At What Point Should MLB Lower the Mound Again to Curb Pitcher Dominance?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
We're just about two months into the 2013 Major League Baseball season, and so far, pitchers are doing their world-domination thing again.
It was a shocker when the league's ERA dropped to 4.08 in 2010, but then it proceeded to drop to 3.94 in 2011 and is at 3.98 so far this year, according to Baseball-Reference.com. FanGraphs has the league's strikeout rate at an even 20 percent.
If that holds, it will be an all-time record.
Outside of Miguel Cabrera, hitters still have their backs against the wall, and there's no telling when the pendulum is going to swing back the other way.
But here's a question: At what point does MLB consider making the pendulum swing back the other way? At what point does the league go to DEFCON 1 and do something it's only had to do once before out of desperation?
When will it be time for a good, old-fashioned mound-lowering?
ESPN's Tim Kurkjian put the idea on the table in 2011 when he used the prospect of another mound-lowering as the lede for a piece about the 1968 season, when pitching was so dominant that the league really had no choice but to take drastic measures.
Major League Baseball wasn't in the same boat all over again when Kurkjian posed the idea two years ago. As intriguing as the idea is, the league still isn't in the same boat.
The league certainly could consider lowering the mound again, but not until it has a crisis on its hands. And compared to when the mound was last lowered, what the league is experiencing now is far from that.
What happened in 1968 was a legit crisis.
There had a been a rumor spreading in the years before about an imminent pitching threat, and 1968 was the year the rumor turned into reality. Pitchers were running amok, and they may have approached "People of Earth, bow to us!" territory if the league hadn't done something.
The ERA of the league in 1968 was 2.98, marking the first time the league's ERA had been under 3.00 since 1918. You might recall that was before baseball fell in love with the home run, as there were only 0.12 home runs per game in 1918, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
In all, there were 50 ERA-title qualifiers in 1968 who had ERAs under 3.00. It was the first time there had been at least 50 such guys since 1917, which would be yet another year belonging to the pre-home-run days.
Of the 50 guys who had ERAs under 3.00 in 1968, 21 of them had ERAs under 2.50. Bob Gibson put on a super-suit and led the way with an ERA of 1.12.
By comparison, here's a fun fact: Even with all the dominant pitching in recent years, there have only been 21 ERA-title qualifiers with ERAs under 2.50 in the last 10 full seasons combined. It's taken a decade to produce as many sub-2.50 guys as there were in 1968 alone.
From here, we must acknowledge that the league's batting average in '68 was a mere .237. That's the lowest in major-league history, and it certainly wasn't helped by the fact that only six guys hit .300.
That's the lowest total for any single season in MLB history, which is remarkable considering the league had expanded twice in the early 1960s. There were more guys to hit .300 than ever before, and the league still couldn't produce enough .300 hitters to avoid baseball infamy.
Things aren't nearly as bad now. The league's batting average has been hovering in the .250 range since pitchers regained control of the baseball world in 2010, but last year produced 26 .300 hitters. There were also 26 in 2011 and 23 in 2010. Not a lot relative to what was going on in the offense-friendly era of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, but enough.
So as much as hitters are having a hard time these days, it's not like they're fighting a losing battle like the one hitters were fighting in 1968. Today's hitters are doing a good enough job of keeping the league's pitchers, dominant as they are, well away from "People of Earth!" territory.
As such, I'm guessing MLB isn't even close to stepping in and doing something to appease the league's hitters. And heck, it may not do so even if things get progressively worse for hitters in the years to come.
If the league can be counted on to do anything, after all, it's to consider business first.
The league had to consider the business end of things when pitchers were taking over in '68. Per BallparksofBaseball.com, overall attendance dropped by more than a million from 1967 to 1968, making it pretty clear that fans weren't really digging the dominant pitching.
Today's fans, however, don't appear to have a problem with the rise of pitching. Baseball experienced an attendance spike last year despite the fact it was a third straight pitching-friendly season, and in general, fans have nothing but love for the dominant arms of the day (#HarveyDay, anyone?).
As long as hitters have a fighting chance and the seats are still being filled, MLB won't have to pursue a measure as drastic as lowering the mound. It's only going to be a real option once the league's hitting totals fall to much deeper depths while attendance numbers fall with them. It's possible this could happen, but not probable from the looks of things.
And even if offense and attendance do fall to alarming depths, merely considering lowering the mound may be as far as Major League Baseball could go.
When the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches in 1969, pitchers weren't happy about it. William Leggett of Sports Illustrated wrote that the lower mound had pitchers "grumbling often" during spring training, and the Associated Press revealed in 2008 that Gibson was still steamed about the change 40 years later.
If the league kicks around the possibility of lowering the mound again, it's going to have plenty of angry pitchers pounding on its door. Owners with high-priced pitchers may not be too happy, either, as the prospect of a lower mound could come hand-in-hand with a prospect of more pitcher injuries.
Consider what Detroit Tigers great Mickey Lolich said to Leggett during spring training in '69:
My elbow has been bothering me this spring. I can't pinpoint exactly that it has been caused by the lowering of the mound but this is my 11th spring and I never had problems like this before.
Lolich was experiencing elbow trouble after the mound was lowered from an extreme high of 15 inches to a more moderate 10 inches. If it were to be lowered to, say, anywhere between five or eight inches, pitchers would be forced into putting more effort into each pitch. The potential for more injuries would be very real.
And that's no bueno in this day and age.
When the mound was lowered in 1968, there was no free agency to drive pitcher salaries up. There is today, and I'm sure you've noticed that pitcher salaries have gotten to be rather lofty. There are more than enough $100 million pitchers out there, and Justin Verlander has a shot to be baseball's first $200 million pitcher. These guys are simply too valuable to have their health put in danger.
If pitchers continue to dominate to a point where MLB has to seriously consider lowering the mound, it's not like their salaries are going to get any smaller along the way. By the time the league is ready to talk about lowering the mound, $200 million pitchers could be the norm. And if so, there would be an awful lot of people hellbent on making sure the mound stays where it's at.
Will the mound ever be lowered again?
A lower mound probably would make a difference. It certainly did back in the late '60s, as the league ERA jumped up from 2.98 in '68 to 3.61 in '69. The league's batting average rose from .237 to .248, and again to .254 in 1970. Thus was it proved that a lower mound can level a playing field.
But today's playing field isn't in dire need of leveling, and I wouldn't expect to see a lower mound even if a more level playing field is needed in the future. Proposing the idea would be easy. Making it happen would be anything but.
So here's hoping you enjoy pitching. It's going to go away when the baseball gods intend before it goes away when the league intends.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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