The Nationals and the Yankees were tied, 2-2, in the eighth inning last Sunday when Sean Doolittle came on in relief for Washington. In another year, the moment would have been a boisterous one: some 35,000 fans getting to their feet and amping up the volume, urging the defending champions on in a tight spot against a marquee opponent.
But because it is 2020, the seats were empty, and the only sound came tinny and distant from the stadium public-address system: An audio engineer had adjusted the dial of piped-in crowd noise. Doolittle’s fastball was flat, his offspeed pitches fluttered, and he gave up a walk and a pair of hits as the Yankees took a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.
“My execution and fastball location wasn’t as crisp as I would’ve liked,” Doolittle told reporters afterward. “What this season is going to come down to is which team, with pitchers, can make the adjustments the quickest and get into midseason form.”
One of the biggest adjustments for major leaguers during this 60-game season will be playing in empty, cavernous stadiums, at least for the time being. While baseball has attempted to fill the void with cardboard fans, artificial noise and even virtual “crowds” on broadcasts, there is no denying that games are being held in an atmosphere that is far from normal.
But baseball is inseparable from curiosity even during a pandemic, so players, coaches and analysts of all stripes find themselves wondering what this year’s unwelcome circumstances can reveal about the sport itself: Are younger or older players more suited to the subdued atmosphere? Is every team’s home-field advantage equal? And how do live fans really affect what happens on the field?
“I think it’s going to affect things in weird ways that we can’t even fully anticipate right now,” Russell Carleton, a psychologist and analyst who has consulted with the Cleveland Indians and the Mets, said of 2020’s empty stadiums. “And it’s going to vary from guy to guy.”
A little over a week into the schedule, it’s too early to draw any hard conclusions about the on-field effects of the lack of fans. But while acknowledging the fragile nature of this season — underscored by an early coronavirus outbreak on the Miami Marlins — many observers are viewing it as a unique opportunity to test theories and examine new data about the sport.
Central to baseball’s mythology are those players capable of thriving on the big moments, of harnessing the energy of a crowd, either friendly or hostile. For some, this quality, as much as fastball velocity or bat speed, distinguishes true superstars from the rest. “That’s a real physical effect that could lead to that extra half-mile an hour that gets it past the batter for strike three,” Carleton said.
“There are plenty of pitchers that leave the bullpen throwing 89 to 90 miles an hour, but their first pitch in front of the fans, in front of the opponent, is 95,” the former Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser said.
Reds starter Trevor Bauer, a full-bore adopter of pitching analytics, sees proof of the phenomenon in himself. “I know that when the crowd gets going with runners on, my adrenaline gets going, and I tend to have better stuff,” he said.
But this season, pressure — that amorphous but oft-cited concept — has taken on a new quality, and it remains to be seen whether players used to the energy of thousands of fans can provide their own.
“It’s like you have two of your senses that aren’t coinciding with one another,” Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon said of playing with fake crowd noise. “It’s like you’re looking at pizza, but you’re smelling a hamburger.”
People around the game have their hunches about who might be most affected by the changes.
Cliff Floyd, an MLB Network analyst and a former outfielder for a 1998 Marlins team that lost 108 games, said that certain lousy squads that don’t typically draw large crowds at home might not feel much of a contrast in the new environment.
The Games Resume
Sports and the Virus
Updated July 31, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- The N.B.A. returned, and the Lakers held on to beat the Clippers in a thriller. Zion Williamson played in the first game of the night for the Pelicans.
- Players, coaches and analysts are watching this season’s baseball games to see what effect the absence of fans has.
- With no summer tournaments to play in, top high school basketball stars are committing to colleges earlier. Villanova is one of the beneficiaries.
“Players in New York, you’re playing in front of 30,000 every night — it might be different,” Floyd said.
Matt Quatraro, the bench coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, who were second to last in overall attendance last season but who play in a division with the high-drawing Yankees and Boston Red Sox, said empty ballparks could offer something of a lift.
“For a team like ours where we used to go into Yankee Stadium or Fenway with 45,000 raucous fans,” he said, “maybe that helps calm some guys, when they’re not going to have to deal with that.”
Others predict a generational divide in how players will react to the new environment, between veterans sharpened primarily by on-field competition and younger players brought up in the more sterile, data-driven settings of cutting-edge baseball facilities.
Brian Kaplan works as a pitching coordinator at Cressey Sports Performance in Florida, which during baseball’s shutdown was the site of scrimmages featuring stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Kaplan noticed that the pitchers who were used to bigger stages tended to have trouble summoning their midseason velocity.
“We had maybe 30, 40 people there, and they were like, ‘This is the biggest crowd we’re going to throw in front of this season,’” Kaplan said of the players’ reactions.
Even with the piped-in noise, broadcasts of early games have featured distinctly quieter ballparks, amplifying some of the sport’s subtler sounds — the rush of a fastball, the one-two tick of a foul tip. That offers an input rarely afforded big leaguers in game situations, which may give the attentive player an advantage in the taut negotiation of an at-bat.
Even a sound as slight as the spin of a breaking ball, or the tone of a foul ball coming off the bat, could give perceptive players a valuable data point over the course of an at-bat or a game, said the former pitcher and current MLB Network analyst Ryan Dempster.
“You have a chance to add another sense to your scouting report,” he said.
How much those slivers of advantage and disadvantage affect things will be hard to quantify; a season of (maybe) 60 games makes for a meager sample size. But in baseball as in other sports, the analytics community has seized on this year as a chance to study a phenomenon that historically belongs more to feeling than to data: home-field advantage.
Across M.L.B., 54 percent of games are won by the home team, an edge popularly traced to umpire bias, crowd influence, the simple comforts of home or some combination of those. Opportunities to eliminate variables have been scarce, until now.
“We’re about to find out what happens when you do take the crowd out of it,” said Jonathan Judge, an analyst for Baseball Prospectus. “Does the crowd really seem to matter very much, or is it just going home to your family every night?”
Voros McCracken, a pioneering analytics expert who also consults for an American League organization, said he suspected that home-field advantage in M.L.B. would be reduced this season.
“The players are human beings, and you get more revved up when people are cheering for you,” he said.
He’ll also be keeping an eye on the pitch-framing statistics from M.L.B.’s Statcast program, which monitor how well catchers are able to “steal” strikes on pitches outside of the zone, as well as walk and strikeout levels. “If the home team is getting fewer benefits in the strike zone,” McCracken said, “that tells us something.”
This new data set arrives unhappily, of course. The Marlins outbreak has concentrated the anxiety lingering around the league, and analysts cut their thoughts on in-game specifics with general hopes for safety.
“I hope all our fans will look at the mental side of this and how challenging it is for our guys,” Floyd, the former Marlins outfielder, said. “That should not be lost.”