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Hok Talk: So you want to fix baseball

Theo Epstein says baseball is broken; Whit Merrifield has a solution. Will it work?

Whit Merrifield reacts after striking out in a 2020 baseball game. Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s no secret that baseball has a pace-of-play problem. Then-commissioner Bud Selig formed a committee to investigate the issue as early as 2014. The situation has not improved. Baseball executive Theo Epstein recently joined MLB as a consultant for on-field matters, which is business-speak for, “He’s gonna try and fix the sport.” Only time will tell if Theo will be successful at this or not. Still, he’s already made a statement attempting to identify what he believes is the cause of the problem, which prompted Royals’ player Whit Merrifield to provide a solution:

Setting aside for the moment whether Epstein is accurately diagnosing what ails MLB, I think we first have to address the short-sightedness of what Merrifield has said. On its face, he’s not entirely off-base in suggesting that if MLB paid more for those qualities, then players would strive to achieve them. Players want to get paid. That said, he’s disregarding the reason MLB pays the home run hitters and the strikeout pitchers - those are the most effective ways to score and prevent runs, respectively.

From Whit’s perspective, the chain of cause and effect is that teams pay players with certain skill sets, which leads to players attempting to acquire those skill sets. But that’s not where the chain ends. In reality, the teams paying those players is an effect of baseball analysis - both the new-style, number-crunching kind and the old-school, down-in-the-dirt kind - that home run hitters help your team score more runs, and strikeout pitchers help prevent them. So, if you want MLB teams to pay a different kind of player, you have to change the sport such that home runs and strikeouts are less valuable.

The most direct way to accomplish this would probably be to change the rules. You can make home runs harder to hit by pushing the fences back. I know that MLB has argued that they didn’t intentionally juice baseballs, but they could still intentionally draft rules about the creation of baseballs to make them less lively. You can make it harder for pitchers to get strikeouts by lowering the mounds or shrinking the strike zones. Alternately, you can deal with the not-so-secret foreign substance abuse in which MLB pitchers regularly engage. If they suddenly lose access to pine tar and whatever else they’re putting on baseballs, they’ll get less spin, which will likely result in less-effective pitches.

You could also do something incredibly bizarre, like make home runs only worth half the runs they would typically score or require pitchers to get four strikes to a strikeout. I can’t guarantee you’d get Whit’s desired result, but it would affect how much home runs and strikeouts were worth to teams.

Is that even the problem, though?

Remember how we set aside Theo’s assertions? Let’s go ahead and pick those back up. I’m less convinced than ever that fans hate home runs and strikeouts. Walks are boring, absolutely, but home runs and strikeouts are actually pretty exciting. Did all of Kansas City fall in love with HDH because of their ability to pitch to contact and let the defense work? Heck no! They fell in love with those guys because of their effectiveness as pitchers and because they could get exciting strikeouts.

That isn’t to say that impressive defensive plays aren’t also exciting, but putting the ball in play doesn’t guarantee an outstanding defensive play. Eric Hosmer hit dozens if not hundreds of worm-burners to second in his time as a Royal. But many fans ignore or have entirely forgotten those plays because of the exciting home runs he could hit. Similarly, routine singles aren’t exactly boring, but they’re not terribly exciting, either. Putting the ball in play just doesn’t seem to be a guarantee of excitement on the field. If pitching wasn’t exciting at all they could just use tees and you’d drop walks and strikeouts altogether.

If you want to change baseball to make it harder to hit home runs or strike guys out, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad idea, but it doesn’t seem sufficient to “fix” the sport, either. To my mind, MLB has three much bigger, systematic problems.

1. There isn’t enough fun

Baseball, as many people will tell you, is a kid’s game. Professional athletes raise the level of play, but it’s still, ultimately, supposed to be something fun. Unfortunately, players often seem like they’re not having fun at all; some even try to police the game to ensure no one else is having fun. In South Korea, KBO players regularly perform bat flips to the delight of the fans. The championship trophy is a video game sword. They’re down there having fun, and they have ever-increasing popularity to show for it. Baseball is already the most popular sport in South Korea, but they keep breaking attendance records year after year. (Or at least they did before COVID.) MLB has finally started recognizing the quality of players from South Korea; maybe they should look at the quality of entertainment in their play-style, too.

2. There isn’t enough competition

I’ve ranted enough about the number of teams tanking for future competition or entirely unconcerned with ever winning so long as the team continues to make a profit that I don’t feel the need to belabor that point further. I would like to add to that argument that with a 162-game season and only ten playoff teams, it usually becomes evident by June or July that ten or so teams really aren’t in it and that at least a couple of teams are almost certain to make it from that point. This results in something like one-quarter of the games every year being of little competitive interest. They should look to the NFL here; they have fewer games and more playoff spots, which helps keep fans interested for longer. Even the near-locks for the post-season have the intrigue of competing for the considerable benefit of the top seed.

3. There isn’t enough time

All that kind of ties into this third point; in my opinion, there’s just too much baseball. Sure, the game times are incredibly bloated - though I’d disagree with the idea that this is because of home runs and strikeouts - and we’ll get to that in a moment, but the real enemy here is the sheer quantity of baseball games.

One hundred and sixty-two games is a lot. I’m extremely fortunate that I have a job that pays me enough and requires few enough hours from me that I technically could watch every evening baseball game. I’m even more fortunate in that I work from home so I could watch the afternoon games, and no one would complain. That’s not true for many, many people.

But even for many who are technically able, 162 games is still too many to watch. To watch every baseball game, I’d have to sacrifice all time spent on any of my other hobbies from April through September or October every year. I love baseball - I wouldn’t be writing here if I didn’t - but I also enjoy having my other hobbies.

It’s tough to be invested in a sport where you miss a good chunk or even a majority of the action. A lot of the attachment we have to teams comes from feeling like we’re a part of it. If we can’t be there for half of the games, how much of a part of it are we really? The grind of the sport for the athletes is a bit romantic; the grind on the fans is less so. Instead, if they played only on weekends, for example, it would be easier for fans to watch it all. The reduction in supply should also increase demand. As things stand, it’s easy to feel like it’s no big deal to miss a game because there’s another the next night. If you had to go several days in between games they should become more precious to fans.

Of course, the pace of play is a problem here, too. It’s possible that if games were closer to two hours than three-and-a-half that it would feel more doable to watch every game even in the current schedule. Grant Brisbee performed a fascinating experiment in 2017 that I think about a lot. He watched two games with as much similarity as was reasonable to expect, one from 1984 and one from 2014, and tried to figure out why the latter game took more than 30 minutes longer. I hope you’ll read the article because Grant is a very gifted writer, and it’s incredibly amusing and informative, but the answer boiled down to pitchers taking more time in between pitches.

I know many of you are opposed to something like a pitch clock, but that seems the most straightforward solution to this problem. Additionally, umpires could start actually enforcing the rules that are supposed to keep a batter mostly in the batter’s box. If the pitcher still isn’t throwing that won’t help much, but it can’t hurt.

If Theo is serious about wanting to improve the sport he’ll be looking at a lot more than just pitch clocks and abolishing shifts. Baseball is a great game, but the world is different than it was in the late 1800s and the sport is going to have to change if it doesn’t want to become as irrelevant as ring turning.