Monday, July 20, 2020

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, July 20, 2020 -- "2020 Seasonish Preview: Turn Your Brain Off"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $49.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


Saturday night I was sitting at home working on Sunday’s piece, when my Twitter feed starting making references to baseball games. There were real live baseball games between different teams that night, part of the exhibitions teams are allowed to play in the run-up to this week’s openers.

For most of the pandemic-caused delay to the start of the season, I have been fine. There were some moments where the absence of baseball tugged at me, most notably around Memorial Day and into those first unofficial days of summer, but I didn’t miss the game as much as I thought I would. I read, I did household projects, I learned about epidemiology, I wrote a bit. It wasn’t an offseason, and it wasn’t a sabbatical, but it also wasn’t the end of the world.

So my reaction to those innings I watched Saturday and then Sunday surprised me. It hit me. Rick Porcello and Michael King and Clint Frazier and O’Neil Cruz and Kyle Crick and all the other players I caught glimpses of in the background, they made me feel good. It felt like a normal summer Saturday night for a little while. Sure, you noticed the absence of fans, and the piped-in crowd noise, noticed just enough detail to remind you of the context in which these games are being played. But when I looked up from Excel, it was 2-2 with a runner on second, or a new pitcher was warming up, or Clint Frazier was circling the bases. I got a little lost in it, for just a few hours, got lost in exactly the way you’re supposed to get lost in baseball, before Rt and IFR replaced OBP and SLG in our daily life.

None of this felt real to me until this weekend. I didn’t think they’d get a season off the ground until just last week, and even then my opinion of them doing so was mixed, at best. Players are still opting out of the 2020 season, and others are testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, and others like Freddie Freeman and Eduardo Rodriguez are telling their stories of fighting off Covid-19.

Those scenes, though, those scenes of Citi Field and PNC Park, of Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field, of Aaron Judge and Francisco Lindor, they made it real. They don’t make the pandemic go away, even for a few hours, and they don’t answer the questions about whether these games should be played at all. They remind me, though, of what we gain when they are played.

I am grateful there will be real, meaningful baseball this week. I am a little scared that there will be real, meaningful baseball this week. Being a fan in 2020 is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, enjoying the sport while trying not to think of the risks being taken in a pandemic; not the games themselves, but everything that happens in the 21 hours between last pitch and first pitch, and the people, all the vectors, all the transmission risk. I’m still not sure the risks of those 21 hours outweigh the benefits of the other three, and the argument about that will go on. Fans, even die-hard ones who subscribe to baseball newsletters, are split on the issue. I’m split with myself on the issue.

For as long as this lasts, we all need to give each other a break, wherever we fall on the matter. Everyone is doing their best and dealing with the dissonance in their own way.


Watching some baseball while doing other things this weekend was a comforting, familiar feeling, but also an instructive one. Even though the games were the first competitive baseball since March, they were still exhibition games, and try as I might I wasn’t invested in the outcomes or the performances. The lineups and usage patterns were somewhat informative, as these games serve as some of the last remaining prep for the regular season. So Judge and Giancarlo Stanton both playing is information we can use. Eloy Jimenez batting second is interesting. Max Muncy back at first base for the Dodgers is good to see after he took a ball off his left ring finger. There will be eight games tonight we can glean more information from as well.

The thing is, there’s only so much we can learn. There’s never been a season like this. There have been short seasons, and seasons when players were asked to play after a layoff, and seasons when players were asked to play with very little prep time. We’ve never had all of those things in play at once, and surely never while asking players to learn entire new routines on the fly to stem the risk of catching a dangerous virus.

None of our models for looking ahead at a baseball season are attuned to the vagaries of what we’re going to see over 60 games in 2020. That can be a source of frustration, if you really want to win your fantasy league or just get things right in looking ahead. Me, though, I think it’s an opportunity to experience a baseball season in a new way.

Turn your brain off.

Forget everything you know about what a baseball season should look like, what wins and what doesn’t, who’s good and who isn’t. Forget strategies and tactics, forget probabilities and statistics, forget all of it.

We’ve had an awful, terrible, no-good year, with so many things taken away by the novel coronavirus. Kids didn’t get to have graduation ceremonies. Weddings were called off. Vacations, ballgames, even mundane things like happy hours and poker nights, gone. A hundred thousand people died alone, scared, in hospital beds, struggling for a next breath that would never come, hands unheld by a loved one. For Americans, you have to go back to World War II, or perhaps the Great Depression before that, to find a year filled with this much pain.

Let’s just enjoy some baseball. Enjoy the talent. Enjoy the competition. On Thursday night, the most highly-paid pitcher in baseball history will take on the reigning World Series winners. A few hours after that, one of the best teams ever assembled will try to salvage its 2020, maybe the only year it will all be together as planned. Come Friday, we’ll be able to watch Tim Anderson and Nolan Arenado; Ronald Acuña Jr. and Vladmir Guerrero Jr.; Jose Berrios will face Lucas Giolito, and the Rangers will christen their new ballpark.

Then we’ll do it all again Saturday.

A 60-game season defies analysis, so don’t do analysis. You can’t be the small-sample-size police when the whole season is a small sample size. The Mariners started 13-2 last year and I dismissed them; if a team starts 13-2 this year, they’ll be the favorite to win their division, no matter who they are. The Mets started 10-1 a few years ago. The Pirates were 12-7 three weeks into last season. Some team we think is bad, some team that may even be bad, is going to play well for a few weeks and look up on August 24 to find itself in first place a week away from the trade deadline. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Root for chaos. A .400 hitter? Pshaw, maybe someone hits .500. If the Mets put their shoulders into it, they could produce a 0-4 Cy Young Award winner in Jacob deGrom. Maybe three NL Central teams will finish 32-28 and require a playoff to get into the playoff to get into the playoffs.

There is simply no player or team performance that can be truly shocking over two months of baseball. We have to go into this not just accepting that, but embracing it. We have to pull this season out from the line of baseball history stretching back to the 1870s, and know that it will forever be the pandemic season, the exception, “that one year when....”

We have to turn our brains off, turn the games on, and just enjoy this for as long as it lasts. The three-batter rule, the universal DH, the migratory Blue Jays, the unbalanced schedule, the huge rosters, even the godforsaken extra-innings rule...just let it all go. It’s baseball.