Sports

Karl Lindholm: Theo-logy: Fixing the national pastime II

Second of two parts; read the first part here.

A week ago last Sunday, the brilliant Shohei Ohtani of the Angels hit a game-winning homer with two outs in the 9th against ace Red Sox closer Matt Barnes.

The Angels won 6-5. Exciting game. It took 3 hours 19 minutes to play, too long but only slightly above average time. In this nine-inning game, the teams combined to use 12 pitchers, and 23 of the 54 outs were strikeouts.

Twelve pitchers! One game. And it happens all the time.

A quick look at the box scores from last Sunday’s MLB games (Monday noon is the deadline for this piece) reveals that the average number of pitchers used in the 14 nine-inning games played was nine, the fewest six and most 13. 

All those pitching changes take time. The game with six pitchers took a tidy 2:37:00 to play; the 13-pitcher game was played in 3:41:00. Starting pitchers now are expected to get through the opposing lineup twice and then give way to fresh arms coming in for one-inning stints. Hitters these days rarely face a fatigued pitcher.

Baseball’s century-old delicate balance between offense and defense is severely compromised in the professional game today. Major League Baseball this year is on a pace to record the fewest hits and the most strikeouts in one season (the six highest strikeout rates in MLB history are from the last six seasons).

Even the mossbacked Lords of Baseball have come to the conclusion that adjustments to the game that were unthinkable even a few years ago must be made and have instituted widespread innovations in the minor leagues this year.   

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has hired Theo Epstein as a “consultant in the game’s on-field matters” working with “analytics experts on potential rules changes.”

MLB is employing Theo-logy to minister to the game’s ills.

The 47-year-old Epstein will undoubtedly be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible. As general manager of the Red Sox, he led the club to its first World Series Championship in 2004 after an 86-year drought — and then did the same for the Chicago Cubs in 2016 after 108 years.

In an interview with Jayson Stark of the Athletic, Epstein expounded on his love of baseball and explained that “we should be shooting for the absolute very best version of the game.”

To Theo, the best version “means we want more action in the game and a faster pace of play and less dead time. And it means we want more contact and more balls in play, and probably fewer strikeouts than we have now.

“We want to see more athleticism on display. We want more doubles and triples and more stolen bases — and probably less true outcomes on offense (“true outcomes” are walks, strikeouts, and home runs).

That’s the “vision.” Now the hard part — how to get there, how to make the game less static and more dynamic, more like it was.

Here is some of the experimentation occurring in the baseball’s minor league “laboratory” that Epstein and his colleagues will be evaluating.

61 feet six inches: In the second half of the Atlantic League season, the pitching distance will be a foot farther than it is now (and has been since 1891 when 60 feet 6 inches was established). The Atlantic League is a partner league with MLB, an “open classification” league, 40% of whose players have had some major league experience.

The announcement of the experiment by Major League Baseball indicated “moving the mound back by a foot will convert a 93.3 mph fastball (the major league average in 2020) to a 91.6 mph fastball” and should also affect secondary pitches, benefitting hitters.

Shifts: An “anti-shift rule” is being instituted throughout Double A minor league baseball this year. All four infielders will have to have both feet on the infield dirt (or grass). No more infielders 30-40 feet into right field robbing lefty batters of sure hits. MLB is also considering a rule that will require two infielders on either side of second base.

Bigger bases: In Triple A this year, bases will be three inches larger (18 inches x 18 inches, rather than 15×15). This is not a particularly big deal, but will perhaps lead to fewer injuries and will give runners a slightly shorter distance to cover safely on infield hits and steals.

Pickoff moves: In A-ball, two major rule changes are being experimented with. In a pickoff attempt at first or any base, the pitcher must step off the rubber before throwing. This will allow for significantly larger leads off first. Last year, in the Atlantic League, such a rule change produced 70% more stolen base attempts and an 81% stolen base success rate.

Also in A-ball, pitchers are only allowed two “free” pickoff throws to first (or any base); the third will be called a balk and the runner will advance a base, unless the pickoff attempt is successful.

Electronic Strike Zone: The ABS (automatic ball-strike system) will be used in the Southeast League (Low A). Get used to the idea — it’s coming, but not right away.

Pitch clocks: The 20-second pitch clock has been used throughout the minors in the last couple of years. This season in the Low A West League (formerly the California League) pitchers will have to start their windup, or come to a set position, within 15 seconds.

Batters will have to be within the box and “attentive” with eight seconds on the clock, or a strike will be called. In my view, the pitch clock cannot get to the Majors soon enough.

It will be fascinating to see how these innovations work in the minors and can be adopted to the Big Leagues.

In the meantime — Go Sox! and fans, get thee to Centennial for Lake Monsters games this summer and to Montpelier Rec Park for Mounties games, and watch highly skilled collegians play the game we have loved for so long.

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