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Theo Epstein will help MLB with rule changes. Here are some suggestions

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The former Cubs executive could help make the game better.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday, Major League Baseball announced that former Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein would be joining the Commissioner’s office as “a consultant regarding on-field matters.”

More specifically, MLB’s press release announcing the hire stated:

Under the supervision of the Commissioner and the Owners’ Competition Committee, Epstein will work with baseball analytics experts from the Commissioner’s Office and the Clubs to determine the likely effects of various contemplated rule changes.

This is a good thing, a very good thing, particularly given this statement Theo made in his exit news conference leaving the Cubs:

Of course, he’s right. “Three true outcome” baseball has become dull for some, dragging the pace of play to the point where the 2020 season produced an average game length of three hours, seven minutes. The epitome of this sort of baseball is probably shown best by this Cubs/Cardinals game from last August 18. It had a rather ordinary 6-3 score, but among its 80 batters there were 13 walks, 26 strikeouts and two home runs — just about half — and a game time of 4:09, even though the Cubs, who won, didn’t bat in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s what Epstein is being tasked with doing, and MLB.com Statcast writer Mike Petriello helpfully sketches out some of the areas where Theo could help make improvements:

Let’s look at Petriello’s suggestions one by one.

Pitch clock

I have written this before, but it bears repeating. The pitch clock is the single biggest thing MLB could do to improve the pace of play — presuming they enforce it every single time.

When the pitch clock was instituted in Double-A and Triple-A in 2015, game times dropped significantly (the first number is 2014, the other three for 2015, 2016 and 2017):

International League - 2:56, 2:40, 2:42, 2:48
Pacific Coast League - 2:58, 2:45, 2:48, 2:53
Eastern League - 2:50, 2:38, 2:43, 2:42
Southern League - 2:52, 2:42, 2:43, 2:45
Texas League - 2:51, 2:45, 2:41, 2:46

Anywhere from six to 16 minutes was cut from game times. That’s meaningful. Instead of having MLB games last (on average) 3:07, we could cut that down to around 2:52. From SB Nation’s Beyond The Boxscore, here’s a chart of MLB average game times from 1920-2014:

A pitch clock would likely get the average length of a MLB game back to what it was in the mid-1990s. Trust me, you’d notice.

Lowering the mound

From 1963-68, the mound was raised to 15 inches in height. What this accomplished was suppressing offense, to the point where 1968 became known as “The Year of the Pitcher.” Carl Yastrzemski led the AL in batting average hitting just .301, and the league average in runs scored by a team was 555 (comparison point: that average in 2019 was 782).

The mound was lowered to 10 inches in 1969, and offense almost immediately rebounded. Teams averaged 660 runs that year. Part of that, granted, was the addition of four expansion teams with the commensurate addition of several dozen pitchers who had previously been in the minors. Still, it mattered.

Now, when we have pitchers routinely throwing pitches at 95+ miles per hour, lowering the mound would take away some leverage from those pitches. It’s a good idea. Eight inches, down from the current 10, would probably work.

Deadening the ball

MLB teams set all kinds of home run records in 2019.

And yet, in the 2019 postseason, the home-run explosion seemed to vanish. Why? Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus wrote this long article in October 2019 showing that the baseballs used for that year’s playoffs were somehow different than the ones used during the regular season. Example:

Max Muncy stepped up to bat against Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. On the fourth pitch, Doolittle left a 94 mile per hour fastball hanging over the center of the strike zone, and Muncy took a monstrous cut. The ball left the bat at 107 miles per hour on a 32 degree angle relative to the ground: a perfect home run trajectory. “That ball was absolutely crushed,” exclaimed Ernie Johnson after the play.

Then something unexpected happened. In a season with more than 6700 dingers, when a less air resistant ball has combined with stronger hitters to produce the highest home run rate in history, this fly ball wafted back to the warning track and fell into Michael Taylor’s glove. Muncy looked up to the sky, smiled, and shook his head.

MLB denied it. Rob Arthur showed it was happening.

Deadening the ball would reduce home runs and perhaps get hitters to adjust and stop trying to hit every ball out of the yard. Do it.

Limit the number of pitchers

MLB is already trying to do this with the three-batter rule. That’s had some unintended consequences, though those could have been predicted. Among them: Not being able to take a pitcher who’s clearly struggling out of the game until he faces the three batters. This is supposed to limit managers trudging slowly to the mound, taking pitchers in and out multiple times an inning. Like its cousins the automatic intentional walk and the limiting of mound visits, this change has saved almost nothing, as noted by Cliff Corcoran at The Athletic last January, even before the change was made:

However, while there were 2,162 pitching appearances that lasted fewer than three batters in 2019, 1,471 of them concluded with the end of an inning or the end of the game. That leaves just 691 appearances that the three-batter minimum would have extended, and that’s before searching that sample for outings that ended in injury and thus also would have been exempt from the rule.

Over the course of the 2,429 major-league games played in 2019, those 691 pitching appearances work out to just one every 3 1/2 games. If, in every case, the new rule eliminated the mid-inning pitching change entirely, it would have made the average time of a major-league game in 2019 (drumroll, please) … 34 seconds shorter.

Thirty. Four. Seconds.

I’m not sure what Mike Petriello is referring to here, but to me, this isn’t a major issue.

Shrink the strike zone

This one, I’d be against. Hitters are already laying off pitches in record numbers, working counts, fouling balls off, etc.

Most likely, all this would do is increase the number of walks, which no one wants.

Don’t ban the shift

Agreed. If fielders position themselves in a certain way because of a batter’s tendencies, the batter should learn to adjust.

Easy? No. Doable? Yes.

I don’t want it dictated where fielders have to stand, or worse, have some sorts of lines or boxes chalked on the grass telling them where they can or can’t go.

The universal DH

We’ve gone over and over and over this many times on this site. I get it, some of you are against this and won’t ever ever ever change your minds. I get it, there will be some loss of strategy if pitchers never ever ever bat again.

There is a proposal floating around that’s discussed in this long article by Jayson Stark in The Athletic: Allow the universal DH, but once you take your starting pitcher out, you lose it.

This... is interesting. Part of the point of doing this would be to encourage managers to have starting pitchers go longer in games. It would almost eliminate use of “openers,” since then you’d probably lose the DH for the entire game. It would encourage teams to carry guys who are good pinch-hitters who could be used late in games (think a Tommy La Stella type), or have teams go away from the Nelson Cruz type of DH to a guy who can also play the field, so if you lose the DH, you could put that player in the field so as to not lose his bat.

Stark spoke to four people about this idea: a pitcher (Adam Wainwright), a recently-retired DH (Adam Dunn), a manager (Bud Black) and an American League executive who wanted to remain anonymous.

It’s a really long and interesting article and you should read the whole thing, but the tl;dr is that Wainwright (mostly) endorsed it, Dunn started out liking it but after discussion said he didn’t, Black thought it was worth experimenting with and the executive absolutely hated it.

There is another thing about the universal DH that’s important to consider. Pitchers haven’t batted (with a couple of exceptions in 2020, including the Cubs’ Alec Mills) since the fall of 2019. Beyond the fact that teams will be asking starting pitchers to ramp up from 80 innings in 2020 to 180 in 2021, now you want them to bat after 18 months off? That’s an invitation to injury.

The idea floated in the Stark article is interesting, at least as a thought exercise. But then you look at this quote from the unnamed executive and think twice:

“You’re actually making the game much, much worse by trying to solve something you can’t solve,” the exec said. “I’m sure there is some incentive we can create to keep starters in the game longer. But I’m also pretty sure this isn’t it.

“You know, normally,” he went on, “I’m one of those people who always says, `Just tell me what the rules are, and we’ll live with them.’ But with these types of things – things I think would make the game much worse – I feel I should say that … Nobody would ever pay to see a game where your team is down six runs and you just removed your best hitter. I know people pay a lot of money to see the best starters pitch. But they also pay a lot of money to see the best hitters hit.”

I’m going to agree with this. The designated hitter is not a “gimmick” and it’s now been around for nearly 50 years. Just make it universal already.

As you can see, Theo Epstein has his work cut out for him. Baseball needs change to help it continue to be relevant. Just as he did in Boston and Chicago, I am sure Theo will do this job well — because he loves the game.

And incidentally, per Paul Sullivan in the Tribune, Theo’s probably staying in Chicago:

Epstein said he likely would remain in Chicago, where his wife, Marie, has a business and his two sons go to school. He can remain in Chicago in his new role with MLB and still leave his imprint on the game without having to work seven days a week.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll run into him at Starbucks.

Poll

If you had to pick just one of the possible changes to baseball noted in this article, which would it be?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Pitch clock
    (123 votes)
  • 17%
    Lowering the mound
    (80 votes)
  • 13%
    Deadening the ball
    (63 votes)
  • 2%
    Limit the number of pitchers
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Shrink the strike zone
    (1 vote)
  • 10%
    Don’t ban the shift
    (47 votes)
  • 24%
    Universal DH
    (115 votes)
  • 6%
    None of the above
    (29 votes)
468 votes total Vote Now