CHICAGO — Two months after resigning from his role as Chicago Cubs president, Theo Epstein was hired Thursday as a consultant for Major League Baseball in on-field matters.
In his new role, Epstein will work in Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office with analytics experts on potential rules changes that MLB is exploring.
“It is an honor to assist the efforts by Major League Baseball and the Competition Committee to improve the on-field product, and I appreciate Commissioner Manfred asking me to be a part of these important conversations,” Epstein said in a statement.
“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.”
Epstein has worked with the MLB rules committees over the last few years, but now will have a bigger say in how the game decides to change.
Last spring in Arizona, he defended the rule change making relievers face three batters to move the game along, saying “99 percent of the game is the same and that connection is still there” with all fans.
“The thing to realize is the game evolves constantly,” Epstein said then. “And sometimes it’s important to be thoughtful and get ahead of it so it evolves toward a brand of baseball that’s more pleasing for fans — full of action instead of full of dead time. So sometimes it’s important to nudge it in the right direction.”
In effect, Epstein will be MLB’s Designated Nudger.
He’s said in the past he is in favor of a universal designated hitter, which was employed in 2020 due to temporary rules changes put into effect due to the shortened season caused by COVID-19 concerns. The DH rule may not be in place in the National League in 2021, though MLB and the players union could still agree to implement it and will likely do so in the next collective bargaining agreement after the ‘21 season.
During his final press conference announcing his departure as Cubs president, Epstein said he was concerned about “the quality on on-field play,” pointing to the proliferation of the “three true outcomes” — strikeouts, walks and home runs. He wants to see the ball in play more often, believing the lack of action is damaging the fan experience.
“It is the greatest game in the world, but there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving,” he said. “I take some responsibility for that, right? Because executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try and optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetics value of the game and the entertainment value, in some respects.
“Clearly the strikeout rate is a little but 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 the players to show their athleticism some more. Give the fans more of what they want.
“Maybe there is a way to do that through changes over time, and to put the game back in the hands of the players, and let them do their thing on the field. I think that’s the best way to give fans more of what they want. ... Maybe there is a ways to get that under control, and obviously COVID has impacted the industry— the teams and especially the players.”
When he resigned from the Cubs on Nov. 17, 2020, with one year left on his contract, Epstein said he envisioned “taking some time to pursue other pursuits, to spend with my family and to do some things that have just been impossible when you’re going to a ballpark every single day.”
He ruled out entering politics, but said: “Policy is interesting … I think there are ways to impact the world around us without necessarily diving into those political waters. Maybe I’ll be able to do that in some form or another.”
Speculation he could take a job running the Chicago Bears didn’t come to fruition, though former Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he’d successful in another sport.
Epstein said he would likely remain in Chicago, where his wife, Marie, has a business and his two sons go to school. He can remain in Chicago in his new role with MLB and still leave his imprint on the game without having to work seven days a week.