The pandemic and the upcoming steel-cage match with the Players Association to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement have understandably taken up much of the time of those who run Major League Baseball.
The other big problem is that the sport has become increasingly tedious to watch, both at the ballpark and on television. There’s too much waiting around for something interesting to happen.
So it was welcome news Thursday when commissioner Rob Manfred announced that Theo Epstein had been named a “consultant regarding on-field matters.”
In other words, he’s going to try to fix the game.
It won’t be easy. Baseball has turned into a numbing exercise in risk aversion. Most every in-game decision is now something that three people who should be working in Silicon Valley ran the numbers on earlier in the day.
The result is Blake Snell coming out of Game 6 of the World Series while throwing a two-hit shutout in the sixth inning against the mighty Dodgers.
Snell was speaking for a lot of us when he cursed on his way to the dugout.
When Epstein stepped down as president of baseball operations of the Cubs Nov. 17, he acknowledged his role in turning the game into the parade of strikeouts and ground balls hit into a shift interrupted by an occasional home run.
“Executives like me who spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual 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,” he said.
He went on to say that the strikeout rate is out of control and that the game needs more action and opportunities for players to showcase their athletic abilities. There should be a way, Epstein mused, in which that can be accomplished.
Now he’s in charge of finding that path, and who better to be in that important role? Epstein is fluent in three languages. He can communicate with corporate suits, the herd of front office executives and analysts in their quarter-zip pullovers, and those in uniform.
At 47, Epstein has plenty of time for a few more chapters in what is already a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Maybe this will lead to his becoming commissioner or serve as a bridge to his taking over another team in a few years and building another champion.
It could be something out of baseball entirely, given his many interests and skills. He could even put together a group that owns the Red Sox someday.
For now, this temporary task is worthy of Epstein’s attention. He can help every team in this role, not just one.
MLB says Epstein will work with analytics experts to determine the effects of rules changes being contemplated.
Adjusting some rules may help. But baseball also needs to find ways to get more former players into meaningful front office jobs and stem the tidal wave of analytically inclined white guys in their late 30s who went to college on the East Coast.
Managers shouldn’t feel like playing a hunch is a mistake, and more players should be willing to put the ball in play instead of flailing away at fastballs out of the strike zone hoping to hit one out.
Manfred has championed rules designed to shorten the length of games, and that would be welcome. But what baseball primarily needs is more going on while the clock ticks.
As strikeouts increase, fielders stand around instead of making dazzling plays. Home runs are fun, but triples are better. Let’s sprinkle in more pitchers with a repertoire of something more than fastballs up and breaking balls down.
Ultimately Epstein has to change minds along with some rules. Hopefully his colleagues around the game are willing to listen.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is on board.
“I think it’s great,” said Bloom. “We owe it to baseball’s future to be thoughtful about what we want this game to be for our fans.
“There are issues that can only be solved at the league level, and having someone like Theo on board, someone who’s walked in our shoes for so long, will be a huge help in addressing them.”