A Major Change in the Minors: Baseball Moving the Mound Back

A Major Change in the Minors: Baseball Moving the Mound Back

Strikeouts were out of control. Changes in pitching techniques had resulted in batters swinging and missing like never before. To fix the problem, leading minds focused on the center of the diamond. The pitcher would have to move back.

The goal: “the restoration of the proper equilibrium between the two great principles of the game — attack and defense. With the pitcher reduced to the ranks, nine men instead of two will play the game.”

So said Francis Richter, the editor of the weekly Sporting Life, as quoted by the author Peter Morris in “A Game Of Inches,” his book on the innovations that shaped baseball. Richter’s column ran in November 1892, but the words apply almost exactly to the modern game.

Major League Baseball believes that the product on the field is in crisis. The league’s declaration on Wednesday confirmed it: Starting in the second half of the season, the independent Atlantic League — in partnership with M.L.B. — will move its mounds back by a foot. This is not like putting a runner on second base in extra innings or making the bases a little bigger. This is fundamental.

The distance of 60 feet 6 inches between the pitching rubber and the plate was established in 1893. The National League — the American League did not exist quite yet — wanted to curb the growing influence of overhand pitching. Strikeouts had risen as high as 4.74 per game in the N.L. in 1884, but things soon normalized: The rate would not be that high again until 1957.

When one cog in a machine goes haywire, it can lead to disaster. For baseball today, strikeouts are that cog. That’s why M.L.B. is terrified of the impact all those whiffs are having on the entertainment value of the game.

“I love baseball,” Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, said on Wednesday. “But the rules aren’t written on stone tablets.”

That’s true, though 60 feet 6 inches comes close. The last time pitchers worked from a different distance, the union had 44 states and Babe Ruth hadn’t been born. Changing the distance in the majors will be a tough sell to players, and maybe to some owners, too.

“The gut reaction is to say, ‘Well, how’s that going to work?’” said Tim Adleman, a former Cincinnati Reds right-hander who pitched in the Atlantic League in 2019. “The mound’s been 60 feet 6 inches forever, and guys have based everything around the fact that that’s how far you throw down to home plate. I can’t say for sure, but it seems like that extra foot’s going to change quite a bit of stuff.”

For baseball, that is the point. Through Tuesday, batters were striking out at a 24.7 percent rate this season, an increase of 10 percentage points since 1992. The average time between balls in play this season has risen to almost four minutes. Triples, doubles and stolen bases — action plays that fans say they want, according to the league — are down. That is no way for an industry to attract the younger generation, the paying customers of the future.

Baseball’s timeless, slower pace is part of its appeal, and those who care about the sport have long worried about its long-term viability. Yet here we are, with franchise values soaring, lucrative TV deals everywhere and teams averaging more than 28,000 fans, prepandemic, for 81 home games per season. As popular as the N.B.A. seems to be, it plays about half as many games and averages 10,000 fewer fans for each, in much smaller venues.

So maybe baseball does not need to try so hard to manufacture change. But it is already using its affiliated minors to test other innovations this season — calling balls and strikes with an automated system, regulating pickoff moves and so on — so why not use the unaffiliated minors to study this one?

“It’s going to take a long time to actually get hitters to adjust their swings,” the Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said on Wednesday. “I do like the idea that they’re trying to do something. I’m not sure I’d like to be one of the guinea pigs.”

Adleman said he would be concerned about injuries and would have to do more research before agreeing to return to the Atlantic League. In its news release, M.L.B. cited a 2019 study by the American Sports Medicine Institute that observed college pitchers throwing from longer distances and found no significant biomechanical changes that would increase risk of injury.

“If you’re a guy who’s in indie ball and you’re playing out your career or you don’t have that affiliated option anymore, then maybe it doesn’t make as much of a difference to you,” Adleman said. “But if you are somebody who’d like to pitch in affiliated ball or who’s trying to get back to the big leagues, then it seems to me like it’s hard to really feel comfortable doing that if the place that you want to be has the mound that’s 60 feet 6 inches.”

For M.L.B., of course, the issue is not the career prospects of pitchers in the Atlantic League. The new on-field blueprints may seem radical, but the architects include deeply respected people like the former outfielder Raul Ibanez and the former general managers Theo Epstein and Michael Hill. They are not known for irrational ideas.

“One thing I know about, from talking to M.L.B. on a lot of different areas, they put a lot of thought into some of the changes or experiments they make,” Cubs Manager David Ross said on Wednesday. “I think that’s why they’re starting these things. Pushing the mound back is a wait-and-see — I have no idea. But giving the hitters an extra foot is definitely going to benefit the hitters.”

Matt Blake, the Yankees’ pitching coach, said pitchers could benefit, too.

“There’s going to be second-order effects of that, and I think it’s hard to estimate what exactly that will look like,” Blake said. “But there will be both positives and negatives on both sides of it. The amount of room to create shapes and movement for a pitcher will enhance, you just might deaden some of the velocity from the distance that we’re talking about.”

For a rapidly changing game, there is nothing to lose by creatively trying to generate more action and reduce dead time. And as revolutionary as it might seem to move the mound back, even the greatest pitchers might sometimes find the feeling familiar.

“It’s funny,” Palmer said. “In your bad games, you thought the mound was at 61 feet, anyway.”

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