Editor’s note: From rising strikeout totals and unwritten-rules debates to connecting with a new generation of fans and a looming labor battle, baseball is at a crossroads. As MLB faces these challenges, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond.
It’s June 5. Two contenders, the New York Mets and San Diego Padres, are in the middle of an intense four-game series. The first two were decided by a total of three runs, and now Jacob deGrom is on the mound for the Mets in Game 3, while Joe Musgrove has the ball for the Padres. But even that pitching matchup isn’t enough to produce the drama a baseball fan wants because there is so little action on the field.
It’s a strikeout-fest.
The two teams combine for 31, just one short of the season high.
It’s a scenario playing out nightly, and it has baseball’s attention. There have already been 10 games this season with 30 or more strikeouts — including three this month as MLB implements a crackdown on foreign substances for pitchers. For comparison, in all of 2014, there were only 13 such games. Just five years later, in 2019, there were 32 featuring 30 or more. Twenty combined strikeouts was once a lot, but there have been more than 370 such games this season.
That trend is not what baseball wants to see right now. And whether it comes in pleas for more action as yet another strikeout-filled evening unfolds, calls for robot umps after a questionable ball-or-strike decision or even losing interest as teams trade solo home runs, this much is clear: Fans want change. And MLB is listening.
Through fan surveys — including one sent to fans after the 2020 season — player outreach and its own data collection, Major League Baseball is trying to determine the best version of itself for the future.
Former front-office executives Theo Epstein and Michael Hill and former All-Star Raul Ibanez are part of a team at MLB collaborating to examine the game, as well as experiment with it — mostly at the minor league level to start. Their ideas may soon change the game at the highest level.
“We have to do it in a way that isn’t too far removed from the essence of baseball,” Epstein said recently. “No one is looking to reinvent the wheel here. This is the greatest game in the world, and we want to preserve the essence of baseball. A lot of this is restoring the game to the way it’s historically been played.”
The group’s goal is to attract a new generation of fans by turning the current game into a more enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing experience. But it also wants to honor the traditions of more than 100 years of history to avoid alienating a dedicated base of purist fans.
Sometimes those goals can be in direct conflict.
The root of the concern
At the heart of everything the team at MLB is examining is one issue: strikeouts.
“This is a game designed to be played by nine men, not two,” Epstein said.
Epstein was quoting a sportswriter from a time in baseball’s history, the 19th century, when pitchers were perfecting the overhand delivery and learning to spin the ball. Strikeouts began to rise, which caused concern — just like today.
The leaguewide strikeout rate is hovering around 25%. To put that into context, that is the same as the career strikeout rates of Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. On average, every pitcher is performing like two of the best of all time.
The K rate has increased every season since 2008, and the current league batting average of just .238 is the lowest since 1968. Reducing foreign substances on baseballs is just one part of a bigger plan to give hitters a better chance at making contact. Even this month, as policing sticky stuff makes headlines, that leaguewide strikeout rate is higher than the single-season record set in 2019.
The longer length and slower pace of games, as well as the lack of action, is part of the fallout from all those strikeouts.
“It’s all connected,” Epstein said.
Many in the game point out that while there have been advancements in hitting, the fundamental part of the pitcher-hitter dynamic will always favor the man with the ball. The pitcher is proactive in the relationship, while the hitter is reactive. That’s not going to change. And batters have essentially been at the mercy of pitching advancements, as there’s only so much they can do to counter them.
“The way pitchers have done a great job of weaponizing data and technology has been the biggest driver,” Epstein said. “Pitchers have optimized their grips for movement.
“It’s just really hard to hit.”
What fans want most
Major League Baseball has spent a lot of time and energy asking fans what version of the game they like the most. The results have given those in charge of the sport a clear mandate that leaving the game as is simply is not an option. No fan is voting for more strikeouts. Or more time between pitches. Or more pitching changes.
“There’s a lot more consensus on the direction of where the game should go,” Epstein said of what fans want to see. “A lot more balls in play, a lot more athleticism, a lot more action. In the fan survey, three favorites at a game are triples, doubles and stolen bases.”
All three are down across MLB. There are fewer stolen bases per team per game (0.45) than there have been in any season since the mound was lowered in 1969.
“There’s a lot more consensus on the direction of where the game should go. A lot more balls in play, a lot more athleticism, a lot more action. In the fan survey, three favorites at a game are triples, doubles and stolen bases.”
Theo Epstein on what fans want to see
The 0.14 triples per team per game is on pace to be the lowest ever in a full season (2020 was lower). And so far this season, 4% of plate appearances have ended in a double, the lowest mark since 1989.
It’s worth an experiment
With all that in mind, MLB has begun using minor league games as a testing ground.
The rule that could most impact the batter-vs.-pitcher matchup will occur when the pitching rubber is moved back to 61 feet, 6 inches from home plate in the second half of the independent Pioneer League season.
“The extra foot gives the hitter an extra one-hundredth of a second of reaction time, which is the equivalent of a mile and a half of velocity,” Epstein said. “The presumption is that it will allow hitters to make more contact against premium velocity. That’s the theory.” Whether it’s a foot or eventually even two, it could alter the sport.
“In these discussions, you keep coming back to this question, which is: Have we perhaps simply just outgrown 60 feet, 6 inches the way pitching has evolved?” Epstein said. “Shouldn’t we at least look at that? On one hand, you could say it’s too sacred a measurement to mess with, and I get that.
“On the other hand, if you’re trying to tweak five to six other things, to get to the same outcome, isn’t it worth an experiment to see just by changing one thing if you can fundamentally impact the strikeout rate and get balls in play more? You could argue that’s more of an elegant solution.”
Trying these things on the field is the only way to see what works. For example, a slightly larger base, which is being used at Triple-A this season, could have an immense impact on everything from the number of infield hits and stolen bases to rosters more balanced between power hitters and those capable of taking an extra base.
Regulating the shift, as they’ll do in two stages at Double-A this year, will undoubtedly affect how many balls that currently end up in a fielder’s glove get through for hits. But it could also fundamentally change a part of baseball. It might not just mean more baseballs getting through to the outfield, it could alter swing paths and habits of players and even the type of prospects teams target in the draft.
One of the highest-profile tests is the use of so-called robot umpires. The argument for instituting them comes from a belief that human umpires are getting too many calls wrong — but the potential effects go even further than that.
“You’re seeing the ABS [automatic balls and strikes] being used in the low minors this year because with that comes the potential to change the strike zone to one that is optimal for contact,” Epstein said. “Different strike zones lead to different styles of play.”
The league might determine the high strike is bad for contact but give pitchers the benefit of the doubt on the corners. It could lower and widen the zone if it wants.
Everything is in play as the experiments in the minor leagues begin to produce numbers for MLB to analyze.
“We also want to understand how they interrelate to one another and make sure we’re avoiding unintended consequences,” Epstein said.
The job of a starting pitcher has changed
There’s growing momentum in the game behind the idea that simply limiting the size of pitching staffs would help curtail one of the sport’s major issues.
The theory goes like this: Smaller pitching staffs mean fewer pitching changes, helping the pace and length of the game. It also would lead to longer outings from starters, typically the best and most popular pitchers on a staff.
Those longer outings would create the need for starters to hold something back for late in the game, and smaller relief staffs would mean using each reliever more frequently. Both would bring more contact, as pitchers couldn’t throw maximum-effort pitches as often.
“If you asked a starting pitcher 30 years ago, ‘What’s your job?’ he’d say to finish this game or get close to it,” Epstein said. “If you ask some starting pitchers now — and I’m not blaming anyone or pointing fingers — fewer would say my job is to get deep into the game.
“It’s more, ‘I want to be as effective as possible, miss as many bats as possible, strike out as many as possible, and if the manager has to come get me in the fifth or sixth inning, so be it. We literally have eight to nine guys in the pen that can throw 98 mph and punch some guys out and finish the game.'”
Before the pandemic forced it to change course, MLB was set to institute a 13-man limit to combat the rise in 14-pitcher staffs. But reducing rosters to 10 or 11 pitchers might be necessary to achieve more significant results.
Position players were the specialists in the sport before certain roles were eliminated to make room for more bullpen arms. Every team had a few pinch hitters on the bench who would help create late-inning offense, which is also down these days. There has been little reason to watch final frames that should be the most exciting time of the game.
“The specialist role has fallen to a lot of relievers, which has increased the dominance of the bullpens, which has increased the strikeout rate, which has contributed to the ball being out of play,” Epstein said.
With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, the players’ union will have a loud voice in something as radical as limiting the number of pitchers on a staff that would benefit some of its members and be a detriment to others.
“I think it’s fair to ask if we’re not a better game if some of those specialist roles go back to being position players, who bring certain skills that make it a more interesting product,” Epstein said.
Change can come from adjustments of all sizes
There are compromises to be found. Perhaps the current extra-inning rule — starting every inning after the ninth with a runner on second base — could be tweaked to satisfy the die-hard fan as well as the one who wants to go home before the clock strikes midnight. A solution could come from playing “normal” baseball for the 10th and 11th innings, then instituting a man on second to start every inning after that. That will garner more discussion within MLB.
And not every experiment will necessarily be a good one. At the high-A level, pitchers are required to step off the rubber to perform a pickoff move. This has led to a huge increase in stolen bases, but the rule isn’t passing the eye test because catchers aren’t even throwing down to second or even third base as runners easily advance. That’s not the kind of action anyone wants. It’s too easy to steal, and it’s actually slowing games down. There are fewer double plays, an aesthetically pleasing play, and it takes time for runners to regroup on foul balls after running on the pitch.
One high-A pitcher explained why it makes the game worse.
“More pitches per inning, more stress, can’t go as deep into games, less double plays and more pitching changes,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
Even if it’s an experiment you might not notice while watching, the results could greatly alter the product on the field. Will you notice the one foot when they move the rubber back? Probably not. But you’ll take note of the extra hits.
The powers that oversee the sport are on the clock to find the right tweaks while keeping the game looking mostly like it has for 100 years.
“A number of small changes can lead to a more meaningful adjustment, and a different outcome for player selection,” Epstein said. “No one thinks these rule changes are the answer. It’s really important for us to find out.”