Why you should care
A new study could scuttle one plan to get baseball out of its so-called strikeout era.
When you pay to see a baseball game, you’re paying for action. Or at least you were. Baseball fans love the crack of the bat, the acrobatic catches, the bang-bang plays at first base and slide-and-tag plays at second.
But no more. More than 33 percent of your average Major League Baseball (MLB) game is either a home run, walk or strikeout, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That means the only players those watching at home will see are the pitcher, hitter and catcher. About 22 percent of that is a straight strikeout, and the 2018 MLB season was the first on record where there were more strikeouts (41,207) than hits (41,020).
Some believe the antidote to the strikeout era that has overwhelmed MLB is simple: Reduce the leverage of this crew of hairy-chested, fire-breathing pitchers who throw 101 miles per hour and are dominating the game. Instead of allowing flamethrowers to aim downhill off a 10-inch high mound, wouldn’t it be a little more challenging for them to throw from a six-inch mound? That’d cut the hurlers down to size. Or would it? According to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport last week …
Reducing the height of the pitcher’s mound from 10 to 6 inches has zero effect on pitch velocity.
You should pay attention to this study and consider it authoritative. One of the authors of the 18-month MLB-sponsored study on the impact of mound height on ball movement (velocity, spin rate) is Dr. Glenn Fleisig, a trusted advisor to the MLB and co-founder of the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Alabama.
“A few inches higher or lower on the mound seems like a lot to the pitcher, but as far as the whole trajectory and the whole distance of the 60 feet [and 6 inches], it is really a negligible change in the angle,” Fleisig explains in an exclusive interview.
“Lowering the mound doesn’t affect what the batter sees.”
Eduardo Perez, a respected analyst for ESPN and Sirius, disagrees. He believes that lowering the mound will change the “perception” of the pitch in favor of the hitter.
“The hitters don’t care about velocity. They’ve proven they can turn on 100 miles per hour, but if you flatten the mound from 10 inches to 6 inches it is going to be a significant difference as far as angle of the ball coming to the hitter,” Perez says. This is why teams seek tall pitchers — because they have more angle to the plate. Lowering the mound won’t help shorten games, Perez warns. “There will be more hits and records broken.”
One reason many see mound-lowering as a quick fix — and it’s reportedly under consideration in talks between MLB and the players’ union — is that it’s worked before. After a miserable season for hitters in 1968, the MLB lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. The combined batting average in both leagues went from .237 in 1968 to .248 in 1969. Even more startling was the pitchers’ earned run average: 2.98 in 1968 to 3.61 in 1969.
“Looking back on 1969, not only did they lower the mound, they made other changes, like making the strike zone smaller,” Fleisig says. “In retrospect of 50 years, making the strike zone smaller had a bigger effect on the offense going up than lowering the mound.”
Not only did the ASMI study look at velocity, but it also looked at the spin rate, which affects how the ball moves to deceive the batter. There was a negligible difference in spin rate with a lower mound. Hitters get themselves ready to hit 98 miles per hour, but then wicked breaking balls ruin their strategy of starting their swing early to catch up to the gas. Mound height, Fleisig says, makes no difference to the sharpness of a curveball or slider. The hitters are going to get the same nasty spin at 6 inches that they dread at 10.
MLB has spent much time researching the glut of elbow injuries to pitchers and hurler health was another focus of the ASMI study. But the research didn’t do much to help that cause either. Lowering the mound, according to the study, might “possibly” reduce the risk of injury.
Some people prefer the status quo, arguing that the hitters should figure it out, not those making the rules. Sean Doolittle, the relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals, is annoyed that the MLB is even considering such a drastic change. “The game has a way of self-adjusting. We can’t have knee-jerk reactions after two years of strikeouts,” he said last summer. “It’s scary to think they are willing to do things that are that drastic, like lowering the mound. This is a really slippery slope.”
He could be right. The pitchers are not the only reason we are in a strikeout era. Baseball’s sabermetric number crunchers have made clear that the risk-reward of going for home runs outweighs scraping together runs the old-fashioned way. No bunts, no singles, no shortening up the swing with two strikes, no moving the runner over. Launch angle became a thing too.
The solution may be something more drastic, like making the distance from the home plate to the pitcher’s plate 62 feet, instead of 60.5 feet. The solution could be the evolution of hitters and their reflexes. It might take a team winning a championship with small ball to turn around the all-or-nothing logic of the swing.
For now, though, we are stuck in the strikeout era. Take a nap.