Nightengale's Notebook: With MLB changes imminent, Theo Epstein wants baseball 'back in the players' hands'

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CHICAGO — You sick of no action? God-awful hitting? Strikeouts galore? Interminable long games? Nightly no-hit alerts?

Well, Theo Epstein, the architect who ended two of the longest World Series droughts in baseball with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, is right there with you, painfully watching the same thing night after night.

Epstein, 47, is a civilian now, not employed by a team for the first time since he was a 17-year-old intern with the Baltimore Orioles. But unlike most civilians, he has the power to do something about it in his role as a consultant with Major League Baseball.

Get ready, you’re about to see some immediate changes, with a slew of others on the way courtesy of Epstein and about 10 other MLB executives in a collaborative effort to save baseball from becoming a niche sport.

Epstein before a game in 2019.
Epstein before a game in 2019.

Major League Baseball plans to seriously crack down on the rash of pitchers using illegal substances in the next two weeks, with umpires ordered to be vigilant in stopping pitchers from using foreign substances to dramatically improve their spin rate – even if it means embarrassing some of the biggest pitching stars in the game.

Tired of seeing pitchers and catchers constantly changing signs between pitches every time there’s a baserunner on second base who’s trying to legally steal signs? Well, so is MLB. At some point, there will be no need for catchers putting down signs. You’re going to have catchers wearing electronic devices on their wristbands, who will signal pitches to his pitcher wearing bone conduction headsets on their caps.

The days of relievers opening games could be coming to an end. Beginning in 2022, teams will have a maximum of 13 pitchers on their roster. It could potentially be reduced to 12 pitchers, maybe even 11 in ensuing years.

You tired of screaming at your TV set on an umpire’s missed pitch in the strike zone? Have no fear, robo-umps are coming too with an automated strike zone.

And, depending on how the experiments fare in the minor leagues, we may see a pitch clock, larger bases, at least a limited ban of shifts, and maybe the pitching mound moved a foot back, too.

Too drastic of a measure?

Or drastically needed?

“I think there's a misconception that MLB has an interest in trying to completely change the game and reinvent the wheel,’’ Epstein says, “and that's not the case. We just want to nudge the game back into a better balance. The game is constantly changing, and I think for the last 10 years it's been moving in a direction that nobody would choose on their own if they were starting from scratch.

“I don't think anyone would sit down and say, 'Hey, we really want to have a 25%, 30% strikeout rate.' It's just recognizing that the game's changing a little bit. It's important for everyone who cares about the game just to have a discussion that can be thoughtful and intentional about steering in the direction that's good for everybody, particularly the fans.

“So, if the game's going to be evolving, how can we put up some guideposts to make sure it changes in a way that's the best possible version of baseball, action-packed and the most entertaining version of the game for fans and players alike?’’

Epstein sat down with USA TODAY Sports at his favorite Wrigleyville coffee shop this week, addressing some of MLB’s biggest issues and its attempt to restore more action to the game.

The league-wide batting average was .237 through Friday, tied for the lowest since World War II. There are 18.04 strikeouts per game – which has doubled the past 40 years. The average time between pitches is 23 seconds. The average time in between hits is now 12 minutes, according to G. Scott Thomas’ research. And the average time in between a ball even put in play is 3 minutes, 51 seconds.

Oh, where have you gone Tony Gwynn and Rickey Henderson?

“We need to readjust the balance between batters and pitchers,’’ Epstein says, “to create more opportunities for players to show their athleticism and for fans to get entertainment value again. The experimental rule changes are an attempt to put the game back in the hands of the players.’’

How'd we get here?

“I think it's a lot of factors coming together at once,’’ Epstein says, “changing the way certain elements of pitching and hitting are prioritized, and therefore, taught. Pitching has evolved from more of an art to more of the science of bat-missing. A lot of people in the industry have done a great job of weaponizing data and technology to train for the traits that allow you to miss bats and strike a lot of people out. So pitchers are able to train for velocity and to optimize the spin on their breaking pitches.

“You can almost rename pitching to bat-missing.’’

Yes, the game has changed that much.

Now, to offset pitchers throwing at record speeds with the average fastball at 93 mph, MLB plans to limit teams to 13-man pitching staffs next year, with hopes of further reducing it in future years. The strategy is simple. If you have fewer pitchers, you’ll need starters to go deeper into games. And if you pitch into the seventh and eighth innings, you’re not throwing as hard as you possibly can, knowing that five-inning stints by starters can devastate a pitching staff. We’ve gone from 5.34 pitchers per game in 1981, according to Thomas, to an average of 8.66 pitchers a game – an increase of 62%.

“The job evolved from trying to go into the seventh, eighth and ninth innings,’’ Epstein says, “to missing as many bats as you can for five innings. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy because now teams are completely changing their pitching development. Instead of developing starters that can go through a lineup, three or four times, you're developing pitchers who just throw as hard as possible with this crazy spin rate to miss bats.’’

The theory is that if pitchers’ velocity decreases, and they no longer have spin rates making pitches look like whiffle balls, hitters will alter their approach, too, and stop trying to jack a ball out of the ballpark on every pitch.

“The pitching has created a different environment for hitters,’’ Epstein says, “so their last resort is to hit a ball hard in the air and pop it out of the ballpark. Hitters in the draft now are being selected based on the ability to hit the ball hard in the air. Launch angle and exit velocity are being prioritized in teams’ development.

“So, it's a bit of a vicious cycle where the pitching is so good, the defensive positioning is so good, that hitters prioritize the home run and not two-strike approaches or using the whole field. It’s not a surprise that the strikeout rate is climbing as rapidly as the batting average is.’’

The average strikeout rate these days is virtually matching Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. There are more strikeouts than hits in games, with an average ratio of 0.87 hits per strikeout. Just 10 years ago, there were 1.23 hits per strikeout. And no one seems the bit embarrassed to strike out.

“If you’re rewarded for putting the ball in play,’’ Epstein says, “then the stigma of striking out comes back.’’

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What about the game's history?

Fans and reporters screamed there was no need to even have infielders and outfielders on the field with the way pitching dominated the game. It was in 1893. So they moved the mound back from 50 feet to the current 60-feet, 6 inches. The pitching ERA soared to 5.33, the batting average was .309, and there were four players who hit .400 or better.

In 1969, following the year of the pitcher, with seven teams hitting .230 or lower, three teams averaging 2.90 runs or less and Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, they lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and shrunk the strike zone. The result? Instant offense with 8.14 runs scored a game after 6.84 in 1968.

“Those things allowed hitters to put the game back in better balance between pitchers and hitters,’’ Epstein says, “so I think that's a simple way to think about what needs to happen over the next five years or so and rebalancing the pitcher-hitter relationship.’’

But moving the mound back a foot in the Atlantic League beginning this week, isn’t that taking it too far?

“I understand that the 60 feet, six inches has been around for over a century,’’ Epstein says. “But here's one way to look at it. Isn't it worth running an experiment for half a season in the Atlantic League to find if that might be the answer? That pitching is so good right now that we've outgrown 60 feet, six-inches by a foot, and if it is, and can be done safely, maybe we don’t have to change six other things.

“I think it's important that we find that out. If it doesn't work, then you can move on and no one will ever talk about moving the mound back again. But I think it's important to find out.’’

Why not just lower the mound?

“Lowering the mound is a complicated one,’’ Epstein says, “because a big, big contributor to the strikeout rate now is the prevalence and effectiveness of good high spin is a four-seam fastball above the zone. Those are actually more effective from a lower release point. So, lowering the mound might not have the same effect that it had back in the 60s.’’

The shift

There’s a myriad of woes MLB would like to fix, but until hitters are able to start making more contact, everything else is almost superfluous. Sure, hitters can produce more hits if shifts are banned and baserunners can steal more often if pick-off moves are limited and the bases are bigger.

Yet, there’s no bigger concern than making sure the pitchers aren’t overpowering every hitter, and suffocating the life out of the game.

“I hear voices out there saying, 'Well, just have better hitters or tell the hitters to use the whole field,'’’ Epstein says. “I don't think that's enough to ask organizations or players to prioritize a way of playing that that might be more familiar. I think it's important to find ways to adjust the rules a little bit to create incentives that rewards those behaviors. …

“If I were to pick one thing that we have to focus on to create the best version the game can be is putting the ball in play more, because by definition it will gives players more chance to show their athleticism, and helps the game move quicker.’’

'Put the game back in the players' hands'

Epstein laughs, knowing that when it comes to analytics, the genie is already out of the bottle and he is just as aggravated as fans watching players constantly digging cheat sheets out of their pockets or taking off their caps to look at the instructions where to play hitters.

Whatever happened to relying on instincts?

“Analytics obviously have their place in the game,’’ Epstein says, “but it'd be great if they’re used more for pregame preparation, and not as much in game. We want to improve the pace of play but what slows the pace down is the synthesis of a ton of information that’s in the game now. If you can limit the analytical stuff to pregame, and let the players use their instincts and their intelligence to position themselves, it would lead to a faster pace of play. It puts a premium on players’ instincts and intelligence.

“We have players who are more athletic now than we’ve had in the history of the game, but it would be great if we could find more opportunities for them to show their athleticism. Fans don't want to see players look robotic.

“The players are smart. They understand the way the game is played better than anyone else so let them position themselves a little bit. Let’s put the game back in the players’ hands. They can use their instincts, use their intelligence, and put their athleticism on display more for fans to get that entertainment value.’’

Robo-umps

The automated strike zone is coming, perhaps within three years, but it’s definitely on the way.

“When that comes,’’ Epstein says, “it's really easy to make adjustments in the strike zone. We’re trying to optimize contact. So, the way the strike zone used to be a little bit wider and a little bit shorter, which was better for contact. Now, it's really tall, but narrow.

“So you can shrink the zone a little bit, especially the upper boundary, which might be better for inducing more contact.’’

'The right levers'

Epstein makes it clear that he has no interest in becoming the next commissioner. He doesn’t know what he wants to do next, but says that he badly misses the daily competition and the camaraderie of being with a baseball team.

In the meantime, if his efforts can help improve the game on the field, it will feel like a championship season.

“I'm just a believer in active experimentation because I spend a lot of time thinking about what the game is going like at the end of the next collective bargaining agreement,’’ Epstein says. “I think it's important not to just kick the can down the road, and wait for the trends to get worse, so I'm really appreciative what the minor league players are doing with the new changes after not playing for over a year.

“I just think this is a really important time for everyone to work together, to figure out what are the right levers to pull to create the best version of the game. It’s a privilege just to have a seat at the table for some of these important discussions.’’

***

A view of Globe Life Field.
A view of Globe Life Field.

Remember Tom Emanski?

Fred McGriff (who really should be in the Hall of Fame) caused a stir when he was invited to Kenny Mayne’s final show on ESPN and reiterated that he still has never watched one of the Tom Emanski videos in which he was featured.

McGriff met Emanski when he was 18 years old. Emanski videotaped McGriff’s swing and offered to help him. McGriff visited him, became a star, and in 1991 filmed a commercial as a favor. He received 1% of the profit, amounting to about $45,000 to $50,000.

McGriff, of course, has seen the commercial a million times when it ran on ESPN, but generated plenty of laughter when he said again this past week that he has actually never watched a video.

“I was on that show for maybe two minutes,’’ McGriff says, “and people are blowing my phone up. All I said was, “Dude, I’ve never seen the video.’’’

Yet, McGriff says that without Emanski, he’s not sure he ever has his star-studded career.

“People can say what they want,’’ McGriff says. “This guy helped me get to the big leagues. I went to see Tom Emanski in Orlando, and he got me to slow my swing down, and that was before all of the swing technology.

“So I’m in Chicago, he calls me and says, 'You mind helping me with this video?’ I meet him outside Wrigley Field, he gives me a cap and puts a camera on his shoulder, and I just say, ‘This video is guaranteed to get results.’

“The rest is history. I’ve never lived it down.’’

Around the basepaths ...

– Now that former Los Angeles Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway is suspended through 2022 for sexual misconduct, former Mets GM Jared Porter is on the clock. MLB is nearing the end of its investigation which is expected to result in a suspension at least as long as Callaway’s.

– If the Oakland A’s or Tampa Bay Rays move, MLB believes the top two markets are Nashville and Montreal, but they’d prefer to keep those cities available for expansion franchises.

– Considering the frustration in New York over catcher James McCann and in Chicago over Yasmani Grandal, maybe the Mets and White Sox can work out a deal swapping for each other. The Mets need Grandal’s offense, and the White Sox would love a return of McCann’s defense. The money owed to each player is almost a wash. This is the first year of McCann’s four-year, $40.6 million contract and Grandal is owed $54.75 million over the next three years.

– The Chicago Cubs are ruining the plans to have at least a moderate rebuild with their success this season, which could keep outfielder/infielder Kris Bryant and closer Craig Kimbrel in place.

– The Arizona Diamondbacks are a train wreck right now, entering Saturday with 12 consecutive losses and losing 21 of the last 24 games. D-backs president Derrick Hall says he’s not blaming manager Torey Lovullo, but Lovullo is on the final year of his contract and future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy is just a six-hour drive away and itching for a return.

– Can we just give Rangers outfielder Adolis Garcia the AL Rookie of the Year award right now? He is producing one of the greatest rookie seasons in history. He leads all rookies this year with 16 homers, 41 RBI, 20 extra-base hits, 100 total bases and a .919 OPS. He could become only the eighth rookie since 1900 to record a slugging percentage of at least .600 while qualifying for the batting title.

– For the first time since 2019, the owners will be having their quarterly meeting in person at the MLB headquarters next week in New York.

– The Rockies no longer have All-Star Nolan Arenado at third base, but their replacements are faring quite well. Ryan McMahon and Josh Fuentes entered the weekend hitting .278 with 11 homers, 38 RBI with an .841 OPS while leading all of baseball with eight defensive runs saved according to Sports Info Solutions.

– You wonder why the Dodgers are so powerful? They have had 32 quality starts this year, and have had four starters – Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias – produce at least six each. No other team has had three starters with six quality starts.

– Dodgers All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts is having his worst start since he became a full-time player in 2015, batting .240 with five homers, 17 RBI and a .778 OPS. “I don’t have any excuses,’’ Betts said. “Sometimes you just don’t play well. I’m not here to say this is why or this, that and the other. You’ve just got to accept it. It’s not from lack of effort.’’

– It’s stunning that the New York Mets are in first place with $341 million shortstop Francisco Lindor having a hideous slash line of .185/.290/.268.

– Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa on the criticism he has received this year. “If you just go back to any place that I have been, any other manager or head coach, you’re going to get some heat. If you don’t like it, do something else for a living.’’

– Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton on the play seen ‘round the world: “I’m pretty sure this play is going to be used not just in the Pirates organization but in every level of baseball, in every organization. I think a lot of people got caught watching the play because it had never happened before.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Theo Epstein wants baseball 'back in the players' hands'