The rules for 2021 are a truly bizarre Frankenstein of rules that were agreed upon before the 2020 season was delayed due to COVID-19, rules agreed upon for safety purpose in the shortened 2020 season, and older rules that are unlikely to last after this 2021 season as the new CBA is negotiated. With this being the case, it’s worth taking a look at the “new” set of rules for 2021, since it can be difficult to keep track.
For those of you who care to read through the nitty gritty of the announcement itself, see the Mark Feinsand tweet embedded below.
MLB has officially announced its health and safety protocols for the 2021 season, including on-field rules and roster info: pic.twitter.com/ETTqHiiyxy— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) February 9, 2021
On-field Playing Rules
The somewhat controversial 7-inning doubleheader rule has been carried into the 2021 season to limit physical stress on players during doubleheaders, particularly on pitchers. This seems fairly reasonable in saving teams from needing to cover 18 innings of pitching in one day without shortening the games too much. It does result in less baseball, but since the games affected occur as a part of doubleheaders, fans should still be able to get their baseball fix for those double-header days.
The much more controversial “runner on 2nd base” rule in extra innings from 2020 has also been carried into 2021. The idea of this rule is to shorten games, and therefore place less physical stress on players, which it does seem to do at least to some extent. Many fans find this rule abhorrent, since the runner on 2nd has not been earned by the team and it does incentivize certain offensive styles over others in ways that are different from a normal game setting. Regardless of the fan skepticism, this rule will be in full effect in 2021 for all extra-inning games.
On a much less serious note, position players will be permitted to pitch without restriction in 2021. It is worth mentioning here that current Brave Pablo Sandoval has a career 0.00 ERA and has never allowed a hit or base on balls in his illustrious (two inning) pitching career.
There are a number of tweaks to the roster rules for the 2021 season. You may remember that before the COVID-19 pandemic happened, active rosters were set to be at 26 players, with a 13 pitcher maximum allowance for the 2020 season. In 2021, the active rosters will indeed be at 26 players after the expanded rosters of 2021, although the 13 pitcher maximum has been waived for this season. The active roster will also expand to 28 in September.
The rules regarding the case of a COVID-19 outbreak in a team have also changed from 2020 to 2021, in which case teams can temporarily add players to the active roster without the need to option, waive, or outright them in order to remove them from the 40-man roster. This rule is intended to enable the continuation of playing a teams schedule amidst an outbreak.
Another rule carried over from 2020 is the 5-player taxi squad that can travel with the major league team on road trips without being on the active roster. If a team does choose to utilize all 5 taxi squad spots, one of the taxi squad players must be a designated catcher.
The most significant of rule changes from 2020 are currently not included in the rules for 2021, in the universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs. It appears that owners would like to attach these rules to each other in order to get the MLBPA to agree to give them the expanded playoffs (which are a huge revenue addition) in exchange for a smaller chip in the universal designated hitter. So far the MLBPA seems unwilling to make this trade at the risk of compromising their leverage on expanded playoffs for the upcoming CBA negotiations. This means that we will likely see pitchers hitting again for 2021, even as the general sentiment seems to be that this will be the last season of that. At least Max Fried is pretty good at the plate by pitcher standards, even if he remains far worse than even below average position players. This also means that playoff field will likely remain at 10 total teams, the division winners and two wild-cards from each league in 2021.
These two rules could still be agreed upon at any point up until the regular season officially starts, although there are varying levels of confidence on whether an agreement will indeed be reached on either one of these rules or both.