MLB’s Spring Training schedule begins this Sunday, February 28 and the Cubs will play their first game the following day, Monday, March 1, against the Padres at Peoria.
These games might look a bit different, as MLB has instituted some procedures and rules that could alter games from what we consider “normal,” even for Spring Training.
Here’s a quick look at each of the rule changes and my thoughts about them.
- Games that occur from February 27 (or 28) through March 13 may be shortened to seven-inning games or five-inning games upon mutual agreement of both managers. Games that occur on or after March 14 shall be nine-inning games (and, upon mutual agreement of both managers, can be shortened to seven-inning games).
This is being done largely because in recent years, as you have likely noticed, major-league players play the first few innings of a game, then are replaced by guys from the minor-league camp. There is no concurrent minor-league camp this year; due to COVID-19 restrictions, minor-league camp won’t begin until after the major leaguers depart for Opening Day.
Thus the 68 players in Cubs camp (teams can have up to 75 players in camp) are going to be the only ones around to play in games.
You’d think that would be enough to play nine-inning games, but in many cases — especially for pitchers — teams simply want players to get their work in, then be done for the day. Also, teams will likely have intrasquad games happening on their practice fields (which are closed to the public this year), so players can get work in without appearing in the primary spring game that day.
I’m fine with this rule, as long as it’s announced to fans before the game starts. What I fear is going to happen is that a game is going to get to five innings and suddenly everyone just walks off the field with no notice.
Just tell us ahead of time what’s going to happen.
- For games that occur from February 27 (or 28) through March 13, Official Baseball Rule 5.09(e) (“Retiring the Side”) shall be relaxed, such that defensive managers may end an inning prior to three outs following any completed plate appearance, provided the pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches.
It might be a good idea, then, to keep track of pitches thrown in an inning. Generally, in early spring games as described here, managers want pitchers to complete innings. You’ve probably seen spring games in recent years where a pitcher isn’t even in “trouble” (baserunners, etc.) but gets pulled because he’s reached a pitch count. In cases like that, again it’s someone from the minor-league camp who finishes the inning.
And as noted above, with no concurrent minor-league camp there won’t be those guys available. I would expect this to happen more often than you might think. And again, it would be useful for the PA announcers at spring parks to remind fans before the game starts that this might happen. Otherwise it’ll lead to confusion for fans when players just walk off the field in what appears to be the middle of an inning.
- Substitution rules (see Official Baseball Rule 5.10(d)) shall be relaxed, allowing for reentry for all pitchers.
I have occasionally seen pitchers throw a couple of innings in spring games, then go to the bullpen to throw a few more pitches.
That appears to be what this change is aiming at — instead of that happening, a pitcher could leave the game, miss an inning, then come back. Or, such a pitcher could finish an inning where a pitch count for someone else has been reached, if the manager wants that inning to be completed.
- The “Three Batter Minimum” rule contained in the 2021 Official Baseball Rules (OBR 5.10) will be enforced during exhibition games beginning on March 14.
The implication here is that this rule won’t be enforced in games through March 13.
- For the avoidance of doubt, Spring Training games may end in a tie.
This has actually been the case for several years now. Teams generally bring only as many pitchers as they want to get work that day, and when all of them have done that, if the game is tied it ends. There have been a handful of games I’ve seen over the last decade that have gone 10 innings by mutual agreement of the managers, but not longer. This year, I would assume that no game will go more than nine innings.
Spring games start soon! They’ll be a little different from what we’ve seen in the past... but they’ll still be baseball. Keep an eye out for these differences.