Pitching Change

As pitchers and catchers prepare to report for spring training, I have spent some time examining what the game has become in recent years. It turns out, I was much happier in my ignorance. Under our noses, the game has become the antithesis of the Balco juiceball era. Pitching is dominant and runs seem to be at a 40 year low—I have spent literally no time researching this claim, hence the word ‘seem.’ Regardless, something must be done to balance the game out.

This winter, baseball’s rule making body kicked around various ideas designed to cull the pitcher’s advantage. They ranged from ridiculous—legislating the defensive shift completely out of the game—to the overly corrective—shrinking the strike zone.

Before continuing, let me address my bias on these two proposals. Removing the defensive shift handcuffs the defense and introduces rigidity into a fluid part of the game. Players have developed tendencies and preferred positioning on defense; telling them where to stand is a bad idea. Plus, the defense isn’t the cause of reduced scoring. The shift existed in the steroid era and scoring wasn’t an issue. It has not suddenly developed into an overpowering element bordering on the unfair—that would be pitching.

Shrinking the strike zone is the baseball equivalent of fishing with dynamite—effective, but literally overkill. The problem with modifying the strike zone lies not in the adjustment pros will need to make, but in the impact down the line to other levels of baseball. Generally speaking, baseball has fairly uniform constraints on the strike zone across leagues. Changing the zone will force changes down to the little league level; otherwise, new players will need to be phased into the new zone by means of a progressive narrowing in the minor league levels. This would still deliver shocks to athletes during each progression in the minors. Also, this is hardly a surgical change directed at pitchers, as hitters will need to adjust to the new zone—not even taking into account the impact on umpires.

Baseball needs to change rules as to take from the pitcher and deliver to the batter. Two ways to tackle this precisely are 1) shave the bump or 2) move the mound back by modifying the infield dimensions. They could even increase the size of the ball slightly, but let’s not get carried away just yet.

‘Shaving the bump’ is a colloquial baseball idiom that means reducing the height of the mound. Many do not realize that a baseball pitcher is actually throwing downhill towards the plate. The pitcher’s mound is raised 10 inches above the rest of the field. Without getting into the physics too much, this grants additional leverage which results in fastballs with higher velocities and breaking balls with higher torque which begets higher RPM.

Reducing the height of the mound by 30-40% would directly correlate to a drop in velocity and torque. These drops would likely resemble percentages an order of magnitude smaller than the height reduction. Using simple numbers, a 3-4% drop in velocity would amount to roughly 2.5 to 3.5 mph off the average starter’s fastball. Taking a breaking ball into account and assuming the same reduction applies to effective break, the total distance on a breaking ball would be reduced by less than half an inch—based on an estimate of average break distance of ten inches.

Modifying the dimensions of the infield presents a much more major change than shaving the bump. Obviously, the thrust of the change is to “hurt” the pitcher, however, we should avoid swinging the pendulum too far back to the offensive side, if possible. The pitcher’s plate is currently 60 feet, 6 inches from the back point of home plate. In this case, a 30-40% change would amount to pitches being delivered to a plate 80 feet away. So, the magnitude of the change would need to be lower.

Let’s assume the plate gets dropped back to 71 feet, 6 inches. We can also assume that the pitchers will throw at the same initial velocity—because if they throw harder, they tire sooner and that isn’t part of this examination.

As with any projectile, the longer it travels, the more drag it endures and the slower it gets. For instance, in rifle ballistics, a bullet may only drop one inch over 100 yards and hit with velocity of 2,000 feet per second, but shoot it 200, it drops eight inches and the velocity drops to 1,200 fps.

The same premise applies to a baseball. The trajectory would be different, and the endpoint velocity would drop. Let’s assume this drops 2 mph off fastballs and, because balls would need to be thrown with a more severe trajectory, half an inch of break off breaking balls.

Obviously, these numbers are purely speculative, and any change would need to be examined thoroughly. Still, slower fastballs and shorter breaks, however slight, directly benefit the batter. Less effort would be required to “catch up” to fastballs and curveballs and sliders would be more reachable at their terminal point. Good offensive players do not need massive adjustments to improve; therefore, baseball should be slow and deliberate when fine tuning the game.

The writing is on the wall for the modern game. Scoring is severely depressed because of dominant pitching. No offense to these great pitchers, but the game needs a modicum of symmetry between great offense and great defense; moreover, baseball ought to regularly examine and modify the living game in order to foster the best environment possible for players and managers.

Must Read: xkcd What-If: Relativistic Baseball


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