2021 Major League Baseball
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The 2021 Major League Baseball season was the twenty-second season in which the two major leagues, the National League and the American League, were consolidated into a single entity under the authority of the Commissioner, Rob Manfred.
In the months before the start of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, there was hope that the new year would bring a return to normalcy after the 2020 season had been completely upended by the Coronavirus pandemic. All baseball activities had stopped from mid-March to early July, the season had been reduced to 60 games played without spectators, one team had had to find a temporary home, a number of them had been shut down for days on end by outbreaks of COVID-19, the All-Star Game and numerous other prestigious events had been cancelled, almost everyone had had to take a cut in salary, and teams had suffered massive financial losses, although the final numbers were kept a close secret. But in spite of this, a season had been played, and after a postseason largely taking place in neutral sites, the 2020 World Series had crowned a worthy winner in the Los Angeles Dodgers. The turmoil continued in the first weeks of the off-season, as teams decided to non-tender a number of veteran players for purely financial considerations, creating a glut of free agents with teams unwilling to make significant offers, with a few exceptions, because of the prevailing uncertainty. At the same time, the long-rumored reorganization of the minor leagues was announced in early December, with whole circuits and dozens of teams disappearing. And with Major League Baseball heading into the final season of the Collective Bargaining Agreement reached in 2016, there was uncertainty about whether a full season would be played: heading into late December, owners and the Players Union were at loggerheads on this issue, with players insisting that it would be possible to play a full season, given that health and safety protocols had been successfully implemented in 2020, while owners wanted to delay its start to May and cut it to 140 games, to allow for vaccination, which had just started at that point, to be sufficiently advanced to allow for a more normal environment.
In January, MLB made a formal proposal to the Players Association to delay the start of both spring training and the regular season by one month, pushing back opening day to April 29th. The season would have been reduced to 154 games, and some of the special rules introduced the previous season would be kept, namely the universal designated hitter and the expansion of the postseason (to seven and not eight teams per league, however). On February 1st, this proposal was rejected by the players, meaning that the plan was to stick to a regular schedule. There was still a lot of uncertainty remaining, including the presence of spectators, and where the Toronto Blue Jays would play their home games, given the continued closure of the Canada-U.S. border to most visitors, and the imposition of even stricter quarantine rules for international travelers than those that prevailed in 2020. This was eventually resolved by the Blue Jays deciding to use their spring training home, TD Ballpark, in Dunedin, FL, as a temporary home with the hope of being able to reintegrate their home ballpark at some point during the summer.
On February 8th, MLB and the Players Association agreed on a new set of health and safety protocols for spring training and the upcoming season. Among the features retained from 2020 were seven-inning doubleheaders and the use of the extra-innings tie-breaker - but not the universal designated hitter. The deal also confirmed the opening of spring training on February 17th and the date of Opening Day on April 1st. Baseball also adopted contact-tracing technology as used successfully in the NBA. On February 12th, MLB revealed the structure adopted for the minor leagues, with the creation of a "Professional Development League" replacing the former MiLB. The former league names were all dropped, replaced by two AAA leagues, the Triple-A East and Triple-A West, three AA leagues with similarly poetic names, and three High-A and three Low-A leagues also named by consultants strictly based on geography. In addition, complex leagues in Arizona and Florida would be the sole Rookie Class affiliates. MLB tried to spin this positively by insisting on the cities that had not lost their team, the increase in salaries for the players lucky enough not to have lost their job in the massive trimming, and the creation of four "partner leagues" three former independent leagues and the reorganized Appalachian League, now a summer collegiate league, responsible for their own costs. Not mentioned was the massive loss of history and the numerous communities losing their teams, many of which had invested significantly in building or improving playing facilities. A few weeks later, the Pioneer League was also reorganized as a venue for summer collegiate ball.
Spring training games started as expected, albeit with a few twists, such as teams having permission to bring players back into a game, in order to limit the number of substitutes in the dugout, and many games shortened to 7 innings and the possibility of cutting short an inning after a certain pitch count had been reached. However, there were spectators present, as there was a growing sense that vaccination would soon turn the pandemic into a bad memory. With the minor leagues set to re-start after a year's hiatus - albeit a month behind their original schedule - MLB announced that they would be used to test some potential rules changes. These included limits on defensive shifts and pick-off attempts, bigger bases and robot umpires, all with the aim of speeding up the game and increasing the number of balls in play. The rules would be implemented in different leagues, in order to allow for closer analysis of their impact on the game. Two other revolutionary changes were tested out in the Atlantic League, now an MLB partner league: the first was to link the DH to the starting pitcher, meaning the DH would need to leave the game at the same time as the starting pitcher was removed (the objective was to clamp down on the use of "openers" and inject some additional strategy into the late innings), and the second was moving back the pitcher's rubber by 12 inches, in order to lower strikeout numbers.
Opening Day unfolded almost without a hitch on April 1st, the only exception apart from a rainout being the opening series between the New York Mets and Washington Nationals that was postponed because of a positive COVID-19 test by a Nationals player, and the need to quarantine four team members who had been in close contact with him. There were fans present at all sites, and some very exciting games that gave everyone a sense of hope that normalcy was not too far away. The following day, Commissioner Manfred made an important announcement, as he decided to move the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta, GA to another still-to-be-determined location (the new location was announced as Coors Field, in Denver, CO, a few days later). This followed numerous calls for him to act, including by President Joe Biden himself, in response to the State of Georgia's adoption of restrictive voting rules clearly aimed at decreasing African-Americans' participation in future elections.
Early returns about the game on the field were that hitting was down to levels unseen since the "Year of the Pitcher" (1968). After three weeks, the batting average in the majors was down to .232, five points below the worst ever seen, and 11 teams had a batting average below .220. Home runs were also down, while in contrast, the number of shutouts was way up while the strikeout rate was higher than ever, at 9.4 per nine innings. There had been a lot of talk in the off-season about pitchers using foreign substances to improve spin rates, and in light of the low offensive numbers, MLB issued a warning that it would be cracking down hard. In mid-June, umpires were instructed to inspect all pitchers, which created a ritual of umpires patting down pitchers'uniforms, looking at their gloves and on their belts, including on the inside, in between innings. Some pitchers obeyed less willingly than others to the new directive, making a show of their being displeased with the new procedures. There were no concrete results to this crack-down - except for Statcast confirming that spin rates were significantly down since it started - until Hector Santiago of the Seattle Mariners was caught on June 27th with a sticky substance on his glove. The glove was impounded for further analysis, while Santiago was ejected and then issued a ten-game suspension.
For all the early talk about the dominance of pitchers, major league teams combined to score over 200 runs on a single day on June 30th, the first time this had happened since the 2009 season. In early July, all major league ballparks were now operating at 100% capacity and were it not for the still nomadic status of the Blue Jays, now housed at Buffalo, NY's Sahlen Field, everything would be back to normal. The 2021 All-Star Game was held in normal conditions, in front of a capacity crown in Denver. The day before Commissioner Manfred's annual press conference on the state of the game, on July 12th, he made a major announcement: MLB committed to give up to $150 million to the Players Alliance over a ten-year period towards a variety of programs to support the participation of disadvantaged youth in baseball, not just as players but also in employee development, and in promoting Black baseball history and culture. This made concrete baseball's commitment, made after the tragic killing of George Floyd the previous summer, to be a force for change and progress in communities across the U.S. At his press conference the next day, he said that he expected MLB to get rid of seven-inning doubleheaders and of the tiebreaker rule, two changes adopted the previous year due to the pandemic, and that he was looking at limiting defensive shifts. All of these changes would need to be the subject of discussions during the renewal of the Collective Bargaining Agreement after the season.
- "It's comeback time for America's pastime", The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2021. 
- "MLB announces 2021 regular-season schedule", mlb.com, July 9, 2020. 
- "Union rejects MLB proposal to delay 2021 season, play 154 games", Yahoo! Sports, February 1, 2021. 
- Anthony Castrovince: "Rule changes to be tested in Minors this year", mlb.com, March 11, 2021. 
- Anthony Castrovince: "Two new rules to be tested in Atlantic League", mlb.com, April 14, 2021. 
- Michael Clair: "The goofy and weird midseason awards: The real awards race is inside", mlb.com, July 15, 2021. 
- Mark Feinsand: "MLB commits up to $150M to Players Alliance", mlb.com, July 12, 2021. 
- Matt Kelly: "MLB, union agree on health, safety protocols", mlb.com, February 8, 2021. 
- Matt Kelly: "Runs and then some: Rare 200+ day in MLB: First time teams combine to reach plateau since 2009", mlb.com, July 1, 2021. 
- Jonathan Mayo: "MLB announces new Minors teams, leagues: New model includes player salary increases, modernized facility standards, reduced travel", February 12, 2021. 
- Bob Nightengale: "Major League Baseball, union at odds on whether start of 2021 season should be delayed", USA Today, December 15, 2020. 
- Bill Shaikin: "Five observations from the first half of the 2021 MLB season", Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2021.