With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, Major League Baseball players have had to make a ton of adjustments to their everyday routines. Among them, though not wholly pandemic-related, was having to go through games without heading back to the clubhouse to watch in-game video during the shortened 2020 season.
Yes, COVID-19 concerns limited clubhouse access, but the in-game video issue stemmed from the Astros sign-stealing scandal. For the past several decades, players had been allowed to hop down to the clubhouse during games and check out footage of their last at-bat, for example. In light of the high-tech scandal, the league banned in-game video for the 2020 season.
We can't know for sure that the lack of video was one of the causes of one of the lowest league-wide batting averages ever (.245, the lowest since 1968), but many players spoke out about the impact.
The good news for players is they are again allowed to watch in-game video in 2021 -- with catcher signs blurred out -- only now they can do it in the dugout on tablets. That really seems like the best of both worlds, doesn't it? The players can have all the technology they've grown accustomed to using, there can't be sign stealing via that method and they can stay in the dugout in doing so.
"There's no computers," J.D. Martinez lamented on Tuesday night. "They're all gone — disappeared."
Who took them away?
"The man upstairs is the one running the show and makes the rules," Martinez noted cryptically.
"In the past I probably already would have been able to get in the video room, break [struggling teammate Andrew Benintendi's] swing down, look at it, do some comparisons. It's kind of what I do for most of the guys on the team," said Martinez. "We don't have access to any of that stuff anymore. It's kind of everyone on their own. Survivor."
"To be honest, it sucks because I like to make my adjustments during the game," Baez said. "I watch my swing. I watch where the ball was, where the contact was. And I'm mad. I'm really mad that we don't have it because, to be honest, with all due respect, we didn't cheat. We're not cheating, and we have to pay for all of this. It's tough.
"It's a short season, and it's all this crap that we don't like, but I know a lot of players are struggling."
"Hitters and pitchers, honestly, use video during the game, and it gives us the best chance to be successful and it gives us the best chance to, basically, put the best product on the field. Things like that, that help us perform better, should be able to be used."
Again, we can't know for sure just how impactful losing in-game video access was on the players. So much was different. The regular season was reduced by 102 games, there were no fans in the stands, they started spring training and then stopped and then had a quick "summer camp" before the season and all the additional pandemic protocols were new. There were just so many factors that made the 2020 season impossible to judge in terms of what to take away as real and what was just a COVID creation.
It would be ignorant to dismiss the players' discussion on the in-game video adjustments, though. Once a player gets used to being able to watch his swings and pitch location on every single plate appearance, it becomes part of his routine. Baseball is a sport of routine. Breaking that routine causes a player to feel like something is "off" and when that happens, good luck trying to hit a triple-digit fastball or exploding breaking ball.
Martinez mentioned something was different. He hit .304 with a .557 slugging in 2019. That went down to .213 with a .389 slugging in 2020. Baez hit .281 with a .531 slugging in 2019 and .203 with a .360 slugging percentage in 2020.
These weren't isolated examples. Throughout baseball there were head-scratching steps back. Put Baez's teammates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo on the list. Brewers star Christian Yelich hit .326/.402/.598 in 2018 and .329/.429/.671 in 2019. In 2020? .205/.356/.430 with his strikeout percentage going up over 10 percent. Nolan Arenado went from .315/.379/.583 to .253/.303/.434.
Marcus Semien, in his "contract year" hit .223/.305/.374 a year after slashing .285/.369/.522 and had to accept a one-year deal this winter. Dodgers lefty Cody Bellinger won a World Series title, but he also lost 66 points of average, 73 of on-base and 174 of slugging. Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres lost 167 points of slugging along with 35 of average.
I'm well aware many are going to point to the sign-stealing issue as the primary indicator here, but Astros stars Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve took a noticeable dive with Altuve's being the most extreme and Bregman still posting a 116 OPS+ (though it was 162 in 2019).
Again, there very well could be factors all over the place here. Each individual has different circumstances. It's entirely possible some of these guys just had what would've amounted to small slumps over the course of 162 games and would have heated up later in the year to balance out their stats. The list above certainly includes some streaky players. For example on this front, in 2018 Paul Goldschmidt was hitting .220/.335/.407 through 60 games. He 2018 season shows a final line of .290/.389/.533.
There are more considerations. We can't know the impact of something like a player mentally pressing a lot more in a shorter season instead of having more patience knowing "it's still early" in a longer season, making matters worse than it was for 2018 Goldschmidt.
How much do the players really rise to occasion and perform for actual spectators in the crowd? Meaning that empty crowds made it have a different feel and it's possible they played worse in light of it.
It's also possible not being able to look at video really messed up some players.
I'm just saying it's possible.
We have no way of knowing, of course. We didn't conduct a scientific experiment with a "control 2020 full season" against which to measure the COVID-impacted season we saw, so it's all just guesswork.
The hunch here is that a good number of the aforementioned players named were affected by some combination of the things I mentioned and that most of that stuff is back to some level of "normal" in 2021. Notably, for this discussion, in-game video is back and that's likely good news for many hitters and bad news for opposing pitchers.