As he left his job running the Chicago Cubs baseball operations this week, Theo Epstein addressed what he sees as issues in baseball. Issues that he believes he helped create and now wonders if the game will fix them.
The issues involve a lack of action in the sport.
There are too many strikeouts, too much swing and miss. Strikeouts are fun if you’re the pitcher, but they are piling up more and more each year. More whiffs and fewer balls in play. Fewer chances for plays at the plate and great plays on defense, where player athleticism and talent is truly on display. It takes talent to get a strikeout, of course, but it means less action on the field.
Epstein said this: “It is the greatest game in the world but there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving. And I take some responsibility for that because the executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game. I mean, clearly, you know the strikeout rates are a bit out of control and we need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more and give the fans more of what they want.”
We now see more of the three true outcomes - strikeouts, walks and homers. They are called that because these outcomes seldom involve the defense very much.
You add the increasing level of strikeouts in the game, with all the defensive shifts and hitters believing more and more in launch angle and exit velocities, and you get three true outcome results. Hitters are working harder then ever to hit fly balls. The ground balls they do hit are turned into more outs because of defensive positioning and shifting. And when they are not able to get the ball in the air or ground, they are striking out. It’s just less action in the game.
A plate appearance in 2010 resulted in one of the three true outcomes 29.5 percent of the time. That is now up to 36 percent. Fewer balls in play over about a 10-year period. When Babe Ruth played, it was 17 percent. When the Orioles won the 1983 World Series, it was 23 percent.
This is happening at a time when Major League Baseball attendance is down in recent years. Here is the average attendance since 2015.
There could be several reasons for the attendance fall-off, but fans have no doubt cited less action as one issue for the game to address. The question is: How to address it?
Analytics have helped pitchers better learn to maximize their pitches. They’ve learned how to exploit hitters’ weaknesses, probably moreso than at any time in the sport’s history. Add to that increased velocity and it’s no wonder the strikeout rates keep increasing.
At some point, hitters and/or hitting coaches are going to have to make some adjustments. Not every hitter should be focusing on lifting the ball at all times. The thought that something good could happen if you just put the ball in play has always been true. You can advance a runner, you can get a bloop hit, the defense could make an error or throw to the wrong base. Even if you foul off several pitches and then strike out, you are increasing someone’s pitch count.
Where once I felt strikeouts for both pitchers and hitters were overrated, I no longer feel that way. The game has evolved and adjusted to learn to strike out hitters more than ever. Now hitters need to stop helping them do that with the constant search for the homer and lifting the ball. Maybe hitters need to better learn a two-strike approach to give themselves a chance. Maybe up until two strikes, trying to do max damage is a worthwhile pursuit. But then hitters have to adjust to the situation and get more balls in play.
It’s time for baseball to hear Epstein’s comments and be proactive. Come up with some answers now. Strikeouts are up and attendance is down. Not a trend that baseball would like to continue.
Roster adds coming today: The Orioles need to add players to their 40-man roster today to protect them from being selected in next month’s Rule 5 draft. In this story this week, I took my latest look at the upcoming Rule 5 draft and predicted the Orioles, who have a roster of 35 right now, would add four players. I had them adding outfielder Yusniel Diaz, pitchers Michael Baumann and Zac Lowther and infielder Rylan Bannon. And if they added a fifth player, I had that being lefty Alexander Wells. We’ll know more later today.