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There’s a proposal to move the mound back. Heresy, or a good idea for more offense?

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You can’t say that MLB players and owners aren’t thinking of new ideas.

The pitcher’s mound has been at 60 feet, six inches for 125 years. Could that change soon?
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

For the last couple of days we’ve been discussing a proposal that’s on the table to institute the universal designated hitter.

But MLB owners and players aren’t done talking about both small and big changes that could happen to the game we love, in the name of a) speeding up the pace of play and b) generating more offense and fewer strikeouts, the latter of which reached an all-time high in 2018.

One of the things that hasn’t changed in the game in 125 years is the pitching distance. Sixty feet, six inches. Even most casual baseball fans know that number.

But now, according to Jayson Stark in this article in The Athletic, even that is a topic of discussion for change:

Among the proposals being discussed by Major League Baseball and the players’ union this winter is the formation of a joint committee to study whether to move back the mound to help hitters, at a time when pitchers’ velocity has reached levels never before seen in history.

The committee, if agreed to by both sides, would also look at the potential impact of lowering the mound by as many as six inches. In addition, it would examine the possibility of changing the size of the strike zone, two years after MLB proposed raising the bottom of the zone to the top of the knees. That proposal was never enacted.

I had actually heard some rumors about proposals like this last fall, but couldn’t substantiate them.

I think you can see what moving the mound back would do. A fastball that crosses the plate at 95 miles per hour at 60 feet, six inches would have slightly reduced velocity at, say, 62 feet (and I don’t think we’re talking about moving the mound back by much more than a foot or two). It would give batters another fraction of a second to recognize what pitch was coming; pitchers would have to adjust their pitching style so that breaking pitches like curveballs and sliders would still break at the right moment. Doing this would almost certainly give an advantage to the hitter.

Lowering the mound would absolutely give a strong advantage to hitters, and we actually have data proving this. This article about how mound height was adjusted over time highlights one of the eras in baseball’s history where pitchers were totally dominant, 1963-68, and why:

... in 1950, Major League Baseball mandated that each pitching mound had to be exactly fifteen inches high. By delivering the ball from a fifteen inch elevation, pitchers gained momentum as they lunged downward off the pitching rubber and the ball gained even more speed, which made it more difficult for batters to square up, especially with the downward angle of the ball.

Combined with a 1963 rule change that expanded the strike zone, pitchers began to dominate hitters once again to an extreme degree. In fact, 1968 is referred to as “The Year of the Pitcher,” because average run scoring per game per team that year was a scant 3.42, with a full 21% of the games ending in one of the teams getting shut out.

The mound was lowered to 10 inches in 1969, with an immediate increase in offense, as Stark notes:

It’s now exactly a half-century since baseball responded to The Year of the Pitcher in 1968, by lowering that height from 15 inches to 10 inches. The next year, run-scoring jumped by 19 percent and the league-wide OPS spiked by 50 points after that change.

On the other hand:

Obviously, the hope is that lowering the mound again would produce similar success. But a study published this week, in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, suggests that is unlikely. That study, conducted by Dr. James Andrews’ American Sports Medicine Institute, does raise the possibility that lowering the mound could reduce pitcher injuries, however. So baseball has reason to take a closer look.

If a change in baseball could reduce pitcher injuries, I’d think owners and players would be all over it. It might lead to a situation where starting pitchers could go longer without the fatigue that has steadily reduced the number of innings they throw. Perhaps bullpens could be somewhat smaller. It’s certainly worth studying, and I would expect some change in this area. The three proposals here — lowering the mound, moving it back and adjusting the strike zone — probably wouldn’t all happen, but I would suspect that at least one of them will, likely for the 2020 season.

Stark, who is one of the best baseball writers around, wasn’t done with chronicling changes that players and owners are considering. The next part of his article concerns September rosters and the 12- or 13-man bullpens that sometimes result from rosters expanding to as many as 40 players. Here’s what is on the table regarding rosters after September 1:

The union is said to have offered two new ideas:

1) All 30 teams would be required to expand rosters to 28 in September. Roster expansion is now optional.

2) All teams also would be required to add four minor leaguers to the rosters after the conclusion of the minor-league playoffs — and since that would increase the total number to more than 28, each team would have to announce a 28-man “active” roster for every game from Sept. 1 on, similar to the way NFL teams must announce “actives” and “inactives” before games. Starting pitchers could not be part of those inactives, according to the latest proposal.

We have discussed similar notions here frequently when this topic is raised. It seems to be something whose time has come. One of the reasons for expanded rosters in September was for big-league teams to see minor leaguers who they hadn’t seen during the season, because “back in the day,” travel to all the minor league outposts would have been prohibitively expensive.

But now, with many minor-league games televised and video available for others, and voluminous data being recorded for minor-league players, that’s less of a necessity. I like the “inactives” idea, especially since according to the proposal above, teams couldn’t simply deactivate the starting pitchers who aren’t going on any particular day. This would force teams to get creative with their inactive list; most likely, it would wind up being relievers who had been used the previous day, or two days in a row. This would eliminate the huge bullpens that now are becoming commonplace in September. And further:

One of MLB’s concerns about expanding rosters two years ago was that teams would just use the new rules to load up on more relief pitchers. So sources said the league’s proposal would limit pitching staffs to 12 men through August and 13 “active” pitchers in September.

Now this is something I’d be totally on board with. Almost all teams are now using 13-man pitching staffs. Forcing teams to limit staffs to 12 for the season’s first five months would mean that teams would simply have to identify relievers who could throw multiple innings. Or have starters go longer. Or both. Limiting staffs to 12 during that time frame would also allow teams to carry an extra bench player, increasing offensive flexibility. Lastly on this topic, from Stark:

That would be accompanied by a previously reported proposal to require all relievers to face at least three hitters, a rule that would lessen the need for eight-man and nine-man bullpens. Also under discussion is a possible rule to prohibit position players from pitching, except in extra innings. How that rule could be worded, to account for two-way players like Shohei Ohtani, is unclear.

I’m in total agreement here, too. Requiring relievers to face at least three hitters would eliminate a lot of mid-inning pitching changes, and again, teams would have to identify relievers who can get both RH and LH hitters out. The LOOGY would likely become a thing of the past. If it were up to me, I would modify that rule change slightly so that a reliever would have to face at least three hitters unless an inning ends before he does.

Lastly from Stark’s article, the players have made a proposal to change the way the draft is structured. This would be aimed at reducing the number of teams tanking:

For the last 55 years, draft order has been determined strictly by winning percentage. However, sources say the union has floated a different formula — split between winning percentage and the procedures baseball uses to determine which clubs receive revenue sharing.

The union has also proposed awarding extra draft picks to revenue-sharing recipients that make the playoffs, as well as later-round picks to revenue-sharing recipients that miss the postseason but finish with a winning record.

In other words, if a team like the Rays — who operate with low payrolls and get revenue-sharing funds — makes the postseason, they’d get extra draft picks. This would also give incentive to teams that are trying to rebuild to at least try to finish over .500 so they’d get more later-round picks.

Another way of modifying the draft would be to go to a NBA-style lottery system for, say, the 10 worst teams from the previous season, but this isn’t currently part of the players’ proposal. NBA teams have “tanked” from time to time to get into the draft lottery, but sometimes it takes a long time to get back to respectability, such as the case of the Philadelphia 76ers, who had six horrendous seasons recently before returning to contention. The NBA has made some modifications in its lottery system, but they might not have a huge impact on tanking, as noted in this Five Thirty Eight article from last May. If MLB makes changes in its draft structure, they should approach it carefully so it actually has the impact they want it to have.

The bottom line here is that Major League Baseball might look very different in several key areas within the next couple of years. For all its tradition — and I am mostly a traditionalist — it has changed frequently over its 140-plus year history. If a sport doesn’t adapt to changing times, it could lose popularity or even die. None of us wants that to happen to baseball. All we ask is that changes are carefully thought through, unintended consequences considered, and finally, a good and robust discussion that includes fan voices should be heard. All of this and more will surely be discussed at the MLB owners meetings which began today in Orlando.

Fasten your seat belts, the next couple of years in baseball are going to be a thrill ride. The good news is that the players and owners are at least talking. Perhaps finding common ground on some of these issues will make the next labor negotiation a bit easier.

Poll

Moving the mound back...

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Great idea! Better for hitters!
    (76 votes)
  • 56%
    Terrible idea! Don’t change a thing!
    (169 votes)
  • 17%
    Don’t care either way
    (53 votes)
298 votes total Vote Now