Theo Epstein was the boss when the Red Sox and Cubs broke the two longest droughts in the World Series in history. With that as an impressive highlight in his resume, he now has the herculean responsibility to save baseball from the dummies it has apparently led into with remarkable speed.
Epstein, now a consultant for Major League Baseball, is working with MLB to create a more entertaining product on the spot. By many accounts, his current task will be more difficult than the first two. The irony is that Epstein has at least been a participant in the problem. In other words, as your mother probably told you, be careful with the company you keep.
Before the cities of Boston (in 2004) and Chicago (a dozen years later) escaped baseball’s longest hangover, Epstein was considered one of the brightest and youngest leaders in the game. As such, for better or worse, he was among the rising stars who brought the game into the analysis era.
Epstein probably had no idea about the direction of baseball, let alone destination, 30 years ago, when he broke into baseball as a 17-year-old intern at Orioles. Despite the obvious technology era, few could have imagined that the game would apparently be held captive by terms such as spin speeds and launch angles as opposed to the time-consuming statistics of batting and earned averages.
It has taken two decades to get to this point, but for veterans of the game, the “old timers” of space, it seems like a century of tradition left the game in an instant. Players are aligned to positions you have never seen before. Hitters hit previously unacceptable prices while hitting more home runs than ever. Boxes throw harder, but no longer, while they are brainwashed to believe that victories mean nothing, and five rounds is a good day’s job.
It is with this backdrop that Epstein, in a revealing interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, said that the many changes baseball is considering (and there are too many for one column) are being tested at different levels in smaller leagues in an attempt to “get the game going” in the hands of the players. ”
Of course, it will not fly with Joe Average Fan, who puts a lot of the blame on players he considers to be overpaid while not performing. But as former Orioles manager Buck Showalter points out, there is a lot of guilt to pass around.
If, as many insist, baseball is in a self-induced coma, Showalter believes the game must take its share of the blame. And that is hardly an insignificant proportion.
“Do not blame the players, they are just chasing the money,” he said, citing the tendency to emphasize launch angles and home runs at the expense of contact hitters who put the ball in play.
“They have eliminated the shame of striking out. They have eliminated the shame of being a bad hitter, “added Showalter, who as a player did not spend much time over Double-A, but was a .294 hitter during seven seasons in minor series. His 18 career home runs would pale in today’s comparisons – but his walk / strike total of 336/183 in 3,292 record appearances would speak at an extremely high volume.
The problem is that no one is listening.
When that is the case, almost everyone is upset that MLB will eventually do something to undo the widespread shifts that dominate defensive strategy.
“Originally I was against [regulating positioning of the infielders], but they will have to do something, ”said Showalter, who is a member of the competition committee that will eventually propose possible changes.
For Showalter, the goal of a defensive regulation will be to find a way to keep infielders out of the right field.
“I do not care what they do, as long as there are two on each side of the other base,” he said.
One suggestion is to get the defenders to keep both feet on the dirt, which will require even infield depth for both natural and artificial surfaces, and will create significantly more open space for left-handed hitters, who are most drastically affected by the shift. It will also keep infielders out of the right field, but Showalter believes having two fielders on either side of the second base is the best solution.
“It used to be that a line drive into the area to the right field automatically created tension,” said Showalter, who may appreciate the problems with left-handed hitters because he was one himself. “Now there’s just another out.”
Although the shift can affect all hits, right-handers are not affected nearly as much because throwing on ground balls from that side would be far more demanding from a field position, while it is a relatively routine throw from a short right field.
A well-placed bundle has always been a viable option for left-handed hitters, some obviously more so than others. But with hitters being encouraged to strike over the shift, there has been a lost, or at least forgotten, art generally ignored both offensively and defensively for the same reason – because the game has become obsessed with home runs, strikes are cursed.
Most hardline baseball people agree that it’s probably easier to teach a player to hit a ground ball to what would normally be a card stop position than it is to bundle a base hit. Encouraging a left-handed Hitler to “go the other way” seems to be at least a step in the right direction.
At a time when some drastic changes are being considered, Showalter had a positive reaction to one that would be relatively small. Suppose baseball changed the rule that says that a broken bundle in a two-stroke count results in a strike. What if it was just like any other foul ball – and not a strike?
The idea is that by keeping a bundle opportunity alive, it will require the third baseman to remain engaged throughout the bat. As it is now, with beaters unwilling to sacrifice a strike on an ugly bundle attempt, the shift is in full force on almost every pitch.
Eliminating strikes on a broken bundle attempt would almost certainly necessitate that the third baseman be fully engaged through each battle – even by the worst candidate.
“My first gut reaction is that I love it,” Showalter said after a brief pause. “What could be wrong with that?”
What can go wrong, as some certainly suggest, is that some hitters who have already mastered the art of hitting bad balls will use the tactic to drive up counts, especially on starting pitchers that are already at unreasonable limits.
Showalter does not buy that argument.
“They are not going to try to stand up there and bulge bad balls [on third strikes]. They are not splashing now at the first pitch, “he said, adding that he believes the rule change would lead to less excessive shifts, which opens up more leeway for left-handed hitters. “It’s something I’ll definitely be worth considering.”
God knows, baseball seems to be considering something else that comes to mind on Madison Avenue, or where MLB’s marketing department hangs out these days. Electronic referees, seven-inning games, moving the pitching rubber back, unearned runs in extra innings, new rules for pickoff throws to the bases. Even a version of peloton baseball that can loosen up on substitution rules is part of the discussion.
But it’s a topic for another day – or column. In the meantime, it may pay to find a way to revive lost art long ago and make the bundle more relevant than ever.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo credit: Kenya Allen / PressBox