To all but its most smitten admirers — a group that includes this writer and a lot of people even older than I am — baseball has found itself lately in a crisis of boringness. Games drag, action is intermittent, and young people beg their parents to let them watch YouTube or play Among Us instead.
If you’re reading this website, you’re probably not the type of fan who needs the game to change. But be honest with yourself: It used to be more exciting.
Say this for commissioner Rob Manfred, a controversial leader in many ways: He’s not afraid to experiment and act aggressively to confront this problem.
Among the newest set of minor league experiments announced on Wednesday was one that could represent once-in-a century legislation, moving the pitchers’ mound from its traditional spot at 60 feet, six inches away from the plate.
In the second half of its season, the Atlantic League will move the mound 12 inches further back — 61 feet, six inches from the plate.
This is intended as a counter-adjustment to the dramatic improvements pitchers have made in recent years. Working with private businesses like Driveline Baseball and analytically-inclined front offices and coaches, pitchers have become nastier, increasing fastball velocity and breaking ball spin. Strikeouts have increased in 15 consecutive seasons.
One result is that many teams use a parade of dominant relievers to shut down even talented offenses for many innings at a time. Think of the Rays, Yankees and many other teams. It’s effective strategy, but boring theater. If you don’t believe me, ask your kid.
Former Red Sox general manager and Cubs president Theo Epstein was prominent in the news release announcing this, but the work and research goes back years before MLB in January hired Epstein as a consultant on these issues.
MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword has been involved in this work, as has the departed Chris Young (now the Texas Rangers GM), the newly arrived Michael Hill and Raul Ibanez, and others in the baseball ops group.
Their research showed that a mound move was at least worth workshopping. According to MLB, a fastball at 93.3 miles per hour will play at 91.6mph at 61 feet, six inches. The league also cited a study on pitching distances and biomechanics from the American Sports Medicine Institute that found the changes to be safe.
MLB also cited a pair of precedents. In 1893, the National League moved the pitching rubber back 5 feet, to its current distance. The strikeout rate declined from 8.5 percent in 1892 to 5.2 percent in 1893, and batting average increased by 35 points.
After the “year of the pitcher” in 1968, MLB lowered the height of the mound by five inches, while shrinking the strike zone and banning foreign substances. In 1969, the league’s batting average rose by 11 points.
It’s a point of personal philosophy whether one believes in legislation or libertarianism to fix baseball’s problems. When is the right time for a rule, and when is it best to wait for hitters to adjust?
“My initial response is, ‘whoa that’s pretty aggressive,’” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of the mound move. “But I think it’s good that Major League Baseball is trying a number of these things out to see what it looks like. Gather information about it and look for ways always to hopefully continue to improve and move our game forward.”
The Yanks and Mets both have analytically-inclined, cutting edge pitching coaches. Neither Matt Blake nor Jeremy Hefner is the sort of Luddite who would automatically oppose innovation. Both raised an interesting thesis, that pitchers could actually find advantages with mound further away from the plate.
“Obviously, moving the mound back gives the hitter more time to see the ball, but at the same time it also gives the ball more time to move,” Blake said.
“So there are going to be second-order effects of that that I think are hard to estimate what exactly that will look like, but there will be both positives and negatives on both sides of it in terms of the amount of room to create shapes and movement for a pitcher will enhance.”
“I haven’t spent a ton of time on it, but I tend to agree with Matt,” Hefner told SNY. “The idea is to create more contact, but pitchers have adapted. Initially there will probably be more contact, but then I don’t know. We know as pitchers what we’re trying to do. Guys are still getting stronger and are still moving better.”
Hefner conceded that for a fringier pitcher, the change could present a more significant challenge.
“I wasn’t very good, so any type of adaptation might throw me back,” he said. “My adaptability is not there.”
Baseball players and die hard fans — again, not the groups best equipped to look objectively at how the game needs to adapt — tend to resist change. But those who have spent their lives around it, depend on it for income, and are addicted to its inherent beauty would do well to remain open-minded about ways to keep it viable.
“When I first initially hear [about the rule change], I’m taken aback by it,” Boone said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m right initially. I’m curious. I’m curious about a lot of these things that potentially change or evolve or move our game forward.”