Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Can Theo Epstein, the sports whiz who built three World Series champions by mining data, use the same tools to help save Major League Baseball?
And will baseball purists like me, stubborn in our ways, embrace the rule changes that Epstein and baseball’s poobahs are installing to pep up the game for a new generation?
Judging from the early returns, the answers are yes and yes.
As a young baseball executive, Epstein became a legend by bringing championships to the title-starved Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs through the use of advanced data analytics, which gave his teams an edge. The algorithms he and his crew of baseball-loving math nerds developed touched on every aspect of the game.
“We were just looking to optimize the way players were used on the field, optimize strategies, optimize positioning, optimize training,” he told me on a special episode of “The Axe Files” podcast, released Thursday, the opening day of the baseball season.
These “optimizations” helped his teams win and spawned many imitators. But looking back, the high-tech tools Epstein helped develop also may have led to contests that were often greater in length and shorter on action, guided more by computer-dictated stratagems than the instincts, daring or talents of the players on the field.
“Guilty as charged,” he told me when I asked about his role in inadvertently mucking up the national pastime. “The role of the general manager lends itself to thinking about every single thing you can do to squeeze out one more win for your team… You don’t have time to sit back and think about the aesthetic value of the game or even the entertainment value of the game.”
But now Epstein, 49, is wearing a different hat, and hoping to expiate his unintended sins against a sport that has been his lifelong passion.
As a consultant to Major League Baseball since leaving the Cubs in 2021, Epstein has been part of a group charged by Commissioner Rob Manfred with exploring ways to reclaim and enliven the game without trespassing on its time-honored traditions. For Manfred, the urgency wasn’t just a matter of lost aesthetics, but baseball’s long-term survival.
“We got to the point where, on average, a fan had to wait more than four minutes… between balls in play,” Epstein told me on the podcast. “That amount of patience does not necessarily exist in Gen Z. The way the game was evolving unintentionally was antithetical to the sensibilities of the next generation. And our numbers as an industry began to suffer a little bit with our younger fans. The average age of the World Series viewer? 56 years old.”
The project began by gathering extensive feedback from fans and other stakeholders. Some common themes emerged loud and clear.
“If you look at… the actual events in a game that fans like the most, there’s things like stolen bases, base hits, doubles, triples, great defensive plays,” Epstein says. “The things that fans like the least are pitching changes, mound visits and anything that stands around without action.”
With that clear direction, Epstein and his colleagues set out to develop and beta test a host of ideas to improve the pace and action of play, compress game times and create greater opportunities for players to display their athleticism.
Through 8,000 minor league games over two years, they collected data to measure what each of these changes would produce and to expose unintended consequences. The process led to a series of rule changes, some subtle and others more significant, that debuted this season and that MLB hopes will improve the fan experience and the quality of the game.
The most obvious is the installation of a “pitch clock,” requiring pitchers to throw within 15 seconds of receiving the ball from the catcher or 20 seconds if runners are on base. It also requires batters to be in the box and ready to hit when the clock hits eight seconds.
“We had gotten to a point, especially with runners on base, where every pitch had become like a Broadway production by pitchers,” Epstein says. “When they got the ball back, instead of getting on the rubber, they’d take a walk around the mound. They’d think about what pitch they’re going to throw next. They would intentionally take extra time, smartly, in order to give their body time… Batters were stepping out after every pitch, even if they hadn’t swung, adjusting their batting gloves, peering out into the stands.”
Under the new rules, if a pitchers violates the clock, the batter gets an automatic ball. Batters who are not in place in time are given an automatic strike. Epstein says the data he and his team collected on the effect of the clock was “extraordinary.”
“Game times went down by 25 minutes,” he said. “Fans, players, scouts, umpires – everyone loved the improved pace and flow of the game.”
A second rule change, necessitated by the first, limits pitchers to two pickoff throws to try and catch a runner off base and prevent him from stealing. Multiple pickoff throws had become a painfully familiar dilatory tactic that inevitably drew exasperated boos from the crowd.
The new limit on pickoff throws also will facilitate more risk-taking and base-stealing by runners – a fan favorite that has been discouraged as low yield in recent years by the killjoys in the data analytics suite.
“A lot of baserunning daring has essentially been… engineered out of the game because of the math of baseball,” Epstein says, citing the calculus that valued home runs – even if it meant more strike outs – than runs scratched out through base hits and stolen bases.
One solution considered and summarily rejected was to shrink the distance between bases from the traditional 90 feet. That was a non-starter.
“We wouldn’t want to necessarily mess with that as a sacred number,” he says, reflecting the delicate balance between fine-tuning the game and tampering with its essence. “But then there’s this great idea, that we can accomplish the same idea, perhaps simply by making the bases a little bigger.”
Epstein asked all 30 major league managers what size the bases actually were. None answered correctly. (It was 15 inches square.) So the beta-testing team decided to experiment with bases that were three inches larger.
With their 8,000-game data sample, they discovered that those few inches yielded outsized benefits.
“Stolen base attempts went up,” Epstein says. “Stolen base success rates went up. And player injuries around the bases actually went down because the bigger bases get a little more real estate for base runners and fielders to navigate their way safely around tag plays.”
The last major rule change outlawed a tactic Epstein’s Cubs teams worked to perfection– the defensive shift.
Guided by algorithmic probabilities, infielders were shifted from one side of the field to another, depending on which side of the plate a batter was hitting from and the batter’s statistical patterns. Stacking three infielders on one side of the infield in these scenarios greatly reduced the number of ground ball hits and also the need for great athletic plays from infielders who now had less ground to cover.
“Ask any fan, would you rather see a game decided because your front office had the perfect algorithm and therefore had their defender standing in exactly the right place for a very boring ground ball out?” says the man who for years ran front offices that generated those very algorithms. “Or would you rather see the game decided by whether your second baseman… can get a great break, make an unbelievable diving play with the game on the line and throw the runner out?”
Ending the shift also will produce more hits, the data confirms. This, too, is needed badly in a game that last year posted its lowest combined batting average since 1968—the last time MLB was moved to make such major rule changes, lowering the pitcher’s mound to 10 inches and shrinking the strike zone to reduce the pitcher’s advantage.
Given the positive fan reaction so far – including my own, having watched a half dozen or more spring training games in Arizona this spring– Epstein and his crew may have hit the sweet spot they so deliberately sought. The new rules are restoring to the game the faster pace, action and athleticism that once was commonplace. And that required, in some ways, freeing it from the bloodless grip of data analytics and algorithms that Epstein helped pioneer.
Every projection Epstein and his collaborators gleaned from two intensive years of experimentation in the minor leagues has borne out: spring training games on the average were 26 minutes shorter than a year ago. Batting averages, ground balls for hits, stolen base attempts and successful steals all were up. And with no shift, teams showcased more athletic infield play.
Whether it’s enough to lure young people and keep them coming is yet to be seen. But to this old fan’s eye, the spring training games weren’t just faster. They were better, in a way that recalled the go-go brand of baseball I remember.
Which is, of course, the point.
“I think there’s a balance to be had, and that’s what we hope these rule changes accomplish,” Epstein says. “We think you’ll be reminded of some of the things that made you love the game as a kid – the aesthetics of the game, the flow of the game and the ability to see a lot of action and athleticism on display – but still also enjoy it with your friends and family at the ballpark.”
So I say start the pitch clock, and let’s play ball!