MLB is putting a lot of effort into adjusting the game of baseball in the name of fan engagement, but the reality is they’re trying to kill a monster they created
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My opinions of Major League Baseball are not a secret. I have been openly critical of their efforts to change the game of baseball and their “negotiations” with the MLBPA. So, it will not come as a surprise that this piece may be hyper-critical of MLB, the organization. That said, a piece by Jesse Rogers – which can be found in this week’s JFtC MLB Minute – has sparked some keyboard strokes from me. I will acknowledge that the piece is a year old and many things can and do change in that amount of time. However, there are some key issues that stand out even today.
Firstly, Rogers begins his piece by describing a matchup between Joe Musgrove and Jacob deGrom as boring. BORING! We’re talking about a pitching duel for the ages, one that was sure to provide plenty strike outs from two of the game’s best. In total, 31 strikeouts were tallied that day. The baseball fan in me wishes I could have been in attendance. However, media seems to be adding fuel to the fire that this brand of baseball is boring and something within the game needs to be changed. When two of your sport’s best are doing what they do best and you openly call it boring, you have a problem and it isn’t with the game itself. Of course, Major League Baseball refers to fan surveys they conducted that said fans want more action, more doubles, triples, stolen bases, etc. as opposed to more strike outs, which will touch on in a bit.
But, that’s all just a minor issue in the Rogers piece. He then provides insight from Theo Epstein, who was hired by MLB to be a consultant and come up with little experiments to “improve the game”, which to them means make it less boring. Issues like from the use of the shift to the composition and storage of the baseball are all under the microscope, including moving the pitcher’s mound and changing the size of the bases. In isolation, these changes may seem silly, but they’re all part of a larger plan to make the game less boring.
Moving the pitcher’s mound away from the plate up to another foot is a way to provide the batter with just a bit more time to react to pitches, thus creating the possibility for more offense. Of course, this is an attempt to avoid the strike outs that make the game less exciting for some. Epstein explains it thusly: “This is a game designed to be played by nine men, not two“. Rogers followed that up with this support: “The leaguewide strikeout rate [as of June 24, 2021] 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.”
We could go on and on about the efforts to change the game, but the real issue here is that the very people who are trying to solve this ‘boredom’ issue, like Epstein, had a direct hand in creating the problems they’re trying to change. You may recall that Epstein was at the helm of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs and was responsible for bringing them to the World Series and breaking their respective championship droughts. He is just one example of a very intelligent mind who changed the way front offices thought about building a winner. Billie Bean did it in Oakland with the whole Moneyball thing. And the Tampa Bay Rays have been the envy of the league with their analytics and ability to sustain winning baseball on a shoestring budget.
And, that’s the real catalyst, here. Front offices began using analytics to find ways to win. From using the shift to concentrating on spin rates, teams across the game were finding and using any little advantage they could. The results have been more wins for those who do it well, which means more revenue for owners who pay them to do it well. The more you win, the more money you make via TV deals, etc. Going hand in hand with this is the need to control how much free agents make. We saw this play out in the CBA negotiations, both with salary floor discussions and the desire for teams to have more control over younger players for longer. It makes sense, right? Spend as little as you can while making as much as you can. It’s a tried and true business model.
However, what happened is the game changed slightly with more coming. First it was ‘games are too long’ and now the gloves are off and baseball is just downright ‘boring’. These analytics-type minds changed the game and, in the case of Epstein, are now being tasked with slaying the dragon they created.
One of the more egregious efforts is the use of robot umpires. Fans all over have been screaming about blown strike calls, etc. Take Saturday’s Blue Jays game against the Royals, where George Springer tossed hsi bat and was given a warning. The home plate umpire, John Bacon, was a little extra crispy with his balls/strikes calls. Fans want the right calls made, plain and simple. However, MLB is using this to bring about alterations to optimize the strike zone for more offense.
Take Epstein’s comments on the subject as proof: “You’re seeing the ABS (automated 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. Different strike zones lead to different styles of play.”
So, MLB is not only considering using ABS to ‘get calls right’, but to take it a step further and using it to alter what a strike actually is. The thing about a computer is that, once programmed, it does exactly what it is told. That is true no matter how many times you program it. So, if the programmed strike zone isn’t working to create more offense, they can simply reprogram it. This could be problematic for many because a sport shouldn’t be played to create an outcome.
If MLB wants to truly engage more fans, and make more money, they need to adjust their focus. It seems that they have created a game where teams have implemented as many little advantages as they can to win more (which increases revenue) and now regret their efforts because the revenue isn’t where they want it to be. In 2019, they saw an all time high $10.37B in revenue, which had been increasing every year and it dropped dramatically in 2020. The league still made $3.66B in the ‘pandemic year’, but 2021 didn’t see an increase back to 2019 levels. Instead, the league would have to settle for $9.56B.
Manipulating the game to impact the outcome of the game is a recipe for disaster. Major League Baseball teams have tried that in recent years and are now trying to figure out how to unring that bell. Sure, teams have been doing this forever, after all winning is always the goal. However, winning has now been directly linked to finances and that means that money will dictate how the game works. So, we could be back here in a few years lamenting new changes.
There are some fans who want changes to the game, no doubt. What each wants may vary. I would like to see more emphasis put on marketing the beauty of baseball and those who play it, expanding their reach, if you will. However, regional TV rights, etc may conflict with that, so I don’t know if it will happen quite like I’d hope. Instead, I will continue to be the crotchety old guy who complains about the good old days when baseball was about players competing for wins, not owners competing for dollars.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: When reading for this post, I came across a piece with a similar title: MLB Exec Theo Epstein Wants to Kill the Monster That He Helped Create. That post from Apr 7, 2022 and is more focused on Epstein himself and his role. It is nowhere near the rant you’ve just read.
*Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.