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MLB’s 2021 protocols include shortened spring training games, in-game video for players

Health rules and roster limits are also in the owner/player agreement. Here are many details of the deal.

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MLB and the MLB Players Association came to an agreement late Monday on protocols for the 2021 season, which include health and safety rules as well as roster limit rules and various playing rule changes.

Some of those rules will be the same as they were in 2020. Some have been tightened up from 2020.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic summed up the various protocols in this long article early Tuesday. Here are some of the highlights.

In addition to being tested before arriving at spring training venues, players will have to adhere to the following protocols during spring camp and the 2021 season:

During the 2021 season (including spring training and the postseason), covered individuals may not attend or enter any of the following events or establishments (and should discourage any other members of their household from the same):

— Indoor gatherings of ten or more people.

— Indoor restaurants or dining areas.

— Bars, lounges, clubs or like establishments.

— Fitness and wellness centers not affiliated with the club or MLB. Players also must not invite personal trainers into their home or see them on the road.

— Entertainment venues.

— Gaming and other venues, including bowling alleys, arcades, casinos and pool halls.

• In addition, members of the team traveling party on the road are not permitted to leave the hotel other than for team activities at the team facility or ballpark, for medical reasons, to travel with the team, for outdoor walks/exercise, for other low-risk outdoor activities, or in extraordinary circumstances.

MLB added in a press release:

Covered Individuals may not meet with anyone not part of the Traveling Party, whether at the team hotel, in their individual hotel room, or elsewhere, other than being permitted to meet household or family members outdoors. Covered individuals may not congregate in areas of the hotel, or enter the hotel room of another member of the Traveling Party for any reason, unless approved in advance by the Club’s Compliance Officer.

This seems pretty restrictive, but as we saw in 2020, some players wound up testing positive while breaking protocols. These are clearly designed to avoid issues like that. The Compliance Officer, per MLB’s release, must be “Assistant GM or above in seniority.”

In addition to the health protocols described above, MLB’s release also states:

Mental Health and Well-Being Resources will be provided to players and Club staff by Clubs and the parties throughout Spring Training and the 2021 Championship Season.

This is really good news, something that teams have often not considered for players and staff. Good for MLB for doing this.

For spring training, the article says teams may have no more than “75 players and 75 staff at their complex(es).” In general, teams in the past have invited around 65-70 players to spring camps, the 40-man roster plus 25-30 non-roster players. However, in practical teams, in recent years many spring games have involved 40-man roster players and/or non-roster invitees for the first few innings, and then players from the minor-league camp would play the rest of the game. Since there won’t be a minor-league camp until major-league camp is over, the following rules have been adopted for spring training workouts and games:

Spring training will be divided into three phases, beginning with individual and small group workouts (Phase 1), followed by larger or full-team workouts (Phase 2), and concluding with a limited number of spring training games against other clubs (Phase 3).

— Phase 1 shall cover the period from when the first players report to spring training until Feb. 20. Clubs must begin spring training with individual or small-group workouts. Players should be divided into smaller groups (eight players or fewer), and assigned times and areas of the complex.

— During Phase 2, which should last from Feb. 21 through Feb. 26, team workouts should still be broken down into smaller workout groups whenever possible, and workout groups should be staggered by assigning times throughout the day. However, larger group workouts and intra-squad games are permitted in this phase.

— Phase 3 will include exhibition games between clubs, beginning on Feb. 27 or 28. Games that occur from Feb. 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).

• For spring training games that occur between Feb. 27 or 28 through March 13, the “retiring the side” rule will be relaxed. Defensive managers may end an inning prior to three outs following any completed plate appearance, provided the pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches.

• Substitution rules in spring training shall be relaxed, allowing for re-entry for all pitchers.

Those rules for shortening games... I can easily see that happening for the first couple of weeks. Since managers won’t have the minor leaguers who usually play the second halves of games available, it seems likely that once the players who teams want to get work in have done that, the games very well could and will be halted after five or seven innings. They’re simply not going to be like the spring games we have seen in the past.

Other notes of interest:

  • Rosters will be 26 players, with no limit on the number of pitchers, expanded to 28 in September. MLB added in a press release:

We have also agreed to allow any Clubs that experience a COVID-19 outbreak among their players to add to the Major League Active List temporarily, without the need for those players to be placed on waivers, outrighted, or optioned in order to be removed from the 40-man roster when players return from the COVID-19 Related Injured List.

  • MLB has the right to relocate teams or games at any time
  • MLB has the right to conduct the postseason at neutral sites
  • MLB has the right to reschedule COVID-19 postponements as seven-inning doubleheaders (note: the article doesn’t mention that for rescheduling weather postponements, so it’s not clear whether that would also be the case). The placed runner on second base rule will also be in effect for extra innings
  • Media members will again not have personal access to players or staff

In addition, players will have to wear contact-tracing devices:

Players, similar to their counterparts in the NFL and NBA, will wear sensors enabling clubs to monitor social distancing and conduct contact tracing if an individual tests positive. And, unlike last season, the first played during the COVID-19 pandemic, they will be subject to potential discipline for violating the protocols, including suspensions or forfeiture of salary if they miss time.

Lastly, this will be good news for many players:

Use of any communal video terminals is prohibited. During games, players will have access to tablets under the Dugout iPad program that can be loaded with content before and after games, and will have access to in-game video in a format that cannot be used to steal the catcher’s signs.

Javier Baez was one of the players most outspoken in 2020 regarding lack of access to in-game video. This, from last September:

“To be honest, it’s sucked,” Báez said Monday. “I make my adjustments during the game. I watch my swing, I watch where the ball was, where the contact was.

“I’m really mad that we don’t have it.”

There were other players who said the same thing, notably Christian Yelich, who also had a down year in 2020. I can absolutely see why players would use that sort of video to help them make in-game adjustments. If MLB can figure out a way to give players this video “in a format that cannot be used to steal the catcher’s signs,” that would be a positive development for Javy and others.

The Cubs have yet to announce reporting dates for pitchers and catchers or the full squad, though it will likely be sometime next week. While the Cubs do have a spring training schedule that currently begins Saturday, February 27 against the Dodgers at Sloan Park, I would not be surprised if that changed, especially given the spring game protocols listed above. Monday, it was reported that the Grapefruit League schedule for Florida-based spring training was being revised, and a scheduled ticket sale Saturday for Diamondbacks and Rockies spring games was abruptly postponed late Friday without a reason being given other than ”further review regarding Spring Training details.” No Arizona-based team has any spring tickets on sale at this time.

I hope to be able to read the entire MLB/MLBPA protocol document when it’s available and report further details to you.

I’ll also report any updates on the Cubs spring schedule and reporting dates when those are available.

And as always, we await developments.