Baseball's Savior? Theo Epstein Can Be MLB's Not-so-Secret Weapon to Fix Game

Abbey MastraccoContributor IJanuary 15, 2021

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2019, file photo, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein speaks at a media availability during the Major League Baseball general managers annual meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. Former Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox executive Theo Epstein has been hired by Major League Baseball as a consultant for on-field matters and will evaluate possible rule changes. Epstein will work with baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, the owners’ competition committee and analytics experts, MLB said Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
Matt York/Associated Press

Theo Epstein is deeply worried about the future. So he's taken a role with the league to fix what ails America's pastime.

The architect of the Chicago Cubs' 2016 World Series win and the Boston Red Sox's 2004 and 2007 titles was hired by Major League Baseball as a "consultant regarding on-field matters" Thursday afternoon. In this role, Epstein will work with baseball analytics experts to determine the effects of rule changes.

"As the game evolves, we all have an interest in ensuring the changes we see on the field make the game as entertaining and action-packed as possible for the fans, while preserving all that makes baseball so special," Epstein said in a statement. "I look forward to working with interested parties throughout the industry to help us collectively navigate toward the very best version of our game."

A move like this felt like a foregone conclusion after he stepped down from his role as the Cubs' president of baseball operations in November. He gave an emotional exit press conference over Zoom, saying the analytical phenomenon—one he helped pioneer—is having a detrimental effect on the sport.

Epstein knows better than anyone that the numbers game is successful, but to him it's been taking the fun out of the sport and eliminating the very thing that has made baseball great for generations: the human element.

Epstein said when he announced his exit from Chicago:

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"The executives, like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects.

"Clearly, the strikeout rate is a little bit out of control. We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism more and give the fans more of what they want.

"Maybe there's a way to do that through changes over time and put the game back in the hands of the players and let them do their thing on field. I think that's the best way to give fans more of what they want."

Make no mistake. Epstein can't single-handedly save baseball, but he's embracing the one thing the sport has always been slow to come around to: change.


What Does Baseball Need to Change?

The three true outcomes aren't doing the game any favors.
The three true outcomes aren't doing the game any favors.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

MLB has become ungodly slow, and at times, tough to watch because of the pace-of-play issues. At the same time, we're seeing amazing feats of athleticism, but at what cost?

Pitchers 6'3" or taller are throwing 100 mph or faster past every hitter. Batters want to put the ball in the air to utilize exit velocity and play the numbers game. The more they can put the ball in the air, the more home runs they can hit, right?

As Epstein said, strikeouts and home runs aren't always that fun to watch. A universal DH, which the league implemented during the shortened 2020 season, could be installed full time. It warrants looking at the numbers a little more closely, but that's exactly the type of thing Epstein is said to be examining.

Pace of play is also a huge component of the entertainment problem.

Changes have already been made to limit mound visits and reduce the length of TV commercial breaks. Maybe a pitch clock is next. Watching every pitcher grab his cap, his sleeve, his beard, his belt and his cap again before shaking off the sign is mind-numbing. It's easy to tune out when there is so much time between pitches.

Extra-inning changes could be a solution as well. A runner on second base to begin play in each additional frame was adopted for the shortened 2020 season. Players have advocated for change in recent seasons, with former outfielder Curtis Granderson telling me a few years ago that he would like to implement a home run derby to end extra innings, similar to a shootout in hockey.

His idea is certainly not traditional, but it could be fun.

Baseball may not be ready for sweeping changes, but as Epstein said, changes need to be implemented over time for the game to evolve as the appetite and interests of its audience evolve.


The Marketability Problem

MLB should recognize Fernando Tatis Jr. for the star he is.
MLB should recognize Fernando Tatis Jr. for the star he is.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

Baseball has a tendency to get stuck in time. The NBA and NFL do a much better job of letting their stars be stars. Unencumbered by things like arcane unwritten rules, the NBA and NFL sell fans on personalities.

Baseball is rooted in tradition. But that tradition is increasingly clashing with the personalities of some of the game's most entertaining young stars. Not to mention, it puts unreasonable demands on young, emerging Latino players who often have their own cultural and language barriers that are difficult enough to overcome.

A good example of this was the incident from last season involving San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. His grand slam on a 3-0 pitch in a game the Padres were winning 10-3 drew the ire of Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward and criticism from his own manager, Jayce Tingler.

Tatis apologized, but players throughout the league said none was needed.

As a younger generation takes over, they could eventually write off the unwritten rules.


The Labor Battle 

Labor negotiations have become increasingly contentious, and that was never more apparent than in 2020, when the league and MLBPA were embroiled in an ugly, public negotiation over how to stage a pandemic-shortened season.

But even in more certain times, teams are tanking and doing things on the cheap.

The Cleveland baseball team recently traded shortstop Francisco Lindor and front-line right-hander Carlos Carrasco to the Mets for two young shortstops and two minor leaguers because they couldn't afford to pay their best players. Fans in Cleveland have every right to be disappointed in ownership.

It could get even worse since clubs lost gargantuan amounts of revenue last season, which led to a stagnant free-agent market.

The solution could be as simple as a salary floor. Maybe it's something else. Epstein could be uniquely positioned to help bridge the divide between the players union, the commissioner and the owners. His focus seems to be solely on on-field issues, but you never know how it could evolve.

Epstein will be an invaluable resource at the league level. If anyone is equipped to take on the task of moving the game into a new era, it's him.