Top free agent DJ LeMahieu was 22 years old when the Cubs traded him in 2011, and he looked even younger. In the minors, he’d already shown a knack for putting the ball in play, and he made his major league debut that May.
But the opposite-field swing that landed LeMahieu with the Cubs in the first place was the same one that helped send him packing to Colorado after Theo Epstein took over baseball operations.
Epstein wasn’t talking specifically about the LeMahieu trade when he said during his farewell press conference two months ago that he felt partially responsible for the decline in baseball’s on-field action. But he was talking about an analytics-driven trend that elevated power hitters with plate discipline. Not contact-hitters like LeMahieu.
“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,” Epstein said. “I mean, clearly, the strikeout rate's a little bit out of control and we need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more and give the fans more of what they want.”
Epstein, whose Hall-of-Fame worthy career included a curse-breaking World Series with the Cubs, left his next career steps open-ended. But he did say that maybe now that he isn’t connected to a specific club, maybe he could help MLB with some of those big-picture concerns.
What exactly is the solution to the lack of action in today’s game?
Posing that question to managers during virtual Winter Meetings last month elicited a range of theories.
“From the executives, to the managers, to ownerships, we're all going to present some kind of different version of the solution,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “And that's probably the hardest part, agreeing on the solutions.”
The steady rise in strikeout rate is one of the clearest indicators of MLB’s declining “entertainment value.” In 2019, the league’s last full season, the strikeout rate had climbed to 23 percent, up from 17.5 in 2008. In each of the past three seasons, the number of strikeouts has surpassed the number of hits.
The trend can be connected to a number of factors: pitching advancements, defensive shifts, an emphasis on power and on-base percentage leading to three true outcomes (home run, strikeout, walk). The result is the same: less action. For a sport desperate to attract young fans, that’s a problem.
“I watched a lot of the playoff games after we were eliminated and quite honestly it was a little hard to watch,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said on his Winter Meetings Zoom call. “There was nothing going on. Strikeout, strikeout, home run. It was hard to watch. It tells me we have to find a way to make our game move.”
There was however, a common theme among several managers: Analytics can be a powerful tool, but players shouldn’t be forced to fit one mold.
“Everybody can’t hit home runs, and everybody shouldn’t hit home runs,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You need some guys that are table-setters. Some guys are trying to hit balls up in the air that have no business hitting the ball up in the air.
“And I think is trickling down to a lot of kids – where you’ve got to learn how to hit first, and then you start worrying about launch angle and you start worried about lifting the ball, if you're strong enough to do so.”
Said Angels manager Joe Maddon: “I'm a huge believer in numbers and analytics. But I'm also a big believer in the heartbeat. So, I think you have to strategize it in a way that permits the player to be himself, optimize his abilities.”
Epstein’s own reflection on the topic touched on similar themes. The best way to “give the fans more of what they want,” he said, is to “put the game back in the hands of the players and let them do their thing on the field.”
Look no further than LeMahieu as an example of how powerful that concept can be. LeMahieu spent seven seasons in Colorado after the Cubs traded him and outfielder Tyler Colvin to the Rockies for third baseman Ian Stewart and pitching prospect Casey Weathers.
In his last season with the Rockies, LeMahieu told The New York Times, LeMahieu tried lifting his hitting angle to hit more home runs at his team’s suggestion. It worked: his 15 homers that year were a career high at the time. But when he joined the Yankees, he decided to switch back.
"The hitter I was last year,” LeMahieu told the Times in 2019, “wasn’t me.’”
From 2018 to 2019, LeMahieu’s batting average jumped from .276 to .327. This past season, he led MLB in batting average (.364), making him the first player in the modern era to win a batting title in each league.
On Ian Happ's podcast The Compound, the Cubs centerfielder made the case last month that LeMahieu is “irreplaceable” on the Yankees, with a power-hitting lineup behind him.
“You pay the man whatever he wants,” Happ said.
Now the Cubs, needing to diversify their lineup, are looking for a player with a similar skillset to LeMahieu. Just at a lower price.
“Productive contact hitters are at a premium,” Epstein said after the Cubs’ Wild Card exit, “but it is important that we continue to integrate that into our lineup.”
That’s up to new Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer now.
The bigger question is how to implement LeMahieu’s evolution on a broader scale. Maybe Epstein, the man who saw what happened after he let LeMahieu slip through his fingers nine years ago, is the perfect person to point MLB in the right direction.