Major League Baseball was supposed to launch its 2020 season last week. The spread of the novel coronavirus prompted the league to delay Opening Day, from March 26th until a date that will be determined by the effectiveness of the containment strategies imposed across the country. There is no guarantee a season will take place. If it does, it will not resemble the standard, 162-game variety that everyone is accustomed to experiencing.
Pragmatism, not convention, will instead reign supreme. That means fewer games packaged in a denser way. One proposal involves each team playing at least one doubleheader per week. Fattening the schedule could come at a cost, however, as players would receive less rest and could be at greater risk of injury. It isn't surprising, then, to see counterbalancing ideas floated.
One to keep an eye on is the idea of the doubleheaders lasting seven innings instead of nine, the way minor-league and collegiate levels do it. Time is all we have right now, so we figured we'd pose the question: Which types of teams might prefer the seven-inning modification?
We came up with five types of teams. Note that we're not saying these teams have a substantive advantage necessarily, even on their designated doubleheader days. We're just saying that there's some reason to think they might be quick to embrace the modified doubleheader format, as opposed to playing the full 18 inning.
On to the explaining.
1. Deep teams
Duh, right? A different, fitting description would be "good teams," as clubs with ample arms tend to serve as the best in show. Having more than enough pitching permits teams ample coverage in case of injury, underperformance, or -- in this scenario -- a greater frequency of games.
It stands to reason that these teams would be better positioned to bring up a spot-starter, or swap out relievers, or even go to a six-pitcher rotation without risking overexposure. That capability would come in handy with doubleheaders, as it would negate the need to rearrange the rotation and extinguish the temptation to ask too much from a team's bullpen.
The teams who come to mind in this regard are the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers are projected to enter the season without top prospects Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, and Josiah Gray in their rotation. They also have Jimmy Nelson recovering from injury. The Braves, for their part, could have Cole Hamels back by the time the season commences. If Felix Hernandez claims the fifth spot in the rotation, then Atlanta could have Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Ian Anderson, and others available to them as the need arises.
That's a nice luxury to have.
2. Imbalanced staffs
Shortening the game is certain to alter managers' willingness to play to their strengths. That could loom large for teams who have an uneven staff, slanting in either direction. A manager with a good rotation and leaky bullpen could see the seven-inning doubleheader games as an opportunity to take his bullpen out of the equation entirely. Conversely, a manager whose bullpen has to do a lot of work could opt for a short start, if not an outright bullpen game.
Let's use the 2019 New York teams to highlight what we mean. The Yankees, blessed with a dynamite relief corps and so-so back-end of the rotation, could have limited what they required from their weaker starters in favor of their bullpen. The Mets, who received the most innings per start of any team in the majors, could have let Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard "have" one of the two games, thereby freeing up their best relievers to pitch in the other game (or in previous/subsequent contests) without then running the risk of overusing them.
3. Teams with many youngsters with inning limits
4. Teams with injury-prone starters
Our next two categories are fairly self-explanatory, so we've opted to pair them together. In both cases, we're talking about teams who would welcome shaving four innings from doubleheaders.
The Oakland Athletics are certain to monitor the workloads of Jesus Luzardo, Sean Manaea, and A.J. Puk, each of whom dealt with injuries last season. Reducing the total amount of innings the A's have to cover would, in turn, would make it easier to balance short-term goals (winning games) with long-term necessities (treating the young arms with caution).
There's a flip side to that as it pertains to veterans, too. The Los Angeles Angels, whose rotation always seems more prone to injury than the average team, would be able to micromanage their starters' outings in a more aggressive manner. Of course, given the trickiness of preventing pitcher injuries, it's possible that the shift would make no discernible difference.
Speaking of the Angels, let's move on to our final category.
5. Teams with Shohei Ohtani
Ohtani is rare enough to merit his own subhead. He's working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and his two-way nature would seem to be a good fit for the modified schedule.
The Angels could have Ohtani start one of the doubleheader games each week. Because of the reduced length, they would be able to ease him into starting again with four- or five-inning assignments without bleeding their bullpen.
Much like the seven-inning doubleheader concept, it's something worth considering as MLB faces unprecedented circumstances.