White Sox: Gauging effect of potential rule changes

Phil Watson
Former Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Former Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /
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The Chicago White Sox were a playoff team in 2020 and have added some solid pieces to the roster this winter. But with Theo Epstein taking a role in how Major League Baseball will look on the field, how do the Sox stack up?

A little less than months ago, Theo Epstein stepped down as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs — the club the Chicago White Sox have long played in the long shadow of — and now baseball’s most notorious curse breaker is going to work for Major League Baseball as a consultant, according to a press release issued Thursday by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office.

Epstein’s role will be in the area of a vague category labeled “on-field activities.” In the statement,

Epstein — who directed the Boston Red Sox front office in 2004 when that franchise snapped an 86-year championship drought and was at the helm for the Cubs when they ended more than a century of frustration with their World Series title in 2016 — said in the press release he is looking to address the quality of the product being presented to fans.

"“As the game evolves, we all have an interest in ensuring the changes we see on the field make the game as entertaining and action-packed as possible for the fans, while preserving all that makes baseball so special. I look forward to working with interested parties throughout the industry to help us collectively navigate toward the very best version of our game.”"

The news of Epstein’s move to MLB’s offices in New York was first reported by Bruce Levine of 670 The Score in Chicago.

On his way out of Wrigleyville, Epstein acknowledged he was at the vanguard of a movement in baseball that has — in retrospect — been a leading reason why there is less action in MLB as we move further into the new millennium’s third decade than there was in past eras.

Per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com, Epstein accepted responsibility for the analytics craze that led to new baseball terminology such as spin rate, launch angle and radical defensive shifts.

"“The 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 of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects.”"

For years, MLB has wrestled with the pace of play, but what Epstein is alluding to is more fundamental than that. Rather, it is the declining number of balls actually put into play that has taken some of the life out of the game.

Using the White Sox as an example, in 2020 Chicago put the ball in play 1,397 times in 2,267 plate appearances, per Baseball-Reference.com.

The breakdown of those balls put into play included 438 hits that were not home runs and 942 batted-ball outs. That was as opposed to the team’s 571 strikeouts, 179 walks (one of which was intentional), 96 home runs and 24 times hit by pitch.

Boil it all down and the ball was only put in play in 61.6 percent of the time when a White Sox hitter dug into the batter’s box.

Compare that to even five seasons earlier, 2015, when the team put the ball in play 4,212 times in 6,070 plate appearances, a rate of 69.4 percent.

Yes, 2020 was an anomaly because of the 60-game schedule providing a much smaller sample size than a full 162-game campaign, but the math bears out if we continue to move back in five year increments:

  • 2010: 73.1 percent of plate appearances resulted in the ball in play (4,473-of-6,118).
  • 2005: 72.1 percent (4,430-6,146). A primary difference between 2005 and 2010 was homers and strikeouts — the 2005 World Champions clubbed 200 home runs and fanned 1,002 times. In 2010, those figures were 177 and 922, respectively.
  • 2000: 72.4 percent (4,643-6,410).
  • 1995: 74.2 percent (4,281-5,770).
  • 1990: 74.8 percent (4,515-6,038).

So there was much more activity to see even 10 years ago as opposed to here and now.

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While MLB instituted some major changes on the fly leading into the truncated 2020 season (beginning extra innings with a runner in scoring position, pitchers being required to face at least three hitters and a universal designated hitter), few of those changes addressed the basic element of just getting the ball in play.

Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before as a group. There are few staffs that don’t boast nine or more guys regularly hitting 98 mph or better on the radar gun.

Hitters, meanwhile, are more selective in their approach — walking more — but they are also going for the downs at a record rate. The rules some of us older folks grew up with, i.e., shortening up your swing when you had two strikes to better put the ball in play, are as obsolete as console televisions.

Throw in the more radical defensive shifts, which are a by-product of more hitters swinging from the heels and trying to pull the ball, and guys are finding more success trying to just hit the ball over the shift (and the wall) than merely taking what the defense is giving and slapping the ball the other way.

As a team, the White Sox hit .261 last season, second-best in the American League. AL MVP Jose Abreu, meanwhile, slugged 19 home runs, drew 18 walks (one intentional), was hit by pitch three times and struck out 59 times in his 262 plate appearances. His 62.2 percent rate of putting the ball in play was slightly better than the team mark of 61.6 percent.

Former batting champion Tim Anderson, meanwhile, had 221 plate appearances, hitting .322 with 10 walks, 10 home runs and two times hit by pitch to go with 50 whiffs, an in-play rate of 67.4 percent.

On the other end of the scale was catcher Yasmani Grandal. In 194 plate appearances, the free-agent pickup drew 30 bases on balls and was hit once, coupled with eight home runs and 58 strikeouts. So Grandal put the ball in play as often as he didn’t — 97 times in 194 plate appearances for a rate of just 50 percent.

As for what could be done at the MLB level to increase the amount of balls in play, there are some options to consider. But this isn’t something that could be fixed by changing rules regarding defensive shifts or instituting a pitch clock.

Perhaps the simplest solution is to make baseballs more like — well — baseballs rather than billiard balls with some threads. Deadening the ball a bit could do wonders for keeping more balls in play and bringing at least a bit more strategy back into the game.

Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox /

Chicago White Sox

Some suggest that a robotic strike zone could reduce strikeouts, but that would be a measure that would have to be more carefully considered, beyond the basic “(insert umpire’s name here) has no clue how to call balls and strikes, we need it automated” line of thinking.

Major league hitters are the best in the world at their craft and that is with having to contend with the vagaries of different umpires having, in some cases, radically different interpretations of what is a strike and what is not.

You give these guys a strike zone that never changes? You’d better be bringing some absolutely ridiculous breaking stuff, because the days of getting those guys to chase a fastball out of the zone would be over.

This isn’t to advocate eliminating the home run — no one is suggesting we take the cork out of the center of the ball and instead go back to shoving some socks into two pieces of horse hide and sewing them shut.

That would harken back to the earliest part of the 20th century when teams could go an entire season hitting less than 10 long balls, something that happened 22 times between 1901 and 1918, according to Stathead.com.

Next. White Sox all-time HR leaders. dark

In any case, it appears MLB is going to give Theo Epstein some room to tinker a bit. Whatever happens, however, the Chicago White Sox should be OK going forward. The core general manager Rick Hahn over the last eight seasons has the talent to adjust to any changes that might be in the offing.

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