Theo Epstein was the head honcho when the Red Sox and Cubs broke the two longest World Series droughts in history. With that as an impressive highlight of his resume, he now has the herculean charge of rescuing baseball from the doldrums it has seemingly guided itself into with remarkable speed.
Epstein, now a consultant for Major League Baseball, is working with MLB to create a more entertaining on-field product. By many accounts, his current task will be more difficult than the first two. The irony is that Epstein has at least been a participant in the problem. In other words, as your mother surely told you, be wary of the company you keep.
Before the cities of Boston (in 2004) and Chicago (a dozen years later) escaped baseball’s longest hangovers, Epstein was considered one of the brightest and youngest executives in the game. As such, for better or worse, he was among the rising stars leading the game into the era of analytics.
Epstein probably didn’t have a clue about baseball’s direction, let alone destination, 30 years ago, when he broke into baseball as a 17-year old intern with the Orioles. Despite the obvious advent of the technology age, few could have envisioned the game seemingly be held captive by terms like spin rates and launch angles as opposed to the time-honored statistics of batting and earned-run averages.
It has taken two decades to get to this point, but to veterans of the game, the “old timers” in the room, it seems like a century of tradition left the game in the blink of an eye. Players are being aligned in positions never seen before. Hitters are striking out at previously unacceptable rates while hitting more home runs than ever. Pitchers throw harder, but not longer, while being brainwashed to think wins don’t matter and five innings is a good day’s work.
It is with this backdrop that Epstein, in a revealing interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, said that the many changes baseball is contemplating (and there are too many for one column) are being tested at various minor-league levels in an effort “to get the game into the players’ hands.”
That, of course, isn’t going to fly with Joe Average Fan, who places a lot of the blame on players he considers to be overpaid while underperforming. But, as former Orioles manager Buck Showalter points out, there is plenty of blame to pass around.
If, as many insist, baseball is in a self-induced coma, Showalter thinks the game has to take its share of the blame. And, it is hardly an insignificant share.
“Don’t blame the players, they are just chasing the money,” he said, citing the propensity to emphasize launch angles and home runs at the expense of contact hitters who put the ball in play.
“They have eliminated the shame of striking out. They have eliminated the shame of being a bad hitter,” added Showalter, who as a player didn’t spend significant time above Double-A but was a .294 hitter during seven minor-league seasons. His 18 career home runs would pale in today’s comparisons — but his walk/strikeout totals of 336/183 in 3,292 plate appearances would speak at an extremely high volume.
The problem is nobody is listening.
That being the case, just about everyone is resigned to the fact that MLB eventually will do something to negate the prevalent shifts that dominate defensive strategy.
“Originally I was against [regulating positioning of the infielders], but they’re going to have to do something,” said Showalter, who is a member of the competition committee that will ultimately suggest possible changes.
For Showalter, the objective of any defensive regulation would center around finding a way to keep infielders out of right field.
“I don’t care what they do, as long as there are two on each side of second base,” he said.
One suggestion is to make defenders keep both feet on the dirt, which would require uniform infield depth for both natural and artificial surfaces, and would create considerably more open space for left-handed hitters, who are most drastically affected by the shift. That would also keep infielders out of right field, but Showalter thinks having two fielders on each side of second base is the best solution.
“It used to be that a line drive into that area of right field automatically created excitement,” said Showalter, who can appreciate the problems facing left-handed hitters because he was one himself. “Now it’s just another out.”
While the shift can affect all hitters, right-handers are not affected nearly as much because the throw on ground balls from that side would be far more demanding from an outfield position, whereas it’s a relatively routine throw from short right field.
A well-placed bunt has always been a viable option for left-handed hitters, some obviously more so than others. But with hitters being encouraged to hit over the shift it has become a lost, or at least forgotten, art generally ignored both offensively and defensively for the same reason — because the game has become obsessed with the home run, strikeouts be damned.
Most hard-line baseball people would agree that it’s probably easier to teach a player to hit a ground ball to what would normally be the shortstop position than it is to bunt for a base hit. Encouraging a left-handed hitter to “go the other way” would at least seem to be a step in the right direction.
At a time when some drastic changes are being considered, Showalter had a positive reaction to one that would be relatively minor. Suppose baseball changed the rule that says a fouled bunt in a two-strike count results in a strikeout. What if it were just like every other foul ball — and not a strikeout?
The thought is that by keeping a bunt possibility alive, that would require the third baseman to stay engaged throughout the at-bat. As it is now, with batters unwilling to sacrifice a strike on a bunt attempt gone foul, the shift is in full force on almost every pitch.
Eliminating the strikeout on a fouled bunt attempt would almost certainly necessitate the third baseman staying fully engaged throughout every at bat — even by the unlikeliest candidate.
“My first gut reaction is I love it,” Showalter said after a short pause. “What could be wrong with that?”
What could go wrong, as some are sure to suggest, is some hitters who have already mastered the art of hitting foul balls would use the tactic to run up pitch counts, especially on starting pitchers who are already on unreasonable limits.
Showalter doesn’t buy that argument.
“They’re not going try to stand up there and bunt foul balls [on third strikes]. They aren’t bunting now on the first pitch,” he said, while adding that he does think the rule change would lead to less exaggerated shifts, opening up more hitting room for left-handed hitters. “It’s something I think would certainly be worth considering.”
Lord knows, it seems like baseball is considering anything else that comes to mind on Madison Avenue, or wherever MLB’s marketing department hangs out these days. Electronic umpires, seven-inning games, moving the pitching rubber back, unearned runs in extra innings, new rules for pickoff throws to the bases. Even a version of platoon baseball that might loosen substitution rules are part of the discussion.
But that’s a subject for another day — or column. In the meantime, it might be worth the effort to find a way to revive a long ago lost art and make the bunt more relevant than ever.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Originally published June 16, 2021