Despite a new strategy for the playoffs, baseball continues to toe the line on COVID-19

Columnist Doug Cobb examines the pitfalls and pluses of the new MLB bubble strategy.

Well, they made it. Almost. Major League Baseball (MLB) survived its chaotic, shortened, 60-game season and has begun its postseason. And this may have been the strangest year in MLB history, which is saying something. The MLB has seen multiple strike-shortened or otherwise altered seasons, including the 1994 strike-induced cancellation of the end of the season and World Series (sorry Expos, they really did you dirty), a season shortened by World War I and multiple seasons played uninterrupted throughout World War II (despite the absence of several players due to service, such as all-time great Ted Williams). Because of COVID-19, the regular 162-game schedule was cut down to 60 games, most of which were between division and interleague rivals somewhat geographically close to each other. Other changes included adding a designated hitter to the National League, starting all extra innings with a runner on second base (to shorten games and produce quick runs) and changing double headers to seven-inning games. 

But the real game-changer is the new playoff format. In a normal year, 10 of the MLB’s 30 teams make the postseason, five from the National League (NL) and five from the American League (AL). Following the one game wild card playoff between the four- and five-seed wild card teams in each league, the first full round of the playoffs would be the best of five League Division Series’ (LDS) of which there are two in each league (two LDS’ and four teams in each league). The winners of the three divisions from each league were seeded 1-3 based on team record and given automatic entry to the LDS. The final team to make it to the LDS in each league was decided by the wild card game mentioned earlier. The winners of the two LDS’ in each league would then face off in a best of seven League Championship Series (LCS) and finally the winners of the two LCS’ would meet in a best of seven World Series. This year, however, to account for the randomness of the shortened season, the MLB decided to expand the playoffs to 16 teams, eight from each league. The eight teams from each league were division winners (1-3 seeds), second place teams from each division (4-6 seeds) and the usual two wild cards (7-8 seeds). The teams were then all matched up, lowest seeds against highest seeds (i.e. 8 vs. 1, 7 vs. 2 etc.), for a best of three Wild Card series. This then left each league with four teams for the Division Series as usual but with some added spice: There is a bubble. 

The people running the MLB must have read an article or two from a clever and knowledgeable journalist emphasizing the importance of a bubble to a sports league’s success during these trying times (you’re welcome baseball, and for that matter, America). A bubble is the smartest, safest choice, and the MLB was not going to take a chance on the potential $1 billion dollar revenue that will be generated by their postseason. The MLB bubble is only now beginning, following the conclusion of the Wild Card Series. The eight remaining teams will play all of their playoff games in one of four stadiums: San Diego’s Petco Park, Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, Texas’ Globe Life Field and Houston’s Minute Maid Park. All the AL playoff games will be held in the two Southern California ballparks, and all the NL playoff series’, in addition to the World Series, will be held in the two Texas ballparks. During the LCS and LDS there will be no days off—all games will be played on back to back nights. But the World Series will still have its planned two days off: one after the first two games and the final day off after the fifth game. Holding all the playoff games at just four stadiums will reduce travel and allow for real bubbles to be formed. Yet the rules of the bubbles are a little strange. There has not been and will not be any real quarantine period for the players. The rule is that the last week of the regular season was supposed to be a quasi-quarantine, where players from all contending teams were required to stay in a team hotel at all times except during games. The players were tested every day, and now that we are down to the final eight teams, the players are all in their hotel bubbles at each of the four sites where games are being held. Family members will be allowed to see the players after they have completed a supervised seven-day quarantine, but will be forced to stay in a separate bubble for families and will only be able to interact with the players during supervised outdoor visits

On the surface, this seems like a pretty solid plan. But while it is definitely better than the way the MLB went about the regular season, it does have some glaring flaws. First of all, the quarantine period is too short: The CDC recommends a 14-day quarantine, even if you test negative, as symptoms can sometimes take a while to show up. We have seen other leagues go with that 14-day recommendation for their quarantine, but it looks like the MLB was in too much of a hurry to do things right. Additionally, the quarantine for the players wasn’t even a real quarantine; they were playing against other teams, some of which are not in the final bubble. It should be noted that this strategy of locking the players in hotel rooms and only letting them out for their team’s games did significantly reduce the risk of an outbreak, since the quarantined players couldn’t interact with people outside the MLB (such as strippers). Having said that, this was a half-assed quarantine effort designed to save time. Even though the players under quarantine couldn’t go out, this was not a tight bubble, and some teams that weren’t in contention anymore and didn’t have to quarantine were entering and exiting the bubble every time they played contenders. The MLB must be feeling confident since the end of the regular season went pretty smoothly, but they are playing with fire. Forty-five games were postponed during the regular season, and for one weekend in August, things seemed pretty dire for the league. On the bright side, since from here on out the players will only be interacting with each other, this strategy doesn’t pose much of a risk to the rest of the public.

Or so we thought. Despite not allowing fans at any regular season games, the MLB plans to allow 11,500 fans per game during the World Series and NL Championship Series. This is because these two series are being held at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and Texas is one of the few states that are allowing spectators to attend sporting events this year. To me, this once again seems like the MLB being greedy and cutting corners. Having any amount of fans at sporting events right now seems dangerous and irresponsible, but both the NFL and MLB are hosting fans at their events because I guess they really need that extra bit of ticket revenue (the MLB and NFL are known to have very slim budgets after all). In all seriousness though, this should be an interesting case study. So far we have seen that when you don’t put any guidelines in place, everything is a disaster, and when you put really strict guidelines in place, everything seems to work out pretty well. Now we get a chance to see what happens to the MLB, with a plan that lands somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. I will always advocate for being overly-cautious instead of under-cautious, but maybe it doesn’t really take that much effort to greatly reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. The main reason the United States failed so miserably to reopen during this pandemic is because people were stupid when handling the situation. No, that’s not an accurate assessment; people were beyond stupid, gathering in large groups without masks, pretending the virus didn’t exist and just going on with their normal lives as if nothing was happening. Maybe even just a little bit of effort can yield good results. Only time will tell.

This has been one strange year, not just for sports, but for everything and everyone. It is easy to focus on all the negatives (trust me, I do that plenty), but we should be excited by the fact that baseball made it through the regular season and seems to have a good chance of completing the postseason. The NBA and WNBA have just a few games left in their finals, the NWSL successfully completed a full tournament earlier this summer, the US Open (tennis) went as planned and the Stanley Cup has been lifted in the NHL. Not bad, considering that just a few months ago we were unsure if we would have any sports at all this year. 

Because of the strangeness of the MLB season and the expanded playoffs, I think we are poised to see a mediocre team win it all. I am calling it: The Miami Marlins are going to win the World Series this year. As frustrating as it may be to see a less deserving or less talented team win the World Series, maybe there is a lesson in there for us all: When life hands you strange circumstances—and clearly it will—you can choose to lie down and accept defeat or you can capitalize on the surprise and unpreparedness of others and pull off a great upset. Either way, might as well give it a shot and find out, right?

One Comment

  1. Although the impact of COVID on baseball games is indeed great, as the epidemic gradually eases, everything should return to normal soon

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