Rocco Baldelli earned American League Manager of the Year recognition in his debut season with the Twins relying on leadership principles that appeared more Zen than conventional.
Baldelli’s light-on-rules approach fostered a low-stress atmosphere in the clubhouse, which produced mood lighting for 101 wins, a Major League Baseball record for home runs and the team’s first American League Central title since 2010.
The blueprint hasn’t changed — only improved, on paper — but a season shrunk to 60 games creates unique circumstances for managers who have had one of baseball’s oldest truths flipped upside down.
The 2020 season* will be a sprint. The Twins will celebrate Opening Day and the start of a pennant race on the same date in three weeks — assuming all goes well between now and then in managing COVID-19 leaguewide.
The romance of baseball flows from the slow play of a leisurely 162-game journey from spring to fall. The 2020 season is baseball’s version of speed dating.
What do we hear every year when a player or team gets off to a slow start? Relax. Don’t worry, it’s early.
Not this season. It’s already late.
The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals were 27-33 and in fourth place after 60 games last season.
Under normal circumstances, it’s easy to dismiss a clunker as insignificant in the context of 162 games. A clunker will look and feel different in a 60-game season.
Managers will have to rewire how they handle strategy and the overall mood inside the clubhouse in navigating this unusual urgency pressed upon them from first pitch. What’s more, roster fluidity caused by positive COVID-19 tests seems almost inevitable.
“There’s going to be things that we are going to do differently, of course,” Baldelli said. “[But] I think if you do operate under a seventh-game-of-a-playoff-series mentality, you also will run yourself down in certain aspects, particularly related to your pitching.”
Pitching figures to be the primary area where teams get creative in adjusting their strategy. New rules allow teams to keep 30 players for the first two weeks of games, with a gradual trimming to 26 players.
The long layoff and abbreviated Camp 2.0 will make it difficult for starters to replicate their readiness for a normal season. Heck, starters already were seeing their innings decrease as a trend before the pandemic.
Extra roster spots give teams more flexibility in how they manage pitching staffs. The Twins have discussed using a six-man rotation at least initially. They have rotation depth (particularly with Rich Hill being healthy), so Baldelli has options.
He can stay with a regular rotation or go with six to allow more recovery time. He also could employ an “opener” more regularly to mitigate workload.
“The expanded roster allows you to do things you normally would be unable to do,” Baldelli said. “The expanded roster affects both pitching usage and what you can do with your position players.”
His lineup has no open jobs, but how Baldelli handles days off, slumps or roster changes caused by COVID-19 will be interesting to watch.
For example, would he allow a player to work through a protracted slump with the same level of patience and at-bats knowing time is ticking fast? What if a starter strings together three or four poor outings in a row?
Rest-and-recovery is one of Baldelli’s managing tenets. Giving players scheduled days off and managing their workload became a common theme in his first season. How does that core value change in a 60-game sprint?
“If you try to run your position players out there every game for the entire season, I think you could run into issues,” Baldelli said. “It’s always a balance. Could we be more aggressive in certain ways? Of course we may be more aggressive in certain ways. But I do think that playoff mentality for 60 games only takes you so far.”
Every game isn’t a playoff, but managers don’t have the normal luxury of time on their side.