Five interesting rules from MLB’s 2021 heath and safety protocols

By | February 9, 2021

MLB released its COVID-19-influenced health and safety protocols for the 2021 season on Tuesday, rules and regulations that have been agreed to by the MLBPA, too.

Most of the bullet points have to do with the dos and don’ts of player behavior, such as where they can eat on the road — outside seating only at restaurants within walking distance of a hotel, for example — and quarantine procedures for spring training. 

MORE: Spring training report dates for all 30 MLB teams

Instead of copying and pasting everything from the release (which you can read here, if you’d like), here are five “highlights” we found most interesting. 

1. Facemask Enforcement Officers are a thing

Here’s the way it’s worded in MLB’s release: “Face coverings must be properly worn at all times when in Club facilities and in the dugout, other than for players on the field during a game or during pre-game warmups. Each club will appoint at least one Facemask Enforcement Officer and automatic fines will be issued for non-compliance during games, with fines collected donated to charity.”

This is a good thing. A very, very good thing. Wear your damn masks, players. And if you can’t be responsible enough to wear a mask in an effort to protect other players and team personnel, then you should get fined. Absolutely, 100 percent.

I, of course, had questions about exactly how this would work for the FEO, so I reached out to MLB. From MLB’s manual on the subject:

The duties of the Compliance Officer(s) include:

• When in hotels on the road, the Compliance Officer (or his or her designee) is responsible for monitoring the public areas of the hotel (e.g., restaurants, bars, fitness centers) to remind players and staff that they should not be utilizing those amenities.

• Pursuant to Section 4.2 of the Manual, the Compliance Officer must ensure that the protocols on physical distancing are being followed in the clubhouse (and every other Restricted Area in the ballpark).

• The Compliance Officer must submit a weekly report to MLB that includes any violations of the protocols by Club personnel. In addition, the Club Compliance Officer must submit this report to the Club’s General Manager, President of Baseball Operations, and Club President.

• The Compliance Officer must interview the Club’s home and visiting clubhouse manager after each series and document any departures from the protocols by either team, as well as any suggestions to improve compliance, in his or her weekly report.

• The Compliance Officer must submit to the Commissioner’s Office the seating chart for each flight along with a certification that all members of the Traveling Party adhered to the health and safety protocols (as set forth above and in Section 7.1 of the Manual) during the entire flight, including remaining in their seats and wearing face coverings, and a certification that all members of the Traveling Party were essential to playing games.

• The Compliance Officer must address the entire Traveling Party prior to each road trip to remind them of the requirements of the protocols while traveling and after arrival at the hotel.

• The Compliance Officer must certify to the Commissioner’s Office that staff and players who are isolating or being quarantined are strictly adhering to the directives of the Club’s and Commissioner’s Office’s medical staff.

2. Magical runners are back!

As was the case in the 2020 season, every extra inning will start with runners on second. This isn’t necessarily a COVID precaution, but a pitcher-safety precaution. The sport is going from a season of 60 games to a season of 162 games, and there are legitimate concerns about how that much longer of a season will affect pitchers. Too many extra innings could increase the workload on pitching staffs, and that’s seen as unnecessary. So, magically, runners will appear on second base starting in the 10th inning with a goal of avoiding any marathon-type games.

3. Seven-inning games are back!

All double-headers will be seven innings each, for basically the same reasons as the extra-innings rule. The goal is to limit the number of potential innings each day. This is reasonable. 

4. Three outs per inning is optional this spring

For games scheduled between Feb. 27 to March 13, the manager of the team in the field can end an inning early, as long as 20 pitches have been thrown. The idea behind this, again, is pitcher safety. If a pitcher is scheduled to throw 20 pitches in a game as part of his training program and he gets to that 20-pitch limit with no outs, two runners on and three runs already in, and the manager doesn’t have anyone ready to go, the manager can just end the inning. Spring training, especially the early games, is about preparing the players to be ready for Opening Day, and having a pitcher throw 30 pitches instead of 20 could invite injury. Having to rush a reliever into action mid-inning instead of starting with the clean inning also could invite injury. It’s just not important, especially early in the spring. 

Also, there’s this: 

5. Another neutral-site October? 

From The Athletic: “With the consent of the MLBPA (which shall not be unreasonably withheld), MLB also has the right to conduct some or all of the 2021 postseason in neutral sites (including other clubs’ home ballparks), or to delay the start of the postseason in order to reschedule championship season games following the completion of the championship season.”

The word “unreasonably” allows for a fair amount of interpretation, doesn’t it? It’s impossible to know what things will be like in October, but it’s reasonable to guess that — hopefully — things could be approaching some semblance of normalcy. Two vaccines have already been approved and are being distributed, and Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine appears to be on the near horizon. If most of the country is vaccinated by August, it stands to reason that teams could host playoff games with fans in the stands (capacity would depend on local rules, of course). 

So maybe this is just MLB giving itself an out should things take an unexpected turn. Considering what’s happened in the past year, that’s smart. Could be that MLB loved 2020’s neutral-site playoffs and wants to make that happen again if at all possible. Logistically, having predetermined sites certainly would be easier for MLB. We’ll see how that works out.