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Reminder on 2021 MLB Playing Rules and COVID Protocols

MLB: JUL 14 St. Louis Cardinals Summer Camp

Lately we’ve been talking about pressing topics like whether Edmundo Sosa is a better infield bench option than Jose Rondon, and whether Tommy Edman is a suitable backup center fielder. With the major league season starting tomorrow, I wanted to give everyone a quick reminder what some of the governing roster and field rules will be, and mention some of the new COVID-19 protocols that will be in effect for the 2021 season.


*No DH in the National League: Unless something magical happens after this article gets posted to the site, we’re back to pinch-hitting, double-switches and watching the pitchers hit.

*No expanded playoffs right now: Unless both MLB and the union agree, we’re back to the old playoff structure. The one curious feature to be aware of is that there is a provision that says that MLB has the right, subject to the union’s consent—which shall not be unreasonably withheld—to conduct all or part of the playoffs in neutral sites, including the home ballpark of other clubs, and to delay the start of the playoffs to reschedule regular season games. Only the shadow knows whether the union would agree to this and what constitutes an unreasonable withholding of consent. But it’s something to keep an eye on.

*Roster Size: 26-man active roster from opening day until September 1st. Mandatory 28-man roster from September 1st until the end of the regular season. There is no restriction on how many pitchers a club may roster at one time.

*Doubleheaders: Like in earlier years, doubleheaders are not scheduled on purpose. If there is a doubleheader, both games will be 7 innings each just like last season. If there is a doubleheader from opening day through August 31st, clubs will be entitled to add a 27th player to the active roster. If the reason for the 2nd game is to play a game that was postponed or suspended the previous day, the 27th man will be allowed for the 2nd game only. For all other, doubleheaders, the 27th man will be allowed for both games. When rosters expand to 28 on September 1st, there will be no 29th man rule. This is a change from last year, when rosters were set at 28 for most of the year, and the 29th man rule operated even in September.

*Three-batter minimum rule is here to stay.

*Unsportsmanlike conduct: Just like last year, players or managers who leave their position to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field, are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.

*Extra innings: Like last season, if the game goes to extra innings, even in a shortened doubleheader game, a runner will be placed on 2nd base. This rule will not apply in the playoffs.

*Suspended games: In the overwhelming majority of situations, games that were called before they could become a regulation game were required to be played from scratch, instead of being treated as a suspended game. Last season, games that were called before they reached regulation game status were allowed to be treated as suspended games. This year, we are back to the old rules. To avoid making this article longer, I’ll just wait and explain what the rule happens to be if the Cards are faced with a situation this season that requires the rules to be applied.

*No restrictions on position players pitching: There was a planned rule change for 2020 designed to limit the conditions under which position players could pitch. The rule change did not go into effect last year, and will not operate this year.

*Restrictions on optioning players: The traditional rule was that a major league club was not permitted to option a player to a minor league club if that minor league club’s season, including playoffs, was over. Due to a 2017 rule change, players are required to spend 10 days on option, even if their minor league season ends during the 10-day option period. Those rules presented no concerns before 2020, because clubs were entitled to use their entire 40-man rosters in September. For that reason, clubs didn’t option people or even make normal 10-day IL moves. Typical minor league seasons for clubs that didn’t make the playoffs ended right after Labor Day. That presents a problem for the new major league 28-man September roster limit, and would essentially mean that the major league roster would be locked at that point, other than making an IL move. It would even be a problem in 2021 with the minor league seasons ending on September 19th. The way it is being handled this year is that clubs may option players to the minor leagues all the way through the conclusion of the regular season. It wasn’t talked about, but that’s the way it was handled last season as well. One area of confusion is what happens when a club options a player, then makes the playoffs, and that player would not have spent at least 10 days on option before the playoffs? The rules state that on the day after the regular season is over, clubs must recall all optioned players. I never saw an official interpretation, but clubs seemed to interpret the combination of rules to mean that players were not available for a postseason roster if the player that had not spent 10 days away from the major league club before that postseason series started.

*Options and injured lists will not be different for pitchers: There was a planned rule change for 2020 that would have required pitchers to spend 15 days on option before recall instead of 10 and would have made the injured list a 15-day IL for pitchers. Those rules did not go into effect last season, and will not operate this season either.

*60-day IL back to normal: Last season, the 60-day IL was shortened to 45 days, but it is back to 60 for 2021.

*COVID-19 Related IL: Just like last year, there will be a COVID-19 Related IL, and it will operate like it did last year, with an exception that I will note in the next point. Placement on the COVID-19 Related IL removes the player from both the active and 40-man rosters. A positive test is not required to be placed on the list.

**Special roster rules for clubs experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak: We saw last season that clubs were required to make roster moves to accommodate players returning from the COVID-19 Related IL. In a serious situation like the Cardinals experienced last season, we saw the club fill the 40-man and active rosters with players that would not have been there otherwise. Then, when the players were activated from the COVID-19 Related IL, the club had to designate players for assignment, ultimately place players on outright assignment waivers, and outright them to the minor leagues. For 2021, if a club experiences a COVID-19 outbreak, the rules will be relaxed to allow the club to temporarily place new players on the 40-man and active rosters and then take them off without the need to place the players on waivers and either outright or option them when the players are activated from the COVID-19 Related IL. Note the term “outbreak,” which is not defined, but so far, that rule has not applied in a situation where just one player is affected. Already, we’ve seen the Cubs have to clear a 40-man roster spot when reliever Kyle Ryan was activated from the COVID-19 Related IL in spring training and Ryan didn’t even make the opening day roster. And the Reds will have to clear a 40-man roster spot when Joey Votto is activated shortly.


In addition to the testing protocols that were in place last year, there are a new set of stringent requirements. Unfortunately, unlike last season, I don’t have a copy of this year’s Operations Manual, but I think I’ve captured the relevant material.


In addition to the Infection Control Prevention Coordinator, each club must assign a Compliance Officer, who is at the Assistant General Manager level or above, to ensure compliance with the rules. This Compliance Officer has a whole host of responsibilities, including monitoring public hotel areas, enforcing physical distancing, submitting a weekly violation report to MLB, interviewing both managers in a game series to document protocol departures by either club, and submitting a seating chart for every flight to the Commissioner’s Office. Clubs that fail to comply can be fined and otherwise disciplined.


Last season, there were no defined isolation periods. Now, if a person tests positive, in addition to the other requirements, there’s a mandatory 10-day isolation period and a required cardiac evaluation before return to activities. There’s also a mandatory 7-day isolation period for persons who come into close contact with a confirmed COVID case, and the person must test negative on day 5 or later before they can come back.


All covered individuals must wear Kinexon SafeTag contact tracing devices at all times while in club facilities, during club-related travel, and while engaged in club activities, including group workouts and practices. This does not appear to apply during the actual game. I linked to the company’s website, where you can see a picture of the actual device. The thing looks like a large watch. It can be worn as a watch-like wristband, as a lanyard or as a clip. More information on the actual technology is available on the website.

Clubs must now also designate a Contact Tracing Officer that is responsible for overseeing the club’s contact tracing processes, and must put together a Contact Tracing Working Group, which must include a doctor with infectious disease experience, that’s responsible for identifying and reporting close contacts.


Masks must be worn at all times when in the club facilities or in the dugout. The only time they’re not required is for pre-game warmups and players on the actual field of play. Clubs are required to appoint at least one Facemask Enforcement Officer. Automatic fines will be issues for non-compliance during games, and the collected fines will be donated to charity.


The rules surrounding this issue represent the biggest changes. Last season, MLB decided not to formally restrict anyone’s outside activities, and left it to the clubs and players to police themselves. The attitude was “Just be smart, guys.” This year, there is a strict code of conduct that flat-out prohibits certain activities outside the park.

*No attending indoor gatherings of 10 or more people, indoor restaurants, bars and lounges, fitness and wellness centers, entertainment venues, gaming venues, or any other activity that’s prohibited by state or local governments.

*No leaving the hotel on road trips, other than for a medical reason, outdoor exercise or outdoor walks, outdoor dining, or for other low-risk outdoor activities. Any member of the road trip traveling party must notify the club’s Compliance Officer before leaving the hotel.

*Covered individuals may meet their household or family members outside while on a road trip. Aside from that, no meeting with anyone not part of the traveling party, whether at the team hotel, in the hotel room, or elsewhere. No congregating in hotel areas or entering the hotel room of another member of the traveling party for any reason, unless the Compliance Officer approves it in advance.

*Anyone found violating these rules is subject to discipline, including suspension or forfeiture of salary for days spent away from the club while in quarantine resulting from the violation.


Now that we are approaching the point where vaccines will be available to the general public, the question of how to handle vaccines for players has arisen. The Houston Astros, for example, are set to open the season on the road in Oakland, but are taking a detour to Houston for players to get vaccinated if they want. The Cards were scheduled to arrive in Cincinnati last night in preparation for opening day, and they hope that enough vaccines will be available for their traveling party in Ohio that want it. Other clubs are handling the matter differently. We can expect that some players and staff will refuse to get the vaccine. MLB and the clubs will not impose discipline to those that decide not to get the vaccine.

Instead, it has been reported that MLB sent clubs a memo the other day, offering an encouragement to get the vaccine. Fully vaccinated individuals will have the restrictions relaxed. They will be able to leave the hotel without telling the Compliance Officer. They will also be able to eat at restaurants, meet outside with anyone while the club is on the road, stay at personal residences while traveling, gather without masks in hotel rooms, and play cards on the plane. Fully vaccinated players will also be able to exercise without wearing a mask, will have the option to decrease testing to only twice per week, and will not have to quarantine at all if they have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID, as long as they are asymptomatic themselves.

There are also another set of relaxations on teams in general who have at least 85% of their “Tier 1 individuals” fully vaccinated. Tier 1 was defined in last year’s manual as players and other essential, on-field personnel. It included the field manager, a maximum of 12 uniformed coaches, a maximum of 2 bullpen catchers, a maximum of 6 club doctors, the head and assistant athletic trainer, a maximum of 2 physical therapists, and a maximum of 2 strength and conditioning coaches. Last year’s manual also included up to 60 players in the Club Player Pool. I haven’t seen this year’s manual. There is no Club Player Pool in 2021, and I would guess the players in Tier 1 would constitute at least the 26-man roster, and ATS and taxi squad players. Those clubs that have 85% of Tier 1 individuals fully vaccinated will not have to wear masks in the bullpen or dugout, will no longer have to wear the Kinexon contact tracing devices, and can introduce other clubhouse goodies like pool tables, saunas and video games.


I don’t have a copy of this either, but all of the minor league clubs have now been distributed an Operations Manual that applies to them. From what JJ Cooper, the minor league guru from Baseball America, describes on his Twitter page, it sounds many of the same restrictions that apply to the major league clubs apply to the minor league club, especially when it comes to road trips. One thing Cooper wondered was whether a minor league player’s refusal to get the vaccine would bear on the decision the major league club had on recalling that player. If the issue was close, would a club pick a vaccinated player over a non-vaccinated player? Should that affect the calculus?


This is hopefully the last time we have to talk about COVID-19 and its affect on the season. We certainly saw enough of it last year. Hopefully the vaccine, coupled with the stricter protocols will ensure that no club has an outbreak this year. What do you think about the stricter requirements and the vaccine relaxations? Should a club tell a player “Get vaccinated or GTFO?”