Would Moving the Mound Back Be Baseball's Worst Rule Experiment?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2019

This is the view from behind the pitcher's mound at McKechnie Field, spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., Monday, Feb. 10, 2014.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Baseball, like all sports, must evolve to survive. Rule changes and strategic tweaks are as necessary as they are inevitable.

That said, there are limits. There are bad ideas.

Moving the pitcher's mound back seems like one of them.

In case you missed it, the independent Atlantic League—in concert with MLB—will implement a number of rule changes. These will reportedly include the use of an automated strike zone and moving the mound back an undisclosed distance, though the Atlantic League declined to confirm any specifics, per J.J. Cooper of Baseball America.

As Cooper noted, "the Atlantic League, which is full of veteran pitchers, many of whom have MLB experience, will give MLB an opportunity to try out a rather significant change with high-caliber players."

"We've been talking a lot to our clubs and to the Players Association about changes to rules on the field," MLB senior vice president of league economics and operations Morgan Sword told Cooper. "We have prototypes of new equipment we want to see in action. Our group thought it was better to see them [tested] in an unaffiliated baseball league. It gives us an opportunity to test some of these things in regular-season competition."

The "robo umpire" is an intriguing notion we've highlighted before. Depending on how it's rolled out, it has merit.

"Baseball players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings," former big leaguer and robo-ump proponent Eric Byrnes told me in July 2016. "They used to take trains across the country instead of airplanes. They used to not have lights and not play night games. It's a simple progression."

Moving the mound back even by a foot or two, however, may not be progress. In fact, it could be a counterproductive disaster.

Granted, we're talking about an independent league trial run. It's not as if this is coming to a big league ballpark near you. But based on Cooper's report, baseball's higher-ups are clearly weighing the option.

The Tommy John epidemic has leveled off. According to data gathered by FanGraphs' Jon Roegele, 143 minor and major league players underwent the procedure in 2015. That figure fell to 122 in 2016, 100 in 2017 and 84 in 2018.

San Francisco Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto was one of 84 MLB and MiLB pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2018.
San Francisco Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto was one of 84 MLB and MiLB pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2018.Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Still, it's a significant issue that curtails and sometimes ends the careers of pitchers at all levels. And now, just as it seems to be abating, MLB reportedly wants to experiment with guys throwing from a longer distance, potentially putting even more strain on their arms and elbows?

So we arrive at baseball's velocity obsession. Pitchers who tickle 100 mph are all the rage in today's game, but radar-gun-singeing fastballs and arm injuries are at least tangentially connected.

In 2015, the Hardball Times' Jeff Zimmerman did an analysis of pitchers who averaged 96 mph or more. He found they had a 27.7 percent chance of hitting the disabled list the following season, compared to a 15.2 percent chance for pitchers who averaged between 90 and 93 mph and an 11.2 percent chance for pitchers who averaged between 87 and 90 mph.

That's not irrefutable evidence, but it strongly suggests throwing harder begets more injuries. Therefore, it stands to reason, moving the mound back could exacerbate arm problems.

The 60'6" mound was established in 1893. It's one of the game's oldest norms. MLB lowered the mound in 1968 to combat an offensive decline, but the quirky, symmetrical span between pitcher and batter has remained unaltered for 126 years.

Why tweak it now? Total strikeouts topped 40,000 for the second consecutive year in MLB last season. That's only happened twice, ever: in 2017 and in 2018. Overall, MLB has set a new strikeout record for 11 consecutive seasons.

Would moving the mound back reduce whiffs? Maybe, maybe not.

Chicago White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada led MLB with 217 strikeouts in 2018, the 11th consecutive year baseball set a new record for whiffs.
Chicago White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada led MLB with 217 strikeouts in 2018, the 11th consecutive year baseball set a new record for whiffs.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Upping the distance would give hitters more time to react to triple-digit heaters. But it might also make wipeout sliders and hammer curveballs deadlier.

"The mound being moved back will be way worse for hitters," Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball told Baseball America's Cooper. "The difference is not large from a velocity/reaction-time standpoint, but the movement difference is huge."

"Play catch with a big leaguer throwing sliders at 50 feet and then play catch at 70 feet," Boddy added. "[Catch at] 70 feet is infinitely more terrifying."

To be fair, Boddy doesn't suggest moving the mound will increase pitcher injuries. But he does seem to feel it could give pitchers an advantage, contrary to the ostensible goal of aiding hitters.

Consider MLB's other obsession, launch angle, which coincided with an all-time record 6,105 home runs in 2017. Hitters are swinging for the fences in all-or-nothing fashion. Would moving the mound back and giving them more time to size up a pitch make them do that more or less frequently?

Again, there's nothing wrong with growth and innovation, even in a game as history-steeped as baseball. Pitch clocks? Automated strike zones? A universal designated hitter? Lowering the mound again? We're all ears.

But moving the mound back, assuming this experiment moves from an Atlantic League microcosm to an MLB reality, feels drastic bordering on reckless. It seems like a "solution" that may only create more problems.

The distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate has been unchanged at the MLB level since 1893.
The distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate has been unchanged at the MLB level since 1893.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

Think about it. Pitchers who've grown accustomed to hurling from 60'6" since they exited Little League will suddenly be asked to adjust. Arm angle, stride, release point...all will have to be reworked.

To quote San Francisco Giants broadcaster and former big leaguer Duane Kuiper, speaking on KNBR's Murph & Mac, "If they move the mound, I'll quit."

Maybe there's nothing wrong with MLB testing this out in the Atlantic League. On the other hand, maybe this is a concept MLB shouldn't consider in the first place.

MLB has to evolve. Not all evolution is created equal, though, and the league may end up wishing this experiment had been cast aside like a soggy rosin bag.

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