Inside MLB’s rule changes: Theo Epstein on what’s stood out, what’s next and more

You think it was hard busting those curses in Boston and Chicago? Ha. That was a breeze compared to Theo Epstein’s current line of work:

Fixing baseball.

“We have to remember that I think we’re fixing something,” Epstein told Doug Glanville and me, on the latest Starkville edition of “The Athletic Baseball Show.” “Hopefully, we’re improving something, but we’re also fixing something, right?”

OK, so officially, Epstein’s title these days is special consultant for Major League Baseball, not VP of Baseball Fix-ups. But for the past two years, he has played a huge role in the rule changes that have gone from his bulletin board to every ballpark on the continent.

So there’s nothing more riveting than listening to him explain the vision behind those rule changes. But before we move along to those explanations, he has this important message — on why baseball needed “fixing” in the first place.

“No one, 130 years ago, would have sat there and said: ‘Let’s design a set of rules and a set of equipment so that one day, we’ll get to a point where the league hits .243,’” he said. “No, that’s not baseball. The league should not be hitting .243. The league should be hitting a lot higher than .243.

“Nobody would have designed a set of rules and equipment that would lead you to one ball in play every four minutes, or generational lows in stolen bases and doubles and triples. And no one would design a game and say: ‘Let’s limit the amount of athleticism on the field.’

“So we’re really trying to get away from the way the game has changed, unintentionally, in the last couple of decades. … Really, we’re course-correcting.”

All right, and how is that course-correcting going? Amazingly well, actually.

You know that pitch clock that was designed to speed up the games? It’s working. The average time of a nine-inning game: down 25 minutes! In 2022: 3 hours, 3 minutes. In 2023 (through Monday): 2:38.

You know those shift limits designed to bring back the long-lost ground-ball hit? They’re working. The league batting average this year when the ball is put in play? Up eight points, from .290 to .298.

You know those new pickoff rules and larger bases, designed to inspire more base-burgling? They’re working. There were only 40 stolen bases — and just 57 attempts — through the first five days last season. Those, too, have increased, with 84 steals and 100 attempts through the first five days this season.

But just because the results are so encouraging — five-day/small-sample alert notwithstanding — doesn’t mean baseball has reached peak “Kumbaya” euphoria. We’ve heard grumbling from players. We’ve heard venting from fans. And nobody pretends any of this has been sheer baseball perfection.

So we asked Theo about all of that. The whole conversation is worth hearing. But here are the highlights, as he pulled back the curtain on every one of these changes, plus some we might see ahead.

Quotes from the interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What have we learned (so far) from the pitch clock?

On what he misses most — the 1,000 batting-glove adjustments a game or the full chorus of every walk-up song: “Wellat my advancing age,” Epstein quipped, “I miss the free bathroom break, where you could sneak one in and not miss a pitch, or certainly not a ball in play.”

On what we should take away from those 25 minutes missing from the average time of a game: That time-of-game data is “important,” he said. But if we just focus on time-of-game numbers, we’re missing the part that’s much more significant — namely, the pace of these games.

“The pace of play is something more emotional and more visceral,” he said. “And I think the general reaction to watching this pace of play is that this is the way baseball is meant to be played, and frankly, is the way it was played for most of its history.

“You know, Bill James made a great point a while back, about how there used to be a pitch timer (in the old days). It was called the sun. And when you had to get the game in with no lights, when you had to get the game in before sundown, or maybe even get a doubleheader in, no one was stepping out of the box. No one was adjusting anything. It was, hey, let’s get this thing in while we still can. And that’s the way that the pace of baseball evolved.”

Answering player complaints about the clock

On players blaming bad results on feeling rushed: I asked him about Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto’s comments to The Athletic’s Matt Gelb, about how “with the pitch clock, you can’t ever slow the pitcher down” — and similar grumblings from pitchers and hitters in the first week.

“I guess I’d make two main points in response to that,” Epstein said. “The first is about the adjustment period, and what we learned in the rollout in the minor leagues. And the second is about listening.”

In the minor leagues, “players did adjust,” he said. “And they also gave us qualitative feedback … that after about three, four weeks of playing under the pitch timer-rules, it became second nature and not something they ever had to really think about again, and that they adjusted their routines and their natural rhythms to coincide with the parameters of the pitch clock.”

But if issues remain after that adjustment period, they can still be addressed by MLB, Epstein said. He referred to remarks by commissioner Rob Manfred last week as evidence that “none of this is necessarily set in stone. And that is important, that we continue to listen and be open to adjustments in the future to make sure we get it right.”

Through five days of regular-season games, pitch-clock violations had already dipped below one per game (for both teams combined). But MLB will be monitoring that rate closely, because “the ultimate goal is essentially to have as few violations as possible,” Epstein said, “and that no one ever really notices the timer. You want to be like the 24-second shot clock in basketball or the delay-of-game (penalty) in the NFL, where there’s (0.5) delay-of-game penalties per game.

“I’ve never heard anyone come back from an NFL game and say, ‘It was a great game, but the delay-of-game penalties ruined the whole thing.,’ he said. “Same with the NBA. No one comes back and says, ‘The shot clock ruined the game.’”

But down the line, he promised, the league is still open to changes to the pitch timer — and to all the other rules.

“We want to hear about players’ experiences, and what (they can’t) adjust to, and what is available in terms of improving the rule,” he said. “Now I don’t think anything significant about the rules is going to change. … But as commissioner Manfred said the other day, it’s unlikely that we got every single thing right about this. And that’s important, to stay in listening mode, monitor how things play out, see where we are a couple of months in, and make improvements as needed as we go.”

Would MLB dare to turn off the pitch clock in October?

Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote a thought-provoking piece on whether it might be good for baseball to switch off the clock during the postseason – even if it was only in the most dramatic late-inning moments. So I asked Epstein if that was a possibility.

“I’m not the right person to answer that,” he said. “(As) the commissioner said the other day, it’s important that we pay attention and monitor how the 2023 season plays out, and we’ll all be watching those ‘late-and-close’ situations.”

But “from what I’ve seen so far,” he went on, “I haven’t sensed any diminution in the drama. The drama and the intrigue is still there. It’s just coming at you a little bit quicker than it did before.”

Ken asked in his column whether some epic baseball moments, recent and not so recent — Shohei Ohtani versus Mike Trout in the WBC … Bryce Harper’s NLCS-clinching homer last year … Kirk Gibson’s iconic homer in the 1988 World Series — would have been the same with a clock. Epstein reflected on that.

“One of the great things about baseball is the drawn out tension and anxiety of the late-and-close situations,” he said. “I think it does that far better than any other sport. And we’re not going to lose that — and I’m not sure we have — in a pitch-timer world. But if something’s lost and can be gained with a small adjustment, it’s great that the commissioner and everyone involved are open and willing to continue to listen, to make sure we get the rules just right.”

It pays to steal (again)

On the doubling of the stolen-base rate: I laid out all the numbers that showed that the stolen base is back. Here’s a surprise: Epstein wasn’t buying it.

“Just listening to you,” he retorted, “I would think that the games in the last four days have just been this track meet where every game was like an Orioles game, five stolen bases a game and everyone is safe the entire time.”

Wait. You mean that’s not accurate? Nope. Guess again, Epstein said. Through Monday, the rate of stolen-base attempts is only 1.44 per game – for both teams. Which “to me,” he said, “is not excessive at all.”

He laid out the history. Even last year, the rate of attempts was about 1.3 per game. In the 2000s (2000-09), it was 1.63. But back in the 1980s, which he called “the golden age of base stealing,” the rate was 2.27 attempts per game.

“So look,” he said, “if stolen-base attempts continue to rise, I think that’s a good thing. But as far as it being too much, like, wake me up when we’ve left the 1980s in the dust.”

Shifts happen? Not anymore

On how much offense the shift ban is producing: You know all those numbers we mentioned earlier, about how the average on balls in play is up? Epstein and his friends are in wait-to-see mode on all of that.

I asked him about data that showed the average was also up on hard groundballs up the middle. His cautious response went like this: “That’s a good example of us needing to take a step back and get a big sample size and see how things are going to play out.”

In case the shift ban doesn’t produce more hits up the middle, he said, baseball will continue to test out the triangular “pie slice” behind second base as a “no-fly zone” for infielders. You’ll see that “at some point in the Florida State League, I believe,” he said.

On the best part of the shift ban — the fun of watching athletic infielders play defense: You know how teams used to hide lead-footed guys like Mike Moustakas at second base in the late, great shifting era? Well, with no shifts, the second baseman isn’t an “afterthought” anymore, Epstein said.

“I guess one thing that stood out to me in spring training,” he said, “was how noticeable it was that the second baseman was on the spot now, in a key defensive position, the way shortstops traditionally are.”

On whether this will change strategy or team building: I mentioned a conversation I had this spring with a manager and a general manager on the heightened value of a single and a stolen base. So I asked Epstein about those ripple effects: Does that affect strategy? Does it affect hitters’ approach? Does it affect the draft? Does it affect team building?

His reply: “I think yes, to all of those. And that’s the way it should be.”

If these changes work, he said, it means clubs will have more of a choice on how to build their team. They can still build around home runs and on-base skills, if they’re into that. But they also can build around bat-to-ball skills and base running. And if that’s how this turns out, he said, it will be better for baseball than even the short-term rise in steals and ground-ball hits.

“I think diversity is a great thing,” Epstein said. “Diversity of approach and diversity of style of play is a great thing. It just makes for a better product. And I think sometimes it takes putting guardrails in place, to make sure there’s not one style of play, or even one type of player, that can dominate the game.”

Next up: Are the robot umps coming?

Is the home-plate ump about to go the way of the brontosaurus? The electronic-strike-zone test lab arrives in all 30 Triple-A parks this season. And that experiment will go a long way toward determining if the ABS (Automated Ball/Strike System) is the next big MLB rule change, as soon as a year from now.

Epstein did a thorough job of laying out the pros and cons of all the options — ABS calling every pitch, a challenge system, or leaving all of this in the hands of the umpires. I recommend you listen to that rundown on the podcast. It’s amazing. But even he isn’t sure where this is headed.

“The bottom line is, we don’t know whether baseball’s better without ABS,” he said. “And if it’s better with ABS, whether we’re better off doing the full ABS or the challenge (version). But I think a lot of those questions are going to start to be answered this year in Triple A. And it’ll be fun to talk to players, talk to fans, talk to umpires and dig into the data, to see if we can start to make this muddy picture a little bit more clear.”

But there’s one more thing everyone needs to keep in mind.

“You have to figure out exactly what you’re solving for with ABS,” he said. “You don’t want to force a solution without a problem. Do you just want better umpiring? Do you want every single call to be right? Do you want a more level playing field? What’s the exact thing you’re solving for? That’s important to figure out.”

Change never sleeps

And one final message from Theo: This work isn’t done. It’s never done. Because baseball is never done evolving — probably in ways we can’t even comprehend right now.

“If the last 10 to 20 years have proven anything,” he said, “it’s that the game is going to change, no matter what. Whether we pass rule changes or we don’t pass any rule changes for a decade, the game is going to change — because players and teams are going to find new strategies and new ways to optimize performance, to use data and technology in different ways that change the way the game is played.

“So we have to be very careful stewards of the game,” Epstein said, “to make sure we monitor that and continue to put guardrails in place only when necessary, to make sure the best elements of the game show up on a nightly basis for our fans.”

For more from Epstein — on how to bring down strikeouts, on enforcing sticky stuff, on the potential benefits of a shinier and tackier baseball, on understanding that some fans will never embrace change, and for another fun episode of Know Your Theo Epstein Trivia, check out the new Starkville episode of “The Athletic Baseball Show.” Listen free wherever you get your podcasts. 

(Photo: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)