April 15, 2021

MLB To Test Moving Mound Back 12 Inches In The Independent Atlantic League This Summer); A "Double-Hook" DH Rule (Lose The DH When You Pull Your Starter) Will Also Be Instituted

I step away from the internet for two fucking days and come back to discover MLB (in its infinite lack of wisdom) has found yet another way to tinker with the intimate foundations of the game and dream up a new gimmick for absolutely no good reason.

Back in 2019, MLB formed a partnership with the independent Atlantic League, which agreed to act as a testing ground for various ideas and rules MLB was interested in trying out. Two new rules will be implemented this summer: the pitching rubber will be moved back one foot (to 61 feet, 6 inches) and a "double-hook" designated hitter will be employed. The season begins May 27.

The "double-hook" DH means that when a team pulls its starting pitcher, it will also lose the DH. The team will morph from an American League team into a National League team and will thereafter have to allow its pitcher to bat or send up a pinch-hitter. I cannot see any real reason to institute this rule, other than to stifle strategy by strongly discouraging teams from using "openers". There could also be an additional risk of injury if teams push starting pitchers to throw more innings so as to keep the DH.

Moving the pitching rubber to 61 feet, 6 inches, will be implemented only in the second half of the Atlantic League's 2021 season. The league had planned to move the mound back two feet in 2019, but abandoned the idea.

MLB's press release stated that the speed of the average fastball increased 1.7 mph since 2010 (91.6 to 93.3). Supposedly, a batter's reaction time on a 93.3 mph pitch thrown from 61 feet, six inches is roughly identical to his reaction time on a 91.6 mph pitch thrown from 60 feet, six inches.

My first reaction to all of this is wholly negative, as you might expect. The distance of the pitching rubber from the plate has remained constant for the last 129 years. The height of the mound was officially lowered after the 1968 season, but that has been the only change in well over a century. These are field dimensions that are carved in stone, relatively speaking, and I find it difficult to believe the game has changed so radically and irretrievably that such measures must be taken.

ESPN reported that after the National League moved the rubber back five feet before the 1893 season, batting average increased from .245 to .280 and strikeouts dropped from 8.5% to 5.2%.

The total number of strikeouts have set a record for the last 12 consecutive full seasons. There have been more strikeouts than hits in each of the past three full seasons, something that had never happened  even once in major league history.

The Washington Post spoke with "one of the people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to freely detail the private sessions". MLB has been internally discussing altering the distance from the mound to home plate for years, but until now has felt the decision was too radical. Now, MLB executives have

reached the conclusion that the things that drew us to the game in the first place are being eclipsed by absolute outcomes and, frankly, people find it boring. Batters will hit the ball more frequently, and that's really the root of what we're doing here. . . . We kept coming back to the fact that we can try to change four or five things — and we're going to — to try to nudge the game in the right direction and get more contact back. But we'd probably be negligent if we didn't at least try the one solution that, while we were calling it radical, might in and of itself be the solution.

Ben Lindbergh wrote a lengthy and thought-provoking article for The Ringer last month: "The Mound Is Too Damn Close". I need to read it (and others) to have something other than a knee-jerk reaction. (Just because MLB has had an alarming number of asinine ideas in recent years does not automatically mean this suggestion is also worthless.)

The rationale for moving the mound back is simple: Modern pitchers are much taller and throw far harder than 19th-century pitchers. Thus, their pitches are being released closer to home plate and flying faster toward their targets, which means that today's hitters have less time to react. . . .

The current pitching distance was set less than a decade after full overhand deliveries were first permitted and hitters lost the right to specify whether they wanted pitches high or low. Pitchers have been throwing from 60 feet, 6 inches since long before integration and internationalization; before the rise of relief pitching and an invasion of one-inning arms; before the advent of weight training and scientific velocity development; before recent advances in injury prevention and treatment; before the invention of velocity-tracking technology and the subsequent quantification of (and fixation on) the value of throwing hard.

And also before the player population experienced a growth spurt. Modern MLB pitchers, weighted by workload, are almost 6-foot-3, on average, more than 4 inches taller than they were in 1893.

Taller pitchers generally have longer limbs, which allow them to stride and extend their arms farther forward. According to Statcast extension data provided by Baseball Prospectus, MLB pitchers from 2017 to 2020 released the ball 6.15 feet in front of the rubber, on average, or less than 54.5 feet from the plate. . . . The momentum-generating mechanics of today's flexible and ultra-athletic pitchers likely also give them greater extension than 19th-century moundsmen even on an inch-per-inch basis. . . .

Granted, position players have gotten more talented too, and air-oriented launch angles have allowed them to lift the lively ball enough to prop up scoring. But sharper eyesight and swifter reactions aren't enough to help hitters compensate for faster pitch speeds and stop contact from cratering. They haven’t yet benefited from tech-aided training to the extent that their pitcher opponents have, and pitchers are poised to take advantage of new advances in pitch design and biomechanics. The velocity surge has leveled off lately, as has pitcher height. But absent intervention, MLB would be stuck with its powerful-pitcher problem, just as the NHL would with its big-goalie problem and the PGA would with its big-golfer problem. . . . But when athletes outgrow their environments in a way that leads to less entertainment, there's an obvious solution: Make their jobs more difficult . . .

Although [Chris] Young [hired as the Rangers' general manager in December, but before that, he worked as an executive at MLB, joining the league office as vice president of on-field operations, initiatives, and strategy in May 2018 and rising to senior vice president in charge of on-field operations and umpiring in February 2020] acknowledges that some fans, players, and media members are loath to tinker with a tradition that dates back almost 130 years—why mess with supposed perfection?—he points out that despite the longstanding continuity in pitching distance, "We're not playing the same game that has been played historically. I know that there's a nostalgia attached to 60 feet, 6 inches, but I think that the style of the play is probably more important than the distance between home plate and the pitcher's mound."

The league's style of play has become increasingly contact-averse. Hitters struck out in 23.4 percent of all plate appearances last season . . . The K rate has climbed slowly but fairly steadily since the beginning of major league baseball, plateauing or receding only when steps were taken to restrain it. . . .

Moving the mound back, in isolation, would do nothing to address some of the others [issues]: an expansion of the strike zone, accelerated by a tech-aided adherence to the rulebook zone and a data-driven cultivation of catcher framing; an analytics-fueled reduction of the stigma surrounding offensive strikeouts, enabled by the epiphanies that strikeouts aren't any more damaging, on average, than other types of outs, and that they sometimes go hand in hand with patience and power; the low-drag ball that makes it more rewarding for hitters to swing for the fences (as does the shift, albeit only when lefties are up); and teams' efforts to prevent hitters from facing the same pitcher three or four times in a game.

But blunting the velocity advantage would be a big step, and moving the rubber back by, say, 2 feet would have a meaningful effect on pitches' perceived speeds. When I visited this topic for the first time almost seven years ago—during the 2014 season, when the strikeout rate cracked 20 percent—I asked Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a decorated expert on the physics of baseball, to calculate the effect on flight time of moving the mound back. According to Nathan’s equations, a 95 mph pitch released at 57 feet would have the same flight time as a 91.7 mph pitch released at 55 feet.

Thrown from 2 feet farther back than usual, that 95 mph pitch would fly for about 15 more milliseconds before reaching the plate—a roughly 4 percent increase in travel time. But because batters can only observe a pitch for about half of its roughly 400-millisecond total flight time before deciding to swing—after that, it's too late for the hitter to process and apply any new information—Nathan says the increase in useful observation time is actually about twice the increase in flight time, or approximately 8 percent in this scenario. That doesn't sound enormous, but it would hand hitters back much of the reaction time that pitchers have whittled away in the 21st century. . . .

A front-office analyst who asked not to be named comes down on the side of increased offense. "I think added reaction time will help hitters more than pitchers," the analyst says. "I think pitchers would really struggle to throw bigger breaking balls for strikes depending on the distance." The analyst adds that prior proprietary research suggests that subtracting 2 feet of pitcher extension, all else being equal, is probably worth about .003 runs per pitch in favor of the batter. In this case, all else wouldn't be equal—pitch movement would be slightly augmented—so the benefit to the batter might be more like .002 runs per pitch, which would boost scoring by about .25 or .30 runs per team per game. (The analyst adds that the three true outcomes could still increase if hitters adopted more uppercut-oriented swings to launch pitches on more negative approach angles.)

Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute and a consultant to MLB, also suspects that moving the mound back would help hitters. "The extra break is going to be an extra challenge," he concedes, "but I think the extra time would be beneficial." And Young believes that moving the mound back is the best way to address the strikeout's ascendance.

All of these parties are experts on pitching, physics, or both. Not all of them agree. So how do we decide what the true effect would be? "The only way to know for sure is to test it," Boddy says.

1 comment:

Dr. Jeff said...

Maybe moving the mound back will help the umpires call balls and strikes more accurately.

Maybe they should keep the proportions the same in the infield while moving the mound back. 2' out of 60.5' is a 3.3% change. If you make the base paths proportionally longer, you would get a distance of 93' between bases.