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OC Register: Hoornstra: How to change baseball for the better – and make it last


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Major League Baseball recently hired Theo Epstein as a consultant regarding on-field matters. The former Cubs and Red Sox general manager will work with baseball analytics experts, under the supervision of the Commissioner and the Owners’ Competition Committee, to determine the likely effects of various contemplated rule changes.

My reaction, in a word: Finally.

It doesn’t take a genius to see what ails baseball in 2021. Watch any national broadcast, and the color analyst will volunteer his own suggestions for improving the sport. Read any baseball column – this one, preferably – and you’ll get plenty of ideas. Epstein graduated from Yale, and built the rosters that ended the championship droughts for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. Genius or not, he’s qualified for the job.

“As the game evolves, we all have an interest in ensuring the changes we see on the field make the game as entertaining and action-packed as possible for the fans, while preserving all that makes baseball so special,” Epstein said in a statement released by the league.

Identifying said changes is the fun part. When he resigned from the Cubs’ front office in November, Epstein articulated a few of them. Fewer strikeouts. Less downtime and more action. More balls in play. More opportunities for players to display their athleticism.

The difficult part? Effecting those changes with the deft touch needed to satisfy both players and owners. Newton’s first law of motion – a body at rest will remain at rest – has a particularly strong grip on baseball’s rulebook. The American League adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973. The rulebook basically remained the same for another 40 years. Whatever Epstein recommends needs to stand the test of time. The less complicated the proposal, the better.

Here are four suggestions – not just for rule changes, but for how to make better, longer-lasting decisions:

1. Don’t limit the team of consultants to quantitative analysts

One of the more interesting rule suggestions I’ve heard came from John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, when we discussed the war between analytics and aesthetics. Thorn suggested counting a two-strike foul ball as a strikeout. That would quicken games, encourage batters to hit more balls in play, and reduce the likelihood of fans getting injured or killed by foul balls.

Changing a rule that’s been in place since the 19th century seems drastic, but that’s the point: Not all of baseball’s outside-the-box thinkers are qualified for an R&D job. Many of them inhabit the press box. I should know.

Since last season ended, many of America’s best and most experienced baseball writers left the beat via layoffs, buyouts, or otherwise. Claire Smith, George King, Henry Schulman, Mark Gonzales, Ken Gurnick, T.R. Sullivan, Richard Justice and Jeffrey Flanagan have all watched more games in person than Epstein, over a longer period of time. If Epstein wants to tap the brightest baseball minds with the most free time, now he has a short list of candidates.

2. Don’t deny the relationship between economics and aesthetics

Kansas City Royals utility player Whit Merrifield touched on this recently. “Pay players who put the ball in play and pitchers who throw strikes more,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “Players who hit homers are paid more. So players strive to only hit homers. Same with pitchers. Strike outs [sic] get guys get paid. Throwing strikes and getting weak contact pays less.”

You can pick at the flaws in that logic, but the broad picture it paints is accurate. Hitters who create runs by getting on base and hitting line drives are often weeded out through the minor-league pipeline. The few who aren’t tend to be elite, versatile fielders. The pathway to the majors for pitchers intent on maximizing velocity is wide; it’s a narrower road for soft-tossing command artists.

Incentivizing economic behavior isn’t easy. The commissioner can’t tell a team how to allocate its player payroll. Still, unless economic incentives change, minor tweaks to the rulebook will only accomplish so much. Denying the link between economics and aesthetics is a mistake.

One easy fix? Don’t tie a player’s free agency clock to his major league service time. Too often, the existing rules banish players to the minor leagues through no fault of their own. So-called “service-time manipulation” takes some of the game’s most exciting players out of the majors.

Epstein knows this problem intimately. When he was their general manager, the Cubs didn’t promote third baseman Kris Bryant until April 17, 2015 – the day after he would have been eligible to reach free agency in 2020, rather than 2021. Bryant, who had batted .425 with nine home runs in spring training, filed a grievance against the Cubs. He ultimately lost.

Bryant’s real grievance – and that of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., Bryce Harper, George Springer and other victims of service time manipulation – lies with a collectively bargained system that forbids a player from becoming a free agent until he has played six full seasons.

For the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, marry the free-agency clock to the year a player is drafted (for U.S., Canadian, and Puerto Rican amateurs) or signed as an international amateur free agent. Problem solved.

3. Move the fences back

When professional baseball began in the 1870s, the average height of a major league player was roughly 5-foot-9. Today it’s closer to 6-2. Paradoxically, as players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger, the distance from home plate to the outfield fences has (in many places) shrunk. Throw in a livelier baseball, and it’s no surprise home runs are easier to hit than ever.

Rule 2.01 requires that outfield fences be at least 250 feet from home plate. It even includes this recommendation: “A distance of 320 feet or more along the foul lines, and 400 feet or more to center field is preferable.” That rule can go farther – literally and figuratively.

I’m not sure where fences should lie in terms of distance, but think what mandating deeper fences in every ballpark can accomplish. The incentives for hitters would shift overnight. A swing-for-the-fences approach would work less often. More hits, and more extra-base hits, would be gained by hitting line drives to a larger outfield. When the goal of hitting is not to pull the ball with as much force as possible, shifting fielders based on the opposing hitter’s tendencies works less often.

Meanwhile, fielders who can cover more outfield ground would be more of an asset – to the detriment of one-dimensional sluggers who sometimes “hide” in corner outfield positions. More speed in the lineup can translate to more stolen bases. Baseball would be a livelier game, and the only thing that would change is the size of fair territory.

4. Give pitchers back the outside strike

In 2018, I spoke to a retired player who suggested another simple antidote to shifting: widening the strike zone on the outside corner of the plate. The consequences, he suggested, would be far-reaching.

The current strike zone encourages hitters to pull outside strikes for power. Expanding the strike zone slightly would lead to more swings on pitches that can’t be pulled, only fouled off or hit to the opposite field. In theory, that would discourage home-run swings and result in more balls in play. It would also encourage more swings, which would encourage a faster game.

“The strike zone is smaller than it’s ever been,” veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright once told me. Games last longer than they ever have, too. This is not a coincidence.

Changing the strike zone might require more buy-in from umpires than players or owners. Right now, that bodes well for implementing lasting change.

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I think the solutions are simpler than some of the articles points make, particularly 1 & 2.  Moving the rubber back 1 foot and some combination of deadening the ball and increasing outfield territory will put more balls in play while de-emphasizing the HR.  It doesn't need to be drastic, but enough to cause guys with borderline power to hit for placement over power.  I'd like to see them put more effort into experimentation of the electronic strike zone in the minors.  Long term, the standardization of the strike zone will benefit putting balls in play.  

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You cant put the crap back in the horse, as the old saying goes.  Baseball has spent the last decade or more shifting everything to analytics, which the average fan is not excited about.

Along the way they have removed so many things that added excitement such as the stolen base, stretching hits, heck they have actually devalued hitting the ball in favor of walks.  We have guys hitting under 250 making bank because they walk and hit bombs, when i was a kid that guy would still be in triple A learning to hit.   

Strikeouts are prevalent, so helping pitchers makes little sense, the batters are giving them away trying to hit bombs. 

The only one of these i like is moving the fences, but a lot of stadiums physically may not be able to and that wont affect everyone.  Plus all of a sudden half the big leaguers that cant hit bombs anymore will be out of a job cause they can no longer actually hit. 

I like some of the lesser rules such as the 2 strike foul, but i dont think it should be just one, maybe 2.  I like the runner on second extra innings thing, i like the universal DH.   I like limiting pitching changes, to a point.  

I guess the bottom line to me is that there are a lot of smaller tweaks that can and should be made, but its perhaps a little too late to undo the last 20 years of evolution and you cant remake the game overnight without invalidating its history.  If they tried to rollback now you would see the same holy war we saw when moneyball came into being.  This is the endgame of that change and why i hated it since day one even if the math was sound... its good for the suits, not the game itself. 

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59 minutes ago, Dtwncbad said:

More balls in play rather than strikeouts?

Move the mound back rather than moving fences back.  Way easier.

Fewer homers?

The ball.  Just deaden the ball a little.  Turn 40 homer guys into 32 homer guys.  Remember when 30 homers was a pretty big deal?

Moving the mound back and deadening the ball comes with a lot more complications than simply moving the fences back. You also lose the upside of adding additional fair territory, which increases the value of speed.

 

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31 minutes ago, AngelsLakersFan said:

Moving the mound back and deadening the ball comes with a lot more complications than simply moving the fences back. You also lose the upside of adding additional fair territory, which increases the value of speed.

 

Not to mention the increased injury risk to pitchers. 

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On 1/20/2021 at 5:56 PM, AngelsWin.com said:

One of the more interesting rule suggestions I’ve heard came from John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, when we discussed the war between analytics and aesthetics. Thorn suggested counting a two-strike foul ball as a strikeout. That would quicken games, encourage batters to hit more balls in play, and reduce the likelihood of fans getting injured or killed by foul balls.

This is so plain stupid. Players do not intentionally foul off pitches, this is not the 70's with slap hitters spoiling pitches. The idiocy that fans would not be injured or killed (a total of two in 140 years) by foul balls is nullified by the extended fencing around the areas in which a hard hit line drive or bat could enter the stands.

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To speed up the game a pitch clock must be employed since the constant time wasted while pitches are being rejected and chosen and the batter refusing to enter the box has ground the game to a crawl.

Once a batter enters the box he can no longer leave it unless he hits the dirt dodging a bean ball or fouls off a pitch. There is no reason a game of leaved the box, play with your gloves, get in the box and wave for time while a player adjusts the gloves again should be permitted. Leave the box without cause it's a called strike withoiut the pitcher having to do anything. 

Same with pitchers, get a sign and deliver the pitch. Stall and you run out the clock the batter gets a free ball in the count.

Unless a baseball is put out of play it stays in play until it show enough wear it cannot be considered a fair play baseball. So no more pitchers wanting something with a different feel, if you could throw it the pitch before you can throw it again. Baseballs can have scuffs, grass and dirt marks.

That probably carves an hour out of the game time. 

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11 minutes ago, Blarg said:

To speed up the game a pitch clock must be employed since the constant time wasted while pitches are being rejected and chosen and the batter refusing to enter the box has ground the game to a crawl.

Once a batter enters the box he can no longer leave it unless he hits the dirt dodging a bean ball or fouls off a pitch. There is no reason a game of leaved the box, play with your gloves, get in the box and wave for time while a player adjusts the gloves again should be permitted. Leave the box without cause it's a called strike withoiut the pitcher having to do anything. 

Same with pitchers, get a sign and deliver the pitch. Stall and you run out the clock the batter gets a free ball in the count.

Unless a baseball is put out of play it stays in play until it show enough wear it cannot be considered a fair play baseball. So no more pitchers wanting something with a different feel, if you could throw it the pitch before you can throw it again. Baseballs can have scuffs, grass and dirt marks.

That probably carves an hour out of the game time. 

Exactly. I think they should just get rid of timeout all together. The game has enough natural breaks as it is.

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1 hour ago, Lou said:

You don't think additional stress making the longer throws after a lifetime of making pitches from 60'6" would cause increased injuries? 

I do. 

No.  A ball thrown at 95 mph will go the normal 60’6” and that same exact throw will also go 61’ or 62.

The catcher stops the throw with his glove. Is it more stress on the pitchers arm if the catcher scoots back 6 inches?  Of course not.

 

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1 hour ago, AngelsLakersFan said:

You are potentially making the act of pitching more strenuous. 

You guys are nuts.  Yes, if you made the pitcher throw from the outfield then I would agree with you.  But stop for a second and think about what you are saying.  How far would a “normally” thrown fastball travel if it was not artificially stopped by the catchers glove?  It doesn’t drop to the ground at 60’6”.  It will easily travel many more feet if uninterrupted by a catcher’s glove.

 

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My son's freshman year, they played a tournament at a 'big league dreams' complex, with portable mounds.  I watched one of his friends from a neighboring city pitch on a field adjacent to ours.  He was uncharacteristically struggling to throw a strike.  His dad and i were watching his mechanics, couldnt figure out why.  I left for my son's game.  After their game, his dad stopped by ours.  A few innings in, they had figured out that the genius field guy had put the mound at 72'.

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16 hours ago, Keener said:

My son's freshman year, they played a tournament at a 'big league dreams' complex, with portable mounds.  I watched one of his friends from a neighboring city pitch on a field adjacent to ours.  He was uncharacteristically struggling to throw a strike.  His dad and i were watching his mechanics, couldnt figure out why.  I left for my son's game.  After their game, his dad stopped by ours.  A few innings in, they had figured out that the genius field guy had put the mound at 72'.

It took a few innings for somebody to figure out the mound was twelve feet off? 

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17 hours ago, Blarg said:

To speed up the game a pitch clock must be employed since the constant time wasted while pitches are being rejected and chosen and the batter refusing to enter the box has ground the game to a crawl.

Once a batter enters the box he can no longer leave it unless he hits the dirt dodging a bean ball or fouls off a pitch. There is no reason a game of leaved the box, play with your gloves, get in the box and wave for time while a player adjusts the gloves again should be permitted. Leave the box without cause it's a called strike withoiut the pitcher having to do anything. 

Same with pitchers, get a sign and deliver the pitch. Stall and you run out the clock the batter gets a free ball in the count.

Unless a baseball is put out of play it stays in play until it show enough wear it cannot be considered a fair play baseball. So no more pitchers wanting something with a different feel, if you could throw it the pitch before you can throw it again. Baseballs can have scuffs, grass and dirt marks.

That probably carves an hour out of the game time. 

Just call it the Nomah Rule.

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Angel Stadium already has some of the smallest foul territory in MLB.

It’s definitely not advisable to move back the fences there.

Barring stepping out of the batters box by enforcing time limit per pitch, limiting catcher visits, and finding a way to limit instant replays would all serve to make the games realistic time length wise.   Then the 3 batter minimum rule for pitchers wouldn’t be needed.

Instant replays aren’t talked about enough as a game slower down.  There has to be a way to keep them but limit their use?

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3 hours ago, Dtwncbad said:

It took a few innings for somebody to figure out the mound was twelve feet off? 

Apparently so.  The vantage point i was at (pretty much behind the plate) made it difficult.  Those shitty turf fields are set up for so many dimensions that the perspectives are off anyway.  I like to think that if i were on the field, i would have noticed in a more timely fashion.

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22 hours ago, Dtwncbad said:

You guys are nuts.  Yes, if you made the pitcher throw from the outfield then I would agree with you.  But stop for a second and think about what you are saying.  How far would a “normally” thrown fastball travel if it was not artificially stopped by the catchers glove?  It doesn’t drop to the ground at 60’6”.  It will easily travel many more feet if uninterrupted by a catcher’s glove.

 

If the pitchers close their eyes I'd agree with you. There is a mental component here as well. 

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