It was the ’90s, and the pitching was so dominant that MLB decided it needed to move the mound back a bit to give hitters a better chance. So they did it in ’93, and it dramatically reversed the state of the game, with scoring spiking and strikeout rates plummeting.
What, you don’t remember this? That’s because it was 1893, the last time MLB moved the pitching mound. It has stood at 60 feet, 6 inches from the batter ever since. The players and stuff and velocity have evolved for 128 YEARS, but the distance to home plate has always stayed the same. The game has become an increasing dance between pitchers with a greater and greater ability to miss bats, and hitters who say eff it and figure they might as well swing for power, knowing the outcomes might be a strikeout, a walk, or a homer anyway. That served only to FURTHER increase whiffs, and it’s just been a self-feeding cycle ever since about 2005.
“Strikeout rates have risen each and every season since 2005, and that has resulted in fewer balls put in play, which has significantly decreased the action. Back then, 16.4 percent of plate appearances ended in a whiff. Last season, that rate was up to 23.4 percent. In 2005, hitters produced 13,347 more hits than strikeouts, and K’s had never outpaced base hits. In 2018, that finally flipped, and last summer, even in a shortened 60-game season, the sport recorded 1,147 more strikeouts than hits.”
Like most in the game, I think this is a serious long-term problem for the sport, given all the inactivity and dead time it creates. But despite my intro to this post, I hadn’t really been all that on board with moving the mound back as a key solution. It’s not that I didn’t think about it, but I suppose I got stuck in that “oh wow, that’s so dramatic” zone, and I also probably hadn’t thought about the fact that the mound had been in the same spot for 128 years despite players getting so much bigger, stronger, faster with their pitches.
I might be coming around now.
As he so often does, Theo Epstein articulates the best version of an explanation behind wanting to move the mound back a little bit. This definitely nudges me toward buying in (The Athletic):
On why he’d now consider moving back the mound: “I think it’s impossible to talk about how to restore the right balance between modern pitchers and modern hitters without giving consideration to the dimensions. And I don’t even think that you need to (move it back) 2 feet. To learn a lot about potential solutions, I think even if you did half that amount, if you move the mound back a foot, you would give hitters an extra 100th of a second (to react). … And that 100th of a second corresponds to basically like a tick and a half of velocity. Which would sort of mean that you’re restoring velocity to where it was maybe eight to 10 years ago, when the contact rate was a little bit better, the strikeout rate was a little bit more under control. So it would certainly be a worthwhile experiment.”
I hadn’t considered the EXPLICIT relationship between the mound distance and the average velocity – move it X amount to reduce effective velocity by Y amount – and that’s pretty compelling to me. Yeah, you’d have to sort out how pitchers would adjust their control and command, and it would also impact the way pitchers use their breaking pitches to various locations. But gut says, the impact on pitchers being able to still work their pitches where they want – it’s only a foot – would be a lot less than the impact to batters in being able to make more contact.