As the 2021 spring training season draws closer, there were several questions left lingering regarding what rules might transfer over from the shortened 2020 season, as well as what protocols MLB would be taking to ensure the safety of its players and staff over the busy summer months.
On Tuesday morning MLB sent out a press release that contained some of the answers people wanted, and quite a good deal more, which we’ll dive into below.
There are a few different categories addressed in the release, and though some are not specifically related to health and safety, but rather to pace of play (perhaps with the assumption that faster-run games reduce exposure risks) let’s get into each area of the new regulations.
Game Play Changes
Many of the unpopular changes of last season remain in effect, but there’s a major difference, primarily in that the designated hitter will return to being in the AL only this season.
Extra-inning games will see a runner automatically start the inning on second base, as it did last season, and once again double-header games will be reduced to seven innings.
There’s also specific language in place regarding physical altercations, stating:
Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions
This is unlikely to stop a bench-clearing brawl from happening, but it will be good to see real consequences to those ill-advised actions.
The roster will “revert to 26 (expanding to 28 in September), but the limit on the number of pitchers on the Active Roster at any given time has been waived for this season.”
Additionally a five-man taxi squad will be allowed on all road trips, and should a team experience an outbreak situation, the team is allowed to add players to its roster “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.”
Currently every Club is being required to develop a COVID-19 action plan to be approved, and they must also:
... appoint an Infection Control Prevention Coordinator and a Compliance Officer (Assistant GM or above in seniority) who will be responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance of all health and safety protocols.
These protocols must be upheld or else the club risks an unspecified penalty.
Players must wear a Kinexon contact tracing device during all practice and play activities, though there is no language to indicate these devices must be worn off premises.
There will be no pre-game exchange of lineup cards, these will instead be posted digitally.
Testing protocols remain unchanged with every other day testing mandatory, and there are only minor tweaks to the requirements for isolation if a player is in contact with an infected individual (minimum seven days) or a confirmed case themselves (minimum 10 days). Additionally MLB will offer expanded testing for family and household members of covered individuals.
Mask wearing will be absolutely mandatory for players except on the field for game play and warmups. To keep this regulated there will be an enforcement officer who can issue fines for non-compliance in the dugout during games.
There are tight protocols against activities that would put players and staff at high exposure risk, including going out restaurants and lounges, being in groups of more than 10, or leaving their designated hotel on road trips. During spring training total household isolation is required.
One of the most unique changes not specifically related to COVID is the addition of mental health support and well-being services available players and Club staff from spring training through the postseason. This acknowledgement of the importance of mental health treatment and awareness is a huge and vital shift for MLB.
By and large the rules are very much in line with the previous season’s efforts, both in controlling pace of play and also protecting players and staff. An elevated awareness of staff mental health is a tremendous change for MLB and one that will hopefully serve to be beneficial for all.
This is not a “bubble” by any means, but it does appear MLB is trying to mitigate risks and maintain a safe environment for everything, which is absolutely necessary if there’s any hope at all of a full season being played.