Batter Up, Pitcher Down: Will MLB Soon Lower the Mound?

Batter Up, Pitcher Down: Will MLB Soon Lower the Mound?

The Philadelphia Phillies' Vince Velasquez during a meeting on the mound against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park in Miami on Friday, May 6, 2016.

SourceMatias J. Ocner/Getty

Why you should care

Because a new era of offense could be dawning.

The pitchers are ready to dig a moat around the mound. They feel under siege. There are limits on mound visits. There are limits on time between pitches in the minor leagues. There are limits on warm-up tosses between innings. The strike zone has tightened up. The baseballs have wings. Sean Doolittle, a Washington Nationals relief pitcher, once heard a proposal limiting how many relievers can pitch in one inning, just to make sure the game moves along at a brisk pace.

So when Doolittle hears there was a study on mound height and its effect on the health of pitcher’s arms and that, maybe, the study could be used as a remedy for all these cursed strikeouts, he rolls his eyes, shakes his head and says, “Lower the mound? That figures.”

“We’re seeing rule changes, and they all disproportionately affect pitchers,” Doolittle says. “They are trying to add offense while trying to speed up the game. That’s contradictory on its face.”

When attendance or ratings slip, there is a scramble to fix something, anything.

The American Sports Medicine Institute, founded by the renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, conducted a study from 2016–17 that looked at the impact on a pitcher’s arm throwing off a mound 6 inches high instead of the current 10-inch MLB mound. Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the director of research at ASMI, directed the study, which took about 18 months. Fleisig says the study, which also included youth pitchers, is being reviewed by a medical journal. MLB is a sponsor of the study.

Hitters are whiffing at a record pace once again this year, and as of the end of May, strikeouts exceeded hits across the league — a historic first. Who wants to pay just to watch Ks? If the study shows that lowering the mound does not harm a pitcher’s elbow or shoulder, is that an opening for MLB to lower the mound to cut down on all these strikeouts? It looks that way to me.

Research shows throwing the baseball off less of a hill reduces speed. The average fastball for a starter in the big leagues is close to 95 mph. The bullpen door swings open and 98 walks out. “Twenty years ago there were a couple of guys in the game who threw 100,” says Tyler Flowers, the Atlanta Braves catcher. “Now it seems like every team has two guys who throw 100.”

Pitchers were so overpowering in 1968 that MLB lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. Earned Run Average (ERA) among the 24 teams in baseball went from 2.98 to 3.61 in 1969. Offense was revived. Fleisig, whom I’ve known for 16 years, would not reveal the results or even the name of the medical journal reviewing the study.

What should MLB do? And would the players’ union allow it without a fight? Doolittle, who is one of baseball’s keenest spokesmen inside the clubhouse, insists market forces will even out the game. He pleas for no more interventions by MLB.

“At some point, we’re at risk of losing the fundamental nature of the game with some of these rule changes,” Doolittle says. “The game has a way of self-adjusting. We can’t have knee-jerk reactions after two years of strikeouts. 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.”

Pitchers, of course, bear only some of the blame for the ascent to all-or-nothing baseball, the flood of strikeouts and home runs and not much in between. Analytics have made total bases lord over get-em-on, move-em-over, so general managers are looking for thumpers, not singles hitters or base stealers. Swing hard, kid, in case you hit it.

Major League Baseball has a mercantile feel to it these days. When attendance or ratings slip, there is a scramble to fix something, anything. It’s as if the mannequin in the store window needs a new gown or a snazzier wig every week to keep buyers enthused.

I thought the rash of arm injuries in 2012 and 2013 might slow down the dominance of pitchers, but arm care has improved, and the hairy-chested chuckers keep coming. Still, lowering the mound is seismic. Doolittle is right — let’s see how the game evolves for a couple of years before we cut the hurlers down to size.

Ray Glier has covered Major League Baseball and other sports from Atlanta for more than 25 years.

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