Judging from the early returns, the answers are yes and yes.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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!