With hitting down, should MLB lower the mound?
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Major League Baseball has a problem: Clayton Kershaw, Aroldis Chapman, Felix Hernandez and all the other kings of the hill are just too good.
Ruling with an assortment of big-bending curveballs, sharp sliders and 100 mph (160 kph) heat, a new generation of pitchers has thrown major league hitters into a huge slump.
The spike in strikeouts, the dip in home runs, and worries that the game is becoming boring for fans reminds some people of 1968, when Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and their fellow aces dominated.
Back then, the league came up with a radical solution: The pitcher’s mound was lowered from 15 inches (38 centimeters) to 10 inches (25) and the strike zone was reduced.
Combined with the addition of four expansion teams, the result was an 11-point increase in the big league batting average in 1969 and a 19 percent rise in runs.
Should MLB drop the mound again?
“I don’t know, man, maybe if they keep going like this,” Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton said on Monday at the All-Star festivities.
“Move the mound back 5 feet,” he added with a chuckle.
There’s some thought that reducing the mound would combat the outbreak of blown-out elbows, which has seen stars such as Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez needing reconstructive surgery, and could also claim Masahiro Tanaka.
With low-run games again in vogue and defensive shifts taking away hits, there’s been more emphasis on small ball. That’s prompted questions about whether this is a cyclical change, or if this style is here to stay.
From his vantage point in the New York Mets’ broadcast booth, former National League MVP Keith Hernandez has an unusual analysis and an equally drastic solution.
“They should get rid of four teams,” he said. “Too many players. There’s too much dilution of talent. The pitching’s not better. It’s the same.
“The residuals of steroids and aluminum bats have affected how they taught kids how to hit, and now we’re seeing normal bodies, and balls that used to get out of the ballpark are caught now.”
It wasn’t too long ago that batters had the edge. The boom years peaked in 2000 with an average of 1.17 home runs per team per game. The runs average of 5.14 was MLB’s highest since 1936.
But offense has steadily shrunk — as have the players — as MLB implemented testing for doping and then repeatedly strengthened those rules.
And with complete games virtually a relic, hard-throwing relievers dominate the late innings. Radar guns routinely register mph (kph) readings around triple digits.
“Everybody’s throwing 109, so you don’t get to see the starters for your fourth turn (at bat),” said Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, exaggerating only slightly. “There’s a lot of guys in the bullpen that are special guys.”
All those fast balls have contributed to more than two dozen pitchers needing Tommy John surgery this year.
Dr. David Altchek, the Mets’ top physician, said a lower mound “should decrease the force as the body gets less far ahead of the arm. As the body falls down the mound, the arm momentarily lags and forces at the elbow cumulate.”
But Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute counters that recent studies disagree whether lowering or eliminating the mound would slightly cut or slightly increase the stress on an adolescent pitcher’s arm.
“Reducing the amount of competitive pitching is the most strongly proven action for reducing the risk of pitching injuries,” he said.
This much is certain: The MLB batting average is down to .252 this year, according to STATS. It hasn’t been that low since 1972, the year before the American League adopted the designated hitter.
Teams are averaging a full one run less per game, with the 4.14 scoring average MLB’s lowest since 1992, just before the spread of better hitting through doping.
There’s a lot less contact, too: Teams average 7.70 strikeouts per game, on track to set a record for the eighth straight season and up more than 60 percent from 1981′s 4.75.
From the seventh inning on, MLB resembles the 1960s, the greatest era for pitchers since the lively ball days began in 1920. The .241 batting average in the late innings is the lowest since STATS’ records began in 1974, and teams are averaging just 1.30 runs — not much incentive to keep fans in stadiums or watching their televisions.
“The real ‘solution’ here is to ban setup men and closers,” ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann said.
Change comes slowly in MLB; widespread instant replay for umpires began only this year.
“I would be reluctant to lower the mound further,” said John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, “as this might be using a sledgehammer to swat a fly.”
Ever cautious, the new players’ union head Tony Clark says the time to consider such a step is “too far off right now.”