Rozner: Theo Epstein sees baseball's problems. Will he help fix them someday?

  • Theo Epstein checks out his World Series ring during an April 2017 ceremony at Wrigley Field.

    Theo Epstein checks out his World Series ring during an April 2017 ceremony at Wrigley Field. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/20/2020 2:28 PM

There are generally two kinds of sports executives when it comes to their public stance on the game in which they work.

There are the politically correct types that offer no opinions, and there are those who tell you what they really think, at times an honesty bordering on stupidity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Theo Epstein has rarely fallen into either category, a master at knowing precisely what to say and when to say it, the ability to offer clues without bashing the commissioner or his cronies.

But at his farewell news conference, Epstein pulled the curtain back a bit when he gave without question his most interesting answer of the day, a response to a query about the state of baseball today.

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to expound on that much from this chair, and we have great people in the industry already working on those issues," Epstein prefaced as he was about to make a significant admission. "But clearly -- and this is well documented -- the quality of on-field play (is an issue). It is the greatest game in the world, but there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving.

"I take some responsibility for that. Executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value and entertainment value of the game."

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Can't blame a guy for doing anything he could to gain a competitive advantage. You'll not hear Cubs or Red Sox fans complain.

But the more baseball has become a game of walks, strikeouts and home runs, the less we see the true athletic genius, something Mookie Betts reminded everyone of this postseason.

"The strikeout rate is little bit out of control and we need to find a way to get more action in the game," Epstein said. "We need to get the ball in play more often and allow players to show their athleticism more. Give the fans more of what they want."

You can see almost see a player standing on first base doing the math in his head, knowing second is his for the taking, but also fearing criticism as the stolen base and hit-and-run have disappeared from baseball.

"Maybe there's a way to do it through changes over time, to put the game back in the hands of the players and let them do their thing on the field," Epstein said. "I think that's the best way to give the fans more of what they want.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The game changes, whether you're intentional about it or not, but we've had this incredible rise in strikeout rate and three true outcomes.

"Starters aren't going as deep into games and you have increases in the number of relievers on rosters. The incredible increase in stuff and velocity and movement has led to the strikeout rate that's impacting the game.

"Maybe there's a way to get that under control a little bit."

If anyone knows that answer, they haven't said it publicly, and you certainly don't want to leave it in the hands of a labor lawyer like Rob Manfred. He has absolutely no feel for the game and perhaps no genuine love of it.

Epstein does, but he no more wants to be commissioner than he does a politician. He would be superb at either, but from a quality of life standpoint -- especially for his family -- it seems neither would fit the bill at this point in his career.

That might change someday.

"Obviously, the pandemic has impacted the industry," Epstein said. "The owners and the union did a great job working together to get through this year and ultimately it was a triumph on the field.

"Long term, everyone hopes there will be a CBA moving forward and labor peace that will allow the game to continue to thrive.

"That's what it looks like from a distance.

"When you're with a club you don't necessarily have the ability to be objective and contribute to that discourse, but now that I won't be with a club anymore, maybe I can find a way to do that in some fashion."

His ideas would be welcome. Epstein is wise beyond his years, but something tells you that he's not about to give up any secrets at this point if he intends to run another club down the road.

The man doesn't have many limitations. Only those that are self-imposed.

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