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Theo Epstein conquered the challenges of ending long World Series title droughts for the Red Sox and Cubs. Now, Epstein’s challenge is to change baseball for the better.
After resigning from his role as president of the Cubs in November 2020, Epstein is now working for Major League Baseball as a consultant for “on-field matters.”
In an interview with former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and announcer Ryan Ruocco on the “R2C2” podcast, Epstein detailed how he wants to see baseball change in the near future. Here are five takeaways from that conversation.
When Epstein stepped down from his role with the Cubs last year, he expressed some regret on how he used analytics. Specifically, he disliked how analytics led to less action on the field.
In order to right that wrong, he wants to see five things change in order to see more action on the diamond and in the outfield.
“Almost everyone agrees we can benefit from more action,” Epstein said. “We can benefit from a faster pace of play. Fans – on average – their ideal time for a baseball game is 2.5 hours instead of three-plus hours like we have it now. I think putting the game back in the players’ hands so that players are in the middle of the action. They’re making decisions, using their instincts, dictating everything that happens on the field. Analytics are great, but having a little bit of a firewall so that they don’t creep too much onto the field. And just bringing out more athleticism. We probably have the best athletes that have ever played the game playing now, but there’s fewer opportunities for players to show their athleticism because the ball’s not in play.
“So, all those things: More ball in play, more athleticism, more action, faster pace of play. I think most people agree that’s a better version of the game. It’s something that we can – if we’re thoughtful and intentional about it – can obtain over time. The game constantly changes. It’s just that we’ve gone through a period over the last 10, 20 years where we haven’t had a lot of intent on how it’s changing. It’s been changing because organizations, players outside organizations, have been really thoughtful about optimizing performance and that’s changed how the game’s been played on the field. I think it’s time we start being intentional about changing it in a way that’s pleasing for the fans, the aesthetics of the game, and for the entertainment of the game.”
In conducting research on how to improve baseball, Epstein found out that a ball is put into play every four minutes. Epstein didn’t have a specific stat on how often balls were put in play historically, but he speculated that it was a fraction of what it is now.
Sabathia pointed out that long games can be exciting if there’s constant action. Epstein found that fans agree with Sabathia’s sentiment.
“Rather than focus on time of the game, I think we’re more focused on pace – how long between events of action,” Epstein said. “Fans favor events. MLB’s done a real nice job with these surveys to understand what fans love about the game and what fans don’t love about the game. Fans favorite events at a game are doubles, triples, stolen bases, and great defensive plays. All events that involve players in motion, athleticism, suspense, multiple players in motion at the same time. “
A major approach in baseball that’s broken out during the analytics era is playing for the three true outcomes, which are striking out, drawing a walk, or hitting a home run.
With the application of that approach being used throughout the majors, it’s benefitted pitchers in a way it has never before. Pitchers are striking out hitters more than ever, with the strikeout rate reaching a high of 21.7 percent in 2019, the last 162-game season in baseball.
Epstein realizes that number is such an outlier historically that it’s OK to lower it.
“A lot of what we’re talking about is not reinventing the wheel, it’s restoring the game to the way it’s historically been played,” Epstein said. “When you think of baseball historically, you don’t think about a 24 percent strikeout rate in baseball, which is what it is this season. You don’t think about it that way. CC’s strikeout rate was 20.6. The average pitcher right now is striking out almost 20 percent more batters than CC Sabathia in his career. That’s nuts. We’re basically seeing Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax’s career strikeout rate be the average for a Major League pitcher right now. The game hasn’t historically been played that way. It’s been played with the ball in play a lot more frequently.
“In 1980, when I was the same age as my youngest son, the strikeout rate was 12.8 percent, essentially half of what it is now. Moving the strikeout rate down and getting the ball in play isn’t revolutionary, it’s historically how the game’s been played.”
“Batting average and strikeout rate have an inverse relationship, so when strikeout rate goes up, batting average goes down. It’s logical,” Epstein added. “The average batting average in the league right now is .239. We don’t think about that being average. Historically, you’d think .260, .265 being average. We don’t think about baseball being played just by two players with strikeouts and walks. We think of it being played by nine.”
For several years, MLB has used its minor league system as a guinea pig for potential new rules in its own league.
Some of the rules that have been tried out in the minors in more recent years have been to fix the pace of play issues in baseball. However, the new rules in the minors this year (such as limiting pick-off attempts and using bigger bases) are to help bring exciting action on the field, according to Epstein.
“We’re using the minor leagues to see if we can put in new rules which are attempts to change the playing environment to encourage more of the athletic events so players have a chance to show their athleticism,” Epstein said. “Stolen bases are a good indicator. Right now, there’s 1.2 stolen base attempts combined between both teams, which is the lowest I think it’s been in 70 or 80 years. It was double that in the ’80s and nearly double that in the ’90s.
“One of the reasons why stolen bases have gone away isn’t because players haven’t gotten faster, there’s probably faster players now than there ever have been. There’s an understanding that as power goes up, you have to have a greater success rate (of stealing bases) to have it be a break-even play. You’ve got front offices yelling at their managers when they put guys in motion who get thrown out. Now managers are shying away from running guys. So I think there’s a recognition to bring the stolen base back, you have to do something to level the playing field a bit and tilt the scales in favor of the runner.
“So in the minor leagues, we’ve experimented with a handful of rules to do that. So far, they’ve actually worked. In AAA, we’ve made the size of the bases a little bit bigger to shorten the distance between first and second base. That’s had a modest but still significant impact on stolen base success rate and stolen base frequency. Limiting the number of pickoff throws, I’ll admit is completely untraditional, throughout baseball history you’ve been able to pickoff all you want. But honestly, who buys a ticket to a Major League game to see a pitcher throw over four times in a row? They start booing. So, that’s actually worked really well. You get two free picks per plate appearance. You can still throw over a third time, but you have to get him out or it’s essentially a balk where the runner moves ahead a base. What it’s done is resulted in fewer pickoff throws, runners taking off at a greater clip but not at a crazy frequency, and stolen base rate has gone up. It’s at that break-even point where it’s worth being aggressive and stealing bases. “
When former Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s Moneyball method entered the mainstream in 2002, it taught executives around the league how to build a team efficiently with analytics.
As mentioned earlier, Epstein recognized that the popular use of analytics – while helping teams out – has also led to a less aesthetic version of the game. Now, he’s asking his former colleagues to possibly scale back on analytics for the good of the game.
“You get them in the offseason and say: ‘For this conversation only, I want you to take your team hat off and just think about the industry as a whole. Right now, only 20 percent of Gen Z identify as baseball fans. We need to double that number. We need to triple that number, hopefully someday. Think about the industry as a whole, not just your team, to move toward the very best version of baseball. And then, for this conversation only, I want you to think long-term and big picture. Let’s not think about tonight’s game. Let’s not think about how your personnel will be employed to get an advantage to win tonight’s game. Let’s think big picture and over time how we’re going to put the best product on the field,'” Epstein said.
The good news Epstein has found is that players and teams don’t like this version of the game that analytics has helped produce.
“I do find the people who work for teams, obviously players, they love the game. Everyone loves playing in front of a packed house. Everyone has an interest in growing the pie overall. This is the one issue where players and teams should be completely united,” Epstein said. “The better the product you put on the field, the bigger the pie is, and the more there is to go around for everyone, and the bigger role that baseball plays in our society. We all love the game and think there’s valuable lessons to be learned. We’re a better country when baseball’s prominent. With the players I’ve talked to, they all really care about this stuff. No one loves standing around for four-hour games with the ball never in play; three true outcomes and if you pop a home run you win the game and if you don’t, you don’t win the game. No one loves that version of the game. Everyone’s united.”
Epstein understands the problems and challenges that stand in front of him in his new role. Now, he needs to find the best way to fix them.
“It’s a lot easier to talk about what’s wrong and where we need to get to. It’s a lot more difficult to talk about actual solutions because they’re nuanced,” Epstein said. “They take time. There’s a lot of unintended consequences to look out for. Everybody’s got their own personal preferences. One thing I’ve tried to do in this role is to take out what I think. If you’re talking about shifting, an automatic ball-strike system, a pitch timer, I have my own personal preferences based on my time in the game. I’m trying to intentionally step back and see what’s best for the game, what’s best for the players, what’s best for the fans, what’s best for teams and taking personal preferences out of it. “
You can listen to the full podcast episode here.
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