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How the coronavirus pandemic changed baseball's rules

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Editor's note: This week marks one year since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily stopped, and in some ways permanently changed, sports in North America. This is one part of a content series running on NBCSportsWashington.com.

There are few things baseball fans seem to enjoy debating more than how to "fix" baseball.

In recent years, commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB have taken steps to attract the next generation of fans, including the consideration of many rules changes that have long been considered taboo.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced baseball's hand on a number of these changes in order to make for a safer environment for its players and staff during the shortened season.

Those changes included many that team owners have wanted to make to appeal to younger fans in an effort to shorten games, which was a priority during the pandemic. The question now is are these changes - a few of which are still around for 2021 as COVID-19 still rages on - a permanent part of baseball moving forward, or just a blip on the radar as MLB tries to play a full season under extreme circumstances?

One thing to keep in mind while running through the various rules changes is the CBA-sized elephant in the room. The collective bargaining agreement between the owners and MLBPA expires after the 2021 season.

It's hard to tell which rules are around for the long haul, but some still seem more likely than others to stay beyond 2021. General safety rules like pitchers being allowed a wet rag in lieu of licking their fingers, the five-man taxi squad and umpires and coaches staying six feet away from each other will obviously be gone once it is deemed safe to do so.

 

But there are four major rules changes that stand out as potential game-changers for the league going forward. Here they are, in order from least likely to stick around to most.

Extra-inning runner on second base automatically

For the 2020 season, each team began every extra inning with a runner on second base. This was designed to shorten game times during a season in which teams wanted to minimize time at the ballpark, and it will be in place for 2021 as well.

This rule was one of the least impactful, as it only comes into play if teams are tied after nine innings and it doesn't impact anything beyond strategy. Still, for baseball purists, it was one of the worst additions as perhaps the only one that actively impacted the way the sport looked (even if only in specific circumstances).

Earning the right to be on base is a fundamental part of baseball, and many fans were passionately against this change. It's fair to keep it for 2021 as shorter games are still a worthy priority, but if the fans have anything to say about it this will likely be gone by 2022.

Seven-inning doubleheaders

Speaking of shorter games, limiting doubleheaders to seven innings each was also designed to be less taxing on the players trying to squeeze in a season during a pandemic. This, too, will be around again in 2021.

This was perhaps the least controversial rule change in 2020, as doubleheaders are avoided as much as possible anyway. Additionally, 14 innings is already a lot to play in one day, and the extra two in each game (not to mention any potential extra innings needed) don't generally seem worth it. This one appears to be a coinflip to stick around beyond this season.

Universal DH

These last two rules changes seem to be the most likely to stay long-term and have been among the most debated across fans for years.

The designated hitter has been in the American League for nearly 50 years, while pitchers have always taken their own at-bats in the National League. That changed in 2020 with the advent of the universal DH to keep pitchers from getting too taxed in a weird season.

The rule isn't around for 2021, but many fans have clamored for it for years even ahead of the pandemic. It makes little sense that the AL and NL would have different rules that change how teams in the two leagues have to strategize and build their rosters.

The owners and MLBPA have not agreed to continue the universal DH for 2021, yet, although that could change before the season starts. One reason is in proposals the owners have tied it to the next rule, and neither side wants to concede their stance on such important issues. 

 

Expanded playoffs

The postseason expanded to 16 teams in 2020 and, like the universal DH, it has reverted back to normal for 2021. But fans should expect this to be negotiated right up until the start of the season, and it will be a major sticking point during CBA negotiations after the season.

Permanently expanding the playoffs may muddy down the value regular season in the eyes of many fans, but one thing is undeniable — more postseason games means increased revenue. The reason this is most likely to be around for the long haul comes down to the one thing that drives every decision made across professional sports: money. And that's why the owners are going to keep pushing for more playoff teams, and why the players are holding onto the concession as perhaps their most valuable bargaining chip.

Whenever it goes down, the best way to predict rules changes is to follow the money. And that makes the most obvious long-term rule change of the bunch.