, with the Cubs holding back six individuals, including manager David Ross, from practice on Monday as they awaited results. 

And even if the process is improved significantly by Opening Day, that certainly doesn’t mean that the system is foolproof. The situation with the Royals’ Cam Gallagher illustrated that even a relatively short test processing time can lead to potential complications, as the catcher played in an intrasquad game without symptoms before finding out he had tested positive. And Joey Gallo’s 10-day period with multiple negative and positive coronavirus tests has led to questions about test accuracy. Overall, things seem to be trending in the right direction regarding the testing process. But given the situation across the country and the travel MLB teams will begin in less than a week, nothing is a guarantee at this point.

We should give the extra innings rule change a chance.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, there are a number of rules changes set to go into effect for the shortened season that could have a significant impact on how the game itself is played. The most controversial of them seems not to be the addition of the DH to the National League, but the change to start extra innings with a runner on second base. The goal is to cut down on lengthy extra inning games given the health risks and shortened schedule. My current view remains that I believe it fundamentally changes the game too much, but I’m on board with it given the circumstances, and actually believe this is a good opportunity to try something like this out. 

Three Yankees pitchers recently spoke out against the rules change, with Adam Ottavino telling reporters, including NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty, “It’s just not real baseball.” Left-hander Jordan Montgomery, in addition to describing the rule as “horrible,” added, “Whoever can bunt and put the ball in the air wins the game sometimes. I don’t think that’s really telling that the best team is going to win the game. I think it’s not great.”

But how often are we actually going to see teams bunt to begin a half-inning in extras? MLB.com’s Mike Petriello recently examined win expectancy data to see just how beneficial the strategy might actually be. Petriello found that if the road team bunts the runner on second over to third to start the inning (with the out at first being recorded), the team’s win expectancy actually drops slightly, from 50% to 48%. If you do it as the home team in a tie game, your win expectancy improves just slightly, from 81% to 83%. But if the home team is down entering the bottom of the inning, bunting decreases run expectancy. 

Will we see teams bunt to start off an inning in extras? Sure. Much will depend on the personnel at second, in the batter’s box and in the on-deck circle. But will we see it consistently? That seems doubtful, at least if MLB teams are looking at the data. Another note about the rule change: It’s been in effect in the minors for the last two seasons. Per Baseball America’s JJ Cooper, the number of 13+ inning games in the minors dropped from 133 the two years before the change to just five the last two seasons. It certainly appears the change will help avoid many long extra inning games in the majors in 2020. 

And while some in baseball aren’t happy about the change, others hope it’s here to stay, including Reds manager David Bell. He told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon in early July, “Two years ago, when I was with the Giants [as player development director], I was sitting there in the stands watching minor league games. I was rooting for extra innings because it was so exciting. You get to see all of this strategy happen in one inning. You know you’re not going to be there all night. You have a pretty good idea of when it’s going to end. I think the fans are going to love it. I think it’s a great rule.” Like it or not, the change is happening in 2020, so I think we should all at least give it a chance.

We’re beginning to get a better sense of some key players who likely will and won’t be ready for Opening Day.

With the start of the season quickly approaching, teams are beginning to make more calls about players who will and won’t be ready for Opening Day. The nature of COVID-19 and the process for players returning to their teams complicates this evaluation, of course. Two days after exiting the Mets’ intrasquad game due to back tightness, reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom said he expected to pitch on Opening Day. The Mets, though, cut off deGrom’s new conference early and manager Luis Rojas “declined to offer a plan for deGrom, beyond repeating that his ace was ‘day to day,’” SNY’s Anty Martino wrote. Meanwhile, Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters, including MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, on Thursday that first baseman Freddie Freeman, who had been sidelined with COVID-19, has not been ruled out for the start of the season. 

A few other notable injury updates: Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka seems unlikely to be ready to pitch in the team’s first run through the rotation, but is doing well after being hit by a line drive earlier this month. And Twins center fielder Byron Buston said Wednesday that he will be ready for Opening Day, just two days after he was carted off the field following a left foot injury.

Quick hits: Puig to sign with Braves, more Opening Day starters named

(UPDATE: Puig will reportedly not be signing with the Braves after testing positive for COVID-19.)  MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand first reported on Tuesday that the Atlanta Braves are set to sign free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig. The deal has not been officially announced yet. The news comes after veteran outfielder Nick Markakis opted out of the 2020 season earlier this month, leaving the Braves with a hole in right field. Puig, who was also connected to the Orioles and Giants, will join a competitive Atlanta team that also includes outfielders Ronald Acuña, Ender Inciarte, Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall. The 29-year-old Puig hit .267 with 24 homers and 19 steals in 2019 between the Reds and Indians, and seems like a good fit for the Braves roster as they look to defend their division title.

With the beginning of the season less than a week away, more teams have announced their Opening Day starters in recent days. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander will get the call for the Astros, making his 12th career Opening Day start. Verlander will tie Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven and Pete Alexander for the eighth most Opening Day starts in the modern era, per MLB.com’s Sarah Langs. The Braves’ Mike Soroka, at 22 years old, will become the franchise’s youngest Opening Day starter of the modern era, and the youngest pitcher to get the Opening Day nod in MLB since Jose Fernandez in 2014. It will be the first time that Julio Teheran, now with the Angels, doesn’t start Opening Day for the Braves since 2013. Other Opening Day starters named in the last few days: Johnny Cueto for the Giants, Jack Flaherty for the Cardinals, Sandy Alcantara for the Marlins, Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs and Danny Duffy for the Royals.

What’s on deck?

A number of MLB teams will play in exhibition games with nearby teams early next week prior to the start of the season. The Yankees and Nationals are set to kick off the schedule on Thursday, July 23, followed by the Giants at the Dodgers later that night and the rest of the teams on Friday. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, though, the Nationals are unsure if they’ll be able to start the season at their home ballpark, Jesse Dougherty and Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post reported Thursday. (UPDATE: The Nationals confirmed Friday morning that they have been cleared to play at their home stadium this season.) Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have been approved by Ontario and Toronto to play regular season games at the Rogers Centre, though approval from Canada’s federal government has not yet come. In short: there’s still plenty to be worked out in the week that lies ahead.

Photo by KellyK / Flickr

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