A full 162-game season is nothing more than a pipe dream at this point, but MLB is still committed to playing as many games as possible. There are several ideas floating around including weekly doubleheaders, and according to ESPN, some MLB players are willing to play as many as two doubleheaders a week.
As a fan, doubleheaders are obviously fantastic and getting in as much baseball as possible in a shortened season is clearly enticing. However, I would put money on there not being a 2020 season at all before I would on every team playing two doubleheaders a week.
Humans have a tendency to say they would be willing to do something when they know there’s no realistic scenario in which they would actually have to do that thing, especially if it makes them look noble or self-sacrificing. Also, those players saying that likely aren’t pitchers or catchers, the only two players on the field who might exert themselves to physical exhaustion in the leisurely game of baseball. The thought of playing eight or nine games a week for a few months isn’t as daunting to a left fielder, who on a busy day, might bat five times and have four balls hit to them. The same can’t be said of catchers, and with the current roster sizes, pitchers couldn’t literally shoulder that load.
The delay to the season has already created a risk to pitchers under a normal season structure. Pitchers who were building up arm strength during Spring Training are suddenly on their own when it comes to getting ready for the season. Teams need to be careful about how they instruct their pitchers to work independently until Opening Day comes.
With the most optimistic start date for the season being June, it’s unlikely MLB would devote any more time to a second Spring Training than it needed to. Any game played in second spring, could instead be part of the regular season.
A shorter season might mean fewer innings, but injury risk isn’t necessarily tied to total innings. Throwing 100 innings in two months obviously creates more stress on the arm than throwing 100 innings in three. A fifty percent increase in innings per month is roughly what would happen assuming no change in roster size or any other method of lightening the load.
Of course, the rules currently allow for an extra player to be added to the major league roster for doubleheaders, and roster sizes were set to expand to 26 at the start of the season. To counteract that, teams are only supposed to carry a maximum of 13 pitchers (14 for doubleheaders), so that extra roster spot doesn’t do any good for limiting innings. It can, however, be used for a third catcher, and if there weekly double headers, I’d expect most teams to use it for that. There are also restrictions on position players pitching, and the 10-day IL is no longer an option for pitchers meaning that Farhan Zaidi can’t use phantom IL stints to call up fresh arms with as much regularity.
Under the current rules, weekly doubleheaders would be too much of an injury risk for players, especially pitchers. The 2020 season is already going to be bizarre (if it happens at all), so if MLB really wants to play weekly doubleheaders, it needs to incorporate some rule changes.
Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins suggested that the doubleheaders be two seven-inning games instead of nine, and that idea has its merits. Minor league doubleheaders are already seven innings, and it would decrease the workload on players (relative to two full games) and allow more games to be played. Changing the length of the game is sure to rankle some fans, and some would prefer one good ole fashioned nine inning game that doesn’t overwork the players over two bastardized versions that do.
With seven-inning doubleheaders in the discussion, why not consider a cap on extra innings? Games that are still tied after 10 innings could be called a draw, and MLB could adopt a points-style standings system akin to the NHL. Weekly doubleheaders might not be so draining if teams never had to play a 16-inning marathon.
Even with extra-innings eliminated and shortened games for doubleheaders. That 27th roster spot being reserved only for doubleheaders would be exhausting for whoever is on the taxi squad. A Nationals player, for instance, could travel from Fresno, CA to DC for a doubleheader Wednesday and return to Fresno on Thursday, and that could be a weekly occurrence for him. That’s an extreme example, but players already find the uncertainty of being on the taxi squad stressful regardless of how long the travel is.
If MLB proceeds with one or two doubleheaders a week (and that’s a pretty big ‘if’), it should absolutely make the 27th roster spot permanent for the 2020 season if only to reduce the strain on the fringe players. In fact, a 28th, 29th, or even a 30th roster spot wouldn’t be a bad idea. That would mean every team could carry a sixth starter, a third catcher, a couple of emergency relievers, and another utility player. Even left fielders need days off.
Weekly doubleheaders might work, but it would require a lot of rule changes to ensure players aren’t put at risk. Even if MLB made all these adjustments to keep players healthy, it seems like it would be better to just play fewer games. At this point, I’ll be grateful if there are any games played this year.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.