Baseball is officially back after the owners and players came to their senses following yet another episode of the sport’s perpetual labor bullshit. But we’ll holster any residual animosity from the two sides needlessly delaying the start to the 2020 season and revel in the fact we finally have meaningful games.

Sure, baseball should’ve been back around July 4th for a bunch of different reasons, but the small contingent of hardcore baseball fans at Complex Sports couldn’t be more hyped as the most unique season in the sport’s history will see its first pitch thrown between the Yankees and the defending World Series champion Nationals tonight in the nation’s capital Thursday.

The baseball we’ll see played in a pandemic will largely look the same, but it’ll also be way different during the 60-game regular-season sprint that hopefully concludes in October with a proper World Series. So if you haven’t been paying attention, but you’re as hyped for hardball as we are, here are nine things you need to know and we want to see from the 2020 season.

Hallelujah, There’s a Universal DH

Because of the uniqueness of the season, there are a few rules changes that will fundamentally change how the game is played across both the American and National Leagues. Most notably, there’s a universal DH this season so no more separate rules for the two leagues. While old school fans might lament the demise of the pitcher hitting in the NL and all the strategy it involves, let’s be real here: having pitchers hit sucks. It’s always sucked. And it’s about god damn time MLB got rid of an automatic out in every NL lineup.

As Cincinnati pitcher Trevor Bauer told us in a recent episode of the Load Management podcast, he loves that he doesn’t have to pick up a bat this season.

“I hate hitting,” Bauer said.   

It’s a feeling shared by a lot of pitchers who barely spend any time in the cage and would rather avoid trying to bunt and run the bases when they’re not getting paid for their performance at the plate. And who likes seeing a star pitcher getting pulled an inning early because their manager needs more pop up at the plate? A universal DH is used basically everywhere in professional and high amateur baseball—except, until this season, in Major League Baseball—so it’s long past due that the archaic tradition of having a powerless pitcher hit in the National League died an ignominious death.

“If the Steroid Era taught us anything, you want to see Bonds and McGwire and Sosa and all these guys hitting balls 500 feet,” Bauer said. “That seems to be interesting.”

Extra Innings May Never be the Same

We'll see the other big rules change for 2020 when we get free baseball. Should a game go into extras, each half-inning will start with a runner on second base. Traditionalists are going to bitch and moan about this rule change—and as Bauer pointed out on the pod so too will pitchers. Relievers are concerned about how inherited runners will be credited statistically since it’ll affect their stats and therefore be used against them in future contract negotiations.

“Wins and losses don’t really factor too much into contracts for relief pitchers, but ERA certainly does,” Bauer said. “I think there’s a lot of problems with it. I mean I understand the desire to shorten extra-inning games. We all feel that—we all don’t want to be out there 19 innings, either. But there’s some things that need to be hashed out with how that’s all going to work out because stats are a huge part of baseball and always have been.”

You get completely where Bauer’s coming from. But it’s been installed as an effort to speed up the game—which baseball desperately needs to do. And let’s be honest, if it’s going to eliminate all those unnecessary 13, 14, and 15-inning regular-season games, absolutely no one—other than relief pitchers—will complain about the tweak.

Start the Sprint

By the time this abbreviate season is over the phrase “it’s a sprint and not a marathon” will have been uttered a nauseating one billion times. Because of the quirkiness of the sport, a 60-game schedule won’t necessarily anoint the best teams like a grueling 162-game slate would. Compacting a season into 60 games means ridiculous things can (will?) happen, like a bad team going on a freak hot streak and possibly sneaking into the postseason or a title contender struggling mightily out of the gates and potentially missing October baseball. The widely cited example is the 2019 World Series champion Nationals who got off to a brutal start that definitely would’ve caused them to miss the postseason in a 60-game slate.

This can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the team you root for. But looking at the positive side of things it should make every pitch, every inning, every game that much more dramatic and consequential. Sure, every game technically counts during a normal season, but when you’re slogging through 162 games some you just know are going to be an L for your squad and players will readily admit to taking schedule losses. When you only have 60 games to play, the ante has been upped like never before. It all means more and there’s so little room for error—or an ill-timed sweep.  

Astros/Dodgers/Yankees or the Field?

There are three clear-cut favorites to win the World Series. The Dodgers (4-1), Yankees (4-1), and Astros (12-1) have the shortest odds on the board to be crowned champs. In a normal season, considering how stacked each of those squads are, it would be tough to justify throwing down a wager on anyone else. Each has incredibly deep lineups and top-tier starting pitching while the Yankees yet again should feature the best bullpen in baseball.

But as I just pointed out, the 60-game schedule could (should?) create some craziness and a few poorly timed injuries or an egregious losing streak could easily implode one of the favorite’s season and give a second-tier squad an opening.

If you’re a betting man and looking for value, the Rays, who could easily snatch the AL East from the favored Yankees and arguably feature the game’s best rotation, are worth a wager at 20-1. As always, value pitching over everything else and the Reds (20-1), Mets (22-1), and Nationals (25-1) all have top 10 starting rotations and would return a nice profit from a meager wager.

Not Everybody’s Playing

You can’t criticize someone for preferring to stay at home during a pandemic and not put themselves or their families at risk if they can financially afford to miss work. And a number of All-Stars and big names around baseball, who have made a ton of money over their careers, won’t be suiting up in 2020. We won’t see David Price, Buster Posey, Ryan Zimmerman, Felix Hernandez, Nick Markakis, and about a half dozen other players who have declined to play. 

Not having Price hurts the Dodgers who arguably have the most stacked and versatile lineup in baseball after they swung a massive deal for Mookie Betts (that included Price and his monstrous contract). The 2018 AL MVP and former Red Sox star was thought to be a one-year rental and become a free agent in the fall. But Wednesday word came down that the Dodgers and Betts agreed to a massive 12-year, $365 million extension for one of the game’s best players. The Dodgers needed to lock up Betts since they absorbed a ton of money into an already bloated payroll with Price’s contract, dealt some legit prospects, and would've looked like fools if Betts only played 60 games, a round or two in the postseason, and left for some other squad.

Mookie Betts Justin Turner Dodgers Exhibition 2020
Image via USA Today Sports/Robert Hanashiro

LA hasn’t won a World Series since 1988, but they’ve been the best team in the NL year in and year out for the past handful of seasons and have won seven straight NL West division titles thanks to an awesome rotation and an incredibly deep and versatile roster. But because baseball is often a crapshoot in the postseason, all the Dodgers have to show for the consistent regular-season success is two World Series appearances and zero rings. Betts doesn't necessairly put them over the top, but he undoubtedly makes the Dodgers significantly better and the rightfield/centerfield combo of Betts and Cody Belinger, the 2019 NL MVP, is by far the game's best. 

No Fans Will be Weird

Maybe things change during the postseason, although that seems doubtful right now, but it’s weird seeing ballparks empty and clubs pumping in fake crowd noise to fill up the silence. But that’s not the worst part of not having fans in the stands. The worst part about not having fans filing into stadiums around the country this season is that we’ll be robbed of the opportunity to see all the clever and creative ways fans would’ve roasted the cheating Astros.

Houston’s 2018 World Series title will forever be tainted thanks to the conclusions drawn in the MLB investigation into the team’s elaborate sign-stealing racket. And MLB’s relatively toothless penalties basically let the franchise off the hook. So who is going to hold the cheaters accountable and never let them forget their fraudulent championship? The fans.

Imagine the reception the Astros would’ve received on their first trip to Yankee Stadium? Or their trips around the AL West, including to Oakland and those nutjobs sitting in the outfield bleachers at RingCentral Coliseum? Alex Bregman, Carlos Corera, and other Astros didn’t exactly say anything that resembled true remorse and contrition when MLB’s report was released this past spring. Then again, they have a ring and MLB isn’t going to vacate their title so they got the last laugh. But for such an egregious act they deserve the full scorn of baseball fans everywhere. Let’s hope the Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium and other pockets of fanatics around the country roast the hell out of the Astros when they visit in 2021.   

The Buffalo or Florida or Pittsburgh or Baltimore Blue Jays?

Canada says the Blue Jays can’t play in Toronto on account of national safety and how out of control the coronavirus has become in the US. They don’t want teams crossing the border and potentially bringing the virus into the country. Or the Blue Jays players catching it in the States and returning home. That’s fair.

So where the Blue Jays set up shop for their 30 home games in 2020 will be fascinating to see. Could they play in Buffalo where their Triple A affiliate is based? Or do they try and set up shop at an abandoned ballpark like Atlanta or DC. Or do they play at their spring training facility in Florida? Reports bubbled up earlier this week that the Pirates may offer up PNC Park as an option, but the state of Pennsylvania 86ed that idea Wednesday. Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore has emerged as the leading potential landing spot. It feels like there's a new report out every day and it's nuts things haven't been finalized when the Blue Jays season starts Friday. Regardless, the Blue Jays are going to live a nomadic life for 60-games and while they likely won’t compete for a postseason berth, they should feature a fun, young lineup that will scare other squads throwing out their fourth and fifth starters.

More. Bat. Flips.

It’s already going to be a crazy season so we’re openly advocating for MLB players to up their bat flip game to rival their Korean counterparts and start getting ridiculous with the showboating after every moonshot.

Soon enough, pitchers will stop caring about a player pimping out after taking them deep and accept that celebrations are a normal human emotion when you do something powerful and productive. That should start in 2020. And while the no fighting rule in place for this season (laughably in the name of player safety during a pandemic) technically allows pitchers to throw at batters with impunity if they get all in their feelings about a bat flip, let’s hope guys have finally come to their senses. When will pitchers realize if you don’t want to see a bat flip you should throw better pitches. I don’t know why in the KBO nobody has a problem with the epic bat flips, but here in America pitchers get pissy.

Hitting a moonshot is better than sex—yeah, I said it—and anyone taking a major league pitcher throwing 95 mph with movement deep should be allowed to showboat to their heart’s desire without the fear of getting drilled in the ear the next time up.

We already saw some awesome bat flips—we’re looking at you Load Management podcast guest Tim Anderson—during spring training 2.0 and some of the exhibition games. Here’s hoping Anderson, Yasiel Puig (when he officially signs with somebody), and the other usual suspects who are bat flip kings take it to new heights and others start to follow because bat flips are fun and baseball’s supposed to be fun—not some stuffy game stuck adhering to stupid traditions from a century ago.

Predictions

Can't do a preview without making some predictions. Remember these come October. 

AL East: Yankees
AL Central: Twins
AL West: Astros
Wild Cards: Rays, A's
AL MVP: Alex Bregman
AL Cy Young: Blake Snell 
AL Home Run Leader: Yordan Alvarez

NL East: Braves
NL Central: Cubs
NL West: Dodgers
Wild Cards: Reds, Nationals
NL MVP: Ronald Acuna Jr.
NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler
NL Home Run Leader: Juan Soto

World Series: Rays vs. Dodgers
Champs: Dodgers

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