In the subsequent two seasons, run-scoring soared to the point that A.J. Flanner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared: “The monotonous strike out game has been legislated into a reminiscence.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write the same sentence now?
Sporting arenas have their hallowed numbers. A football field is 100 yards long (sorry, Canada). A basketball hoop is 10 feet off the floor. And the pitcher’s rubber is 60 feet 6 inches from the back tip of home plate.
It might be time to rethink that.
With an important 2021 season about to open, there’s no change to which baseball shouldn’t be open as it tries to liven up what has become a too-dull game. As the nation tries to put the coronavirus pandemic away for good and as all 30 clubs welcome at least a couple thousand fans back to ballparks, there’s an opportunity for this summer to be celebratory. Imagine returning to a stadium with your buddies or your kids, showing your vaccination card, grabbing a hot dog and a beer and booing the opposing team’s right fielder from the bleachers without wearing a mask. Almost brings a tear to the eye.
But with fans eager to gather, there’s an onus on the sport to present an exciting product — not just this summer but well into the future. So it’s time to legislate the monotonous strike out game into a reminiscence.
The background is this, and it can’t be discussed often enough: 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. This isn’t small-sample-size stuff. The trends are well established, and you can almost feel the breeze from the swings and misses when you walk into the park.
But another, more radical idea is out there, too: moving the pitcher’s rubber farther from home plate so the hitters have a fighting chance.
Such a suggestion is, at some level, heresy. But the fact of the matter is that 21st-century baseball players have outgrown the field on which they play. As Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer pointed out in a piece this spring, the 90 feet between bases — which actually predates 60 feet 6 inches — has remained pure because even as runners have gotten faster, the arm strength and range of infielders have increased, too, so the balance between offense and defense can still exist.
That’s not the case between the pitcher and the hitter. Baseball, it has long been noted, is the rare sport in which the defense holds the ball. The defense, right now, is hurling that ball at unprecedented speeds. That’s affecting the entire sport. Peel away the layers of baseball’s onion, and velocity is at the core of any and all problems.
Back in 2005, when the historic rise in strikeouts began, the average fastball came in at 90.1 mph, according to FanGraphs data. The past two summers, that average was up to 93.1 mph, higher than ever. And it’s not just fastballs. Sliders are harder. Curveballs are harder.
Hitters have less time to react across the board. Fastball velocity is measured at a point very near where the pitcher releases it, and because of drag, it slows as it makes its way to the plate — perhaps 10 percent, according to scientists.
But for the sake of argument here, a fastball that averaged 90.1 mph from the time it left the pitcher’s hand till the time it crosses the plate would get there in 0.4578 seconds. Add 3 mph to that average — which makes it the average fastball in 2020 — and it arrives 0.0147 seconds faster. In a world in which hitters must evaluate pitches for velocity, location and movement and then make decisions on whether and where to swing, even such a seemingly imperceptible amount of time matters.
But really, moving the rubber back? That sounds so fundamental, so … unnatural.
I have talked with people on both sides of this issue. Some think a move goes too far, that there are alternatives that don’t offend the traditionalists and mess with pitchers’ minds and bodies — not to mention necessitate moving thousands of rubbers at high school and rec fields across the country. Others believe that because pitchers are bigger and stronger than ever before, they will only continue to throw harder and balance between offense and defense will never be regained. Plus, you’re only talking about a foot — or potentially less — and there’s more than that much variance in how deep a catcher sets up behind the plate, so pitchers really shouldn’t be bothered by a target that’s slightly further away.
Which brings us to another, perhaps more palatable alternative that could rein in the effects of rising velocity and restore more action to the game: the strike zone. The sneaky important experiment in the minor leagues could be the electronic strike zone that will be tested in the Class A Southeast League.
The idea of redefining what a strike is — eliminating the high fastball and the low breaking ball that can be more easily framed as strikes by catchers — would be less offensive for fans, particularly those watching on television. Draw a strike zone on the screen, and the pitch is either in it or not. That would allow the sport to dial back the area hitters have to protect, perhaps mitigating the overwhelming velocity and creating more contact.
Keep in mind, too, that despite baseball’s reputation as being slow to adapt — or honoring tradition, depending on your perspective — the sport did respond to a lack of offense in the late 1960s by lowering the mound from a maximum of 15 inches to a uniform 10 inches. The change worked. In 1968, the major league average was .237. The following year, after the tweak, that average rose to .248. By 1975, it reached .258. More action!
Every Opening Day brings a measure of anticipation. This one, though — after a season that started too late and didn’t last long enough, after no fans attended any regular season games — well, we all need what’s about to start.
But in embracing the dawn of this new season and the hope for normalcy that it represents, baseball has to be mindful of its deeply rooted flaws and consider anything and everything that might fix them. If the best change involves altering a number that is etched in the sport’s granite — well, get out the chisel, and start a new slab.