Torey Lovullo knows the 2021 baseball season isn’t going to be normal.
The Arizona Diamondbacks manager just isn’t sure how weird it is going to get.
The 2020 season was unlike anything baseball has ever seen and, with luck, unlike anything the sport sees for a long time. The COVID-19 pandemic hit its first peak during Spring Training, shutting down the sport until the summer.
A 60-game sprint was played in August and September with expanded rosters, a plethora of rule changes, no minor-league teams, and constant schedule shuffling as different teams were forced to shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks. Even the final game of the World Series saw the Dodgers end a long championship drought with a COVID-19-positive player, Justin Turner, taking part in the celebrations.
With two vaccines now approved by the FDA, Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Player’s Association (MLBPA) expect to have something close to a normal summer. However, like everyone, Lovullo isn’t sure how it is going to work.
“We were one of the first sports to come back, and we were all a little nervous,” he says via Zoom. “But as the season went on and we followed the new protocols and restrictions, I realized it was doable.
“Knowing what I know now, I’m very hopeful the 2021 season can be played in full, but I’m sure there are going to be some different components than we’ve had in the past.”
The MLBPA says it is expecting Spring Training to start on time, followed by a 162-game season, but the availability of vaccines could change that. Not only could widespread vaccination make things safer for the players and coaching staffs, it could speed the return of fans.
No one expects professional athletes to get priority in the vaccination line, so it could make financial sense to delay the season until games could take place in something like a normal atmosphere.
“I don’t know the answer to how MLB is going to handle that—I don’t even have my own expectations,” Lovullo says. “Obviously, the front-line health care workers need to get the vaccine first, and that process has started this week. I’m thankful for that. I’m sure when it is time for baseball to get the vaccine it will be offered to us.”
While the Dodgers will cherish the shortened 2020 season, Lovullo and the Diamondbacks organization wish they could forget it ever happened. They were optimistic in March and still hoping for good things as the season finally began in August, but it was a disaster.
There was one bright spot—a six-game winning streak that had Arizona at 13-11 on August 18. That would have given them the National League’s seventh seed in the expanded postseason, but it didn’t last. The Diamondbacks only scored eight runs in the next six games—all losses—and they ended going 2-18 to drop into last place in the NL.
In a 162-game season, a 15-29 start can be overcome—the 2019 Washington Nationals were 19-31 before winning the World Series—but it was a catastrophe for Arizona.
By the time they came out of the slump, there were fewer than three weeks left to play.
They did well, going 10-6, but that left them four games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the final playoff spot.
“To be totally honest, I was pretty bitter for the first few weeks of the offseason,” Lovullo says. “Watching the postseason was a tough pill for me to swallow, and I think that’s true of everyone in the organization. We didn’t hit the ground running, and we had that 20-game stretch where we just didn’t play good baseball.”
The strong finish made things even worse for Lovullo.
“We were playing better baseball and, if we had more time, I think we would have run some teams down,” he says. “I’m comfortable about that. But we knew the rules going into the season, and we didn’t get it done.”
It isn’t hard to figure out where things went wrong. Arizona’s pitching staff had a decent season, especially given the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field, but the offense was a disaster.
“There are conversations already being held about how we can be a better offensive team,” Lovullo says.
“We took some time to absorb what happened, and now we’re putting our thoughts together.”
The Diamondbacks will also need a better season from Madison Bumgarner, who only won a single game after signing a massive five-year contract in free agency.
“We all saw Bum have a very frustrating season,” Lovullo says. “He wasn’t at his competitive best, but he still threw some very good games. As for why he wasn’t at his best, I think we all can think of some reasons.
“We had the stop, delay and then starting again with Spring Training 2.0, and his stuff just never took off the way he expected.
“But he kept grinding, and I know he’s been working very hard during the offseason. I’m excited to see how he comes to Spring Training.”
Lovullo doesn’t know when that will be or what it will look like, but he wishes it could be even sooner than February.
“We’re a good organization with good baseball players,” he says.
“We’re going to find a way to make sure that shines through in 2021.”