Home Featured Extra Innings: COVID-19 outbreak fallout, Joe Kelly’s suspension, more

Extra Innings: COVID-19 outbreak fallout, Joe Kelly’s suspension, more

by Chris Brown

The 2020 Major League Baseball season has been a roller coaster — and we’re barely a week in. The revised 60-game schedule was in place for just four days before a COVID-19 outbreak within the Miami Marlins organization threw the sport into turmoil and led to postponements of several games, a slew of prominent pitchers have landed on the injured list with injuries, and Joe Kelly took it into his own hands to send Astros players a message on the mound — with significant repercussions. 

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 jump right into this week’s busy edition:

Things are continuing to unravel for MLB regarding the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak.

Where to even begin? New developments are coming in hour by hour, making it hard to keep up. As of the time of this writing, here’s what we know:

  • Following another positive test Thursday, 19 members of the Marlins organization — 17 players and two coaches — have now tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Two non-player members of the Phillies, who faced the Marlins last weekend, tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. As a result, the Phillies canceled all activity at Citizens Bank Park until further notice and MLB postponed the team’s series against the Blue Jays this weekend.
  • Multiple Phillies players on Wednesday were around a coach who tested positive Thursday, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported. “So wouldn’t that mean they shouldn’t play for at least 5 more days?” Stark tweeted.
  • As a result of these developments, four MLB teams are not expected to play this weekend: the Marlins, Phillies, Blue Jays and Nationals (who were slated to face the Marlins). 

Even four days after news of the Marlins’ outbreak first broke, it’s not certain that the full scope of the situation has emerged, as the incubation period for the coronavirus can be up to 14 days

There are questions about MLB’s handling of the situation. An epidemiologist working in professional sports told The Athletic he’s concerned about an apparent lack of communication or miscommunication among teams and, as Meghan Montemurro and Jayson Stark wrote, “said MLB’s protocols raise serious questions about how communication should be handled for similar situations in the future when a team has multiple tests.”

As that epidemiologist told The Athletic, the decision for a team to play or not in a situation like the Marlins experienced this past weekend should absolutely not be left up to the players, as was the case. The 113-page document governing health and safety in the 2020 season did not explicitly address how a potential outbreak would be handled, or how the decision to play in a situation like the Marlins faced would be handled. That is a significant failure on the part of the league, plain and simple. 

ESPN’s Jeff Passan detailed Wednesday night some of the new rules MLB is introducing following the Marlins’ outbreak. Per Passan, the league will mandate surgical masks — not cloth ones — during travel and require each team to travel with a compliance officer. Players on the road will now be encouraged to not leave their hotel except for games. 

Even in a best case scenario from this point on, there are scheduling questions. As The Athletic’s Matt Gelb noted, “for the Phillies to play 60 games in 2020, they’d have to do 57 games in 56 days beginning Monday.” That certainly doesn’t seem practical. 

It’s not clear where things go from here. The Marlins and Phillies may or may not be able to take the field for games next week. Even if they are, there’s plenty of reasons to think they shouldn’t — at least not yet. One thing that’s certain: the situation has gotten progressively worse over the past few days. Even if it gets better, there’s far from any guarantee it will stay that way. 

“I think there’s an inherent, significant level of risk just in the way they’ve set [the season] up,” Kathleen Bachynski, an epidemiologist at Muhlenberg College, told Yahoo Sports earlier in the week. “In the absence of a bubble, with widespread community transmission, I think the MLB is a pretty striking case of how an outbreak can happen really fast.”

MLB’s failures are not a justification for Joe Kelly’s actions.

The Dodgers reliever got handed an eight-game suspension, the equivalent of roughly 22 games in the 162-game schedule, for his role in Tuesday’s benches-clearing incident between the Dodgers and Astros. Kelly threw “in the area of the head of Alex Bregman and later taunted Carlos Correa, which led to the benches clearing,” MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Chris Young said in a statement, also noting Kelly’s previous suspension for intentional throwing. 

MLB players, fans and broadcasters from throughout the game expressed their anger at the suspension, citing the lack of penalties for Astros players involved in the team’s sign-stealing scandal. Mets starter Marcus Stroman tweeted in part, “MLB is siding with/protecting a team that openly and knowingly cheated their way to a World Series. He doesn’t deserve to be suspended at all.” After MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted that Kelly “earned every bit of that 8-game suspension,” Indians starter Mike Clevinger retweeted that with the comment: “And what do the astros players deserve Jon? Just snitch and walk free and still seem confused as to why everyone is mad?” 

Then there’s former MLB infielder Nomar Garciaparra, who, appearing as a commentator on Spectrum SportsNet, called the suspension “an embarrassment for Major League Baseball.” “MLB…has to look into a mirror,” he said. “This is not the Dodgers’ fault, this is their fault because they didn’t do what was right to begin with. They didn’t vacate the World Series. If they had done a proper punishment to begin with, then players, teams, organizations wouldn’t feel like maybe they have to do something to get some sort of justice.”

I don’t disagree with much of Garciaparra’s sentiment. The players absolutely have a right to be upset with the lack of individual punishments of individual Astros players as a result of the team’s sign-stealing efforts. I would be upset too. I agree that the penalties for players involved should have, well, actually existed. I’ll also note that Kelly’s suspension is likely to be reduced as a result of his appeal.

But here’s the thing: that doesn’t make what Kelly did appropriate. Throwing near somebody’s head is not an acceptable form of retaliation — ever. Full stop. I really don’t care what the circumstances are. This is not a way to solve anything. Does the commissioner’s office deserve some blame for its handling of the Astros’ scandal? Absolutely. Would Tuesday night’s situation have been less likely to occur had the league handled its investigation of the Astros differently? Probably. But what Joe Kelly did doesn’t do anything toward righting those wrongs. 

The nature of the 2020 season appears connected to the recent rash of pitcher injuries.

Just over one month ago, on the June 30 edition of Around the Bases, I said that an increase in pitcher injuries was likely to be one impact of the unique 2020 campaign. To be clear, I wasn’t the only one saying that, but it does appear to be true thus far. As of this past Tuesday, just five days into the MLB season, 32 pitchers across 17 different rosters had been placed on the injured list due to arm or muscle-related injuries, Mark Townsend of Yahoo Sports wrote. This includes three former Cy Young winners — Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber — as well as several other notable names such as Alex Wood (LAD), Miles Mikolas (STL), Marcus Stroman (NYM) and Brad Peacock (HOU). 

So was the short ramp up to the season to blame for these injuries? It’s practically impossible to connect the dots for individual players, but Astros manager Dusty Baker, whose team has been hit especially hard by pitcher injuries, believes there is a connection. “It’s all around baseball; it’s everywhere,” he said earlier this week, per MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart. “I’m hoping we learned a lesson by this. It couldn’t be helped because of the coronavirus, but I’m just hoping we don’t see any more injuries around the league, especially on our team.”

Following this past offseason, pitchers had roughly three weeks of Spring Training before baseball was shut down. Then, after a more than three month layoff, they had roughly three weeks of Summer Camp before the start of the 60-game schedule. Unlike in a typical season, pitchers didn’t get the chance to consistently build up arm strength against major league caliber competition before the season began. I believe we’re seeing some of the results of that now. 

Quick hits: Sign stealing crackdown, what to make of early season standouts.

Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported Wednesday night that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA have agreed that players who are found to steal signs electronically can be suspended without pay or service time. The commissioner will have the power to implement these suspensions, which the union will be able to appeal. Of course, this doesn’t change anything with regard to the Astros players involved in the team’s sign-stealing scandal, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction moving forward.

As we all know, the 60-game MLB schedule puts more weight on each individual game than in normal circumstances. But a small sample size can still be rather meaningless, particularly in baseball. So how much do hot and cold starts to the 2020 season mean moving forward? The answer depends greatly on the individual circumstances. For example, the Rockies entered Thursday night with a 1.84 ERA, the best in baseball. But they’re coming off the second-worst mark in the majors a season ago and have yet to play at the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field. In that case, I’m not making much of the small sample size.

On the other end of things, Reds starter Sonny Gray is off to an incredible start to the season, with a 2-0 record and 0.71 ERA through two starts with 20 strikeouts in 12 ⅔ innings. That’s much more meaningful to me because it’s a continuation of a trend from last season. Since July 2019, Gray has a 1.79 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 105 ⅔ frames. His 35 consecutive starts with six or fewer hits allowed is the longest such stretch in MLB history. The moral of the story: In trying to make sense of early season standouts, good or bad, make sure to keep in mind the context of the situation.

What’s on deck?

As previously mentioned, four major league teams are not expected to play any games this weekend, at least at the time of this writing. Expect new developments regarding the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak to continue at a rapid pace. It’s frankly anyone’s guess what happens next. On the diamond, the Braves are set to host the Mets, the Red Sox and Yankees will square off, and the Astros and Angels face each other in a few series to watch.

Photo by Antonio Charneco / Flickr

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