The Seattle Mariners entered play on Friday batting .198 as a team. No club in the modern era has ever finished a season hitting below .200, also known as The Mendoza Line named after a weak-hitting shortstop named Mario Mendoza (who infamously hit just .198 in 401 plate appearances with Seattle in 1979). The Mariners have already been no-hit twice in a span of two weeks. They have far more strikeouts (413) than they have hits (273).
But this is not about the Mariners. They are only the most extreme example of what a Major League Baseball game has become in 2021, a season in which the collective batting average of .236 is the lowest in the modern era (17 of baseball’s 30 teams are hitting below that number), teams are on pace to post 7,000 more strikeouts than hits, and hits per game (7.83 through May 18) are the fewest since 1908. Also, games drag on endlessly (no team in baseball averages fewer than three hours a game) as fans are tasked with deriving entertainment value from the occasional home run interrupting a parade of strikeouts and walks.
Baseball can do better than this. Baseball must do better than this. The sport that has been fighting off forecasts of obsolescence for being out of touch with 21st-century tastes and attention spans and displaying a frightening degree of unwatchability, not only for the casual fan but for some of baseball’s most ardent supporters.
“It has turned me off to the game,” Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan recently told ESPN.
Can baseball be saved from itself? Theo Epstein would frame the discussion differently.
He says it’s about the industry acknowledging that it can do better and figure out what baseball at its best should look like. That’s the mandate Epstein has been given by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who hired the former Red Sox and Cubs general manager to shape that conversation and oversee a batch of experiments taking place on the minor-league and independent-league level that could alter the game in ways not previously contemplated.
”There is a decent amount of consensus about what the best version of the game looks like,” Epstein said. “It is hard to get a lot of people around the industry to agree on just about anything, right? (But) there's a lot of consensus that the best version of the game includes more action than we have now, a faster pace than we have now, the ball in play more than we have now. And that all those things contribute to putting the players right on center stage — the more balls in play, the more players are in motion; the more action on the base paths, the more action in the field. The more our players, who may be as great as any to ever play the game right now, get to show their gifts.
“I think it is pretty widespread, that in about every corner of baseball people are thinking about how to move the game in that direction. In some ways, it means restoring it to the way it's historically been played because there's never been a time in baseball history when we've had anything close to a 25-percent strikeout rate, so a lot of this is restoring the game to its true self.”
This spring, baseball is launching a whole set of experiments across the minor-league landscape to test, in real time, how some prospective rule changes could impact the pace and style of play. In Triple A, the size of the bases have been increased by three inches. In Double A, restrictions have been placed on defensive shifting. In Lower A, pitchers are limited with the number of pickoff attempts they can make.
The most radical experiment will be conducted in independent league baseball, where the mound will be set back another foot to 61 feet, six inches from home plate. The independent Atlantic League also will be experimenting with the “double hook” designated hitter rule, which removes a team’s DH once its starting pitcher leaves the game.
“The game is best played by nine, not two,” said Epstein, alluding to how so much of the action has been narrowed to the interplay between pitcher and batter. “That’s how a writer framed things in the 1890s, when pitchers had figured out the overhand delivery and figured out how to spin the ball and were striking out too many hitters. So, he lobbied to get the mound moved back from 55 feet to 60 feet, six inches.
“Fan survey data demonstrates the most popular events in a baseball game are events that include lots of players in motion and athleticism on display and the element of suspense. So triples, doubles and stolen bases, in that order, are fans’ favorite events. And unfortunately, all three of those events are declining in frequency. So hopefully as we move the game forward, we can bring those events back and make them as common as ever.
“Another way to think about the changes is they are just an effort to give the fans more of what they like and less of what they don't like, which is inherently a good thing.”
Epstein understands the pushback to change but asserts that, far from introducing a host of radical ideas, baseball is looking to recapture the elements that made the game so compelling in the past.
“It’s progressive, right, because it involves breaking away from some norms,” Epstein said, “but you could characterize it as conservative, too, and that there's an element of restoring a past that I think had elements that everyone agreed were really desirable.’’
MLB is not conducting these experiments in a vacuum, Epstein noted. The league has conducted innumerable surveys to solicit fans’ input, and he believes that the players themselves will likely prove to be the most valuable resource for making suggestions and evaluating the impact of rules changes.
The one that probably is furthest from being implemented by MLB any time soon is moving back the pitching rubber a foot to see if the increased reaction time will make a difference in the hitters’ contact rate. But Epstein explained how a seemingly subtle change, such as increasing the square of a base by three inches, could make a significant impact.
“Let's say instead of making the bases three inches bigger you made them, just as an extreme example, three feet bigger,” Epstein said. “Now all of a sudden, you know the trip around the bases is remarkably easy. The value of a single increases exponentially because once you're on base, you have a much better chance of scoring and less chance of being put out. The strikeouts would decrease rapidly, the stigma of striking out would come back right away because just putting the ball in play — given that first base is three feet closer — would be at a premium. The types of players selected by general managers would change. You’d be looking for faster runners, more premium on the baserunning and the contact game, and stolen bases would go way up, so that would really change the game fundamentally.
“No one's ever going to argue for that extreme a change, but three inches does all those same things incrementally, right? It's a step in that direction. You're four and a half inches closer on a stolen base, you're three inches closer on an infield single, the infielders have to position themselves an inch or two closer, so the batting average on balls in play goes up incrementally.”
Epstein, as GM of the Red Sox and Cubs, was in the vanguard of promoting the role of analytics in dictating how rosters were assembled and how the game was played on the field. He suggests that in the Information Age analytics will continue to play an important role, but perhaps the pendulum also has to swing in the opposite direction.
“(Analytics) can interfere with the aesthetic value of the game when they encroach too much on the field,” he said. “By that, I mean I think the game is most enjoyable when it's played at a fast pace, and all you need to do to realize that is go take a look at Luis Tiant pitch, or pick any game from the 70s or 80s. It’s so much more enjoyable when the pitcher gets the ball, gets the sign and pitches, once every 10 seconds.”
As the game is played today, with catchers consulting the information written on their wristbands and other players consulting their positioning cards, the value of that information is self-evident but contributes to a slower pace.
“Using analytics to prepare pregame is a good thing, but there's a lot to be said for letting the players play, for letting the players make decisions in real time, in the moment, on the field, letting them take advantage of their great intelligence and baseball instincts and rewarding players,” Epstein said. “Catchers brought a lot of value by being able to sort of intuitively process all the information themselves and put the fingers down pretty quickly for a century. Positioning? Cal Ripken was pretty good at that positioning himself.
“We definitely want to make sure we don't go too far where you take the players’ instincts out of the game. You don't want to turn them into robots where they're positioned by someone else, and decisions are made by someone else. The player is at the heart of the game. I think fans like seeing their instincts and their creativity reveal itself on the field, and the game also tends to move at a faster pace when that happens, too.”
Epstein rejects the suggestion that he has been cast as the game’s savior.
“I’m really appreciative that the commissioner gave me this assignment and it allowed me to see a very big table to talk about these issues and try to find a way to contribute,” he said. “I’ve certainly noticed the trends in the game for a long time, and I recognize the role that the analytics movement has had in contributing to some of these trends.
“So, it feels good to have a chance to work on nudging the game towards the very best version of itself. We all want baseball to be at its best. We all want it to be as entertaining and be as universally appealing as possible because we all want to grow the game. So being thoughtful about the product we put on the field and how the game works five, 10, 15 years from now, it's a priority for all of us.”