At least eight to ten times every summer, I like to get in the car and drive to tiny villages in northwestern Wisconsin to watch community-level baseball games.
I go to places you may have heard of -- like Bruce and Tony (home of Badger Football Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard), in Rusk County, and some places you may not have – like Exeland, a wide place in the road in Sawyer County, or a couple places in Barron County – like Brill, just shy of the Blue Hills, or Haugen, a touristy village on the shore of 9,000-acre Bear Lake.
At Haugen, the well-appointed baseball diamond is equipped with three light towers for night games. One of them serves as an osprey nest, which makes for between-inning entertainment when the parents feed their squawking youngsters.
It’s at these tiny ballparks where I can still watch the game I grew up with in the late 1950s and early-to-mid 60s, a game that includes drag bunts, double steals, squeeze plays and sacrifices, hit-and-run and, on occasion, even the old hidden ball trick.
It’s a far cry from what we see in the major leagues, where power, launch angle, metrics and, sadly, strikeouts, have taken over.
Can (or should) we look for a return to the “thrilling days of yesteryear?”
Baseball writer Ben Lindbergh thinks so. In a lengthy, well-sourced and researched entry on The Ringer website, Lindbergh (whose credentials include an internship with the New York Yankees and a membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America) argues in favor of moving the pitcher’s mound farther away from home plate.
Making the case
In his March 15, 2021, online story, Lindbergh asserts that there is “some evidence (to indicate) that pushing the pitcher’s starting point back (from 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate -- where it has been since 1893) would be among the most effective and least obtrusive means of suppressing strikeouts.”
The author starts by citing three studies – one by the MLB PITCHf/x and Statcast pitch tracking system, a second by Baseball Info Solutions, and, finally, pro scout data -- all of which tracked a steady increase in average pitch speed and strikeouts.
Lindbergh even cites leaked Cincinnati Reds scouting records from 2019, which suggest that pitch speed rose substantially over the preceding decade.
The author asserts that while mound distance has remained constant for 128 years, the size, specialization, and body development of pitchers has changed radically.
And while batters have also improved, Lindbergh asserts, “sharper eyesight and swifter reactions aren’t enough to help hitters compensate for faster pitch speeds and stop contact from cratering.”
He adds: “When athletes outgrow their environments in a way that leads to less entertainment, there’s an obvious solution: Make their jobs more difficult.”
His first source is Chris Young, general manager with the Texas Rangers, and a 6-foot-10 former MLB pitcher.
Young tells Lindbergh: “With the average velocity having increased significantly over the past decade, I think at some point the dimensions have to be evaluated to see if we are physically exceeding the way the game was designed.
“Today’s athletes are bigger, faster, stronger, and you have to accommodate that to preserve the entertainment value of the game,” he adds.
The story then moves into the sanctified realm of baseball statistics, in which Lindbergh continues making his case with citations of strikeout rates, and a University of Illinois study that pairs a better hitting outcome with an “increase in useful (batter) observation time,” in terms of both fastballs and breaking pitches.
The author then delves into history, listing three increases in mound-to-plate distances in the late 19th century, before the existing, 60-foot, 6-inch measurement was adopted.
In February 2021, the Ringer asked Driveline Baseball to put a pitching machine 57 feet from the plate (instead of the standard 55 feet) to test Lindbergh’s theory. Nine collegiate hitters faced a total of 426 pitches.
The results: “the hitters collectively raised their swing rates by 3.1 percentage points, their contact rates by 4.8 percentage points, their pull rates by 6.0 percentage points, and their hard-hit rates by 16.8 percentage points when they had 2 extra feet to time their targets.”
Lindbergh notes MLB had a two-foot extension in mind for the Atlantic League as recently as March 2019, but the idea was shelved out of concern for increased pitcher injury and worker comp costs.
The story winds down by discussing a pair of studies, one that involved lowering the mound, the other increasing mound distance.
The former attributes better MLB offense after 1969 more to a shrinking strike zone, than to reduced mound height.
The latter estimates that increasing the distance made it “unlikely that moving the mound backwards would significantly affect pitching biomechanics and injury risk.”
Lindbergh concludes by discussing other challenges, such as making sure mound distance is consistent throughout the spectrum of organized baseball, persuading fans to abandon a more-than-century-old tradition, and, maybe most important, the pending renewal of the MLB-MLBPA collective bargaining agreement, which expires at the end of this year.
Let’s keep it as is
Retired high school math teacher Mike Dietrich, of rural Chetek, goes with his wife, Deb, to watch their son, Rece Dietrich, pitch for the Brill Millers each summer. A lefthander, Rece Dietrich also starred in high school and collegiate baseball at Division II Minnesota-Duluth pitched one summer for Eau Claire in the Northwoods League.
“Did you know that to be exactly halfway between home and second base is 63 feet, 7 and 11/16 inches?” the mathematician asks. “They probably moved the rubber closer to home so the third baseman could see first base straight across the square without the pitcher getting in the way.”
And, technically it is a square, not a diamond, Dietrich adds.
“It has equal sides, rather that of a diamond, which is a rhombus, a parallelogram with opposite equal acute or obtuse angles, and adjacent sides that are equal, but not necessarily all four sides equal.”
Euclidian geometry aside, Dietrich notes, the surface on which every player functions, and every fan watches, has remained virtually the same, over more than one and a quarter centuries.
Using 1960 as a base year, and researching Baseball Almanac, Dietrich found that over 59 seasons (1960-2019), there were triple-digit increases in homers and strikeouts. His findings:
•Homeruns have increased 218%
•Strikeouts increased 234%
•Hits increased 91%
•Doubles increased 143%
•Triples increased 20%
•Runs per game increased 8%.
Dietrich says his conclusions are as follows:
• “Hitters have changed their swing path to make upward contact with the ball, hence more loft, carry and home runs. People like home runs.
• “Because of this change, they swing and miss more often. I think Rob Deer starting this change,” he says.
• “Hitters still made more contact with pitchers, increases in hits, doubles, and triples.
• “Triples didn’t increase as much.
“My opinion,” Dietrich adds, is that “non-home run hitters, the base hitters, put the ball in play more down the lines or line drive hits to the gaps more than HR hitters. Hitters would rather hit home runs than triples. Easier to run the bases and fewer pulled hamstrings.”
“It appears the increase in home runs have increased the runs per game, from 4.31 in 1960 to 4.65 in 2019.
“Fans like runs,” Dietrich asserts. “It’s sort of like the 3-point shot in basketball. Has it improved the game, or should we go back to Kareem and the Sky Hook?
“I think the baseball gods seemed to get this right the first time,” Dietrich concludes. “Just like any sport, there will be GOATS and TOADS -- Greatest of All Time and Terrible on Any Day.”
Joe Waite, publications director for the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association and head baseball coach at Cumberland High School, talks about the “mystical” dimensions of the diamond.
When he played ball for the Wisconsin Baseball Association’s Weyerhaeuser Black Hens back in the 1980s, Waite recalls, a Swedish friend once asked him about measurements and distances.
“He asked me, ‘who invented (the baseball diamond)?’” Waite recalls. “He wanted to know, ‘how is it that everything was perfect all the time?’”
Waite says his answer resided, in part, within the context of what it’s like for a player as opposed to what it looks like to a fan.
“I’m a purist,” Waite says. “I might like the nets bigger in hockey, but Baseball is Perfect. It is the Elysian Fields. It has a mystique that the layperson can’t understand.”
As player skills are discovered, nurtured, honed and developed, Waite thinks, the case for keeping things the same gets even stronger.
“Like a hot (hockey) goalie, a hot pitcher can control the game,” he says. “But most of them will leave one hanging, even if they were throwing nothing but seeds and cheese up to that point. Good high school hitters can hit good high school pitchers. Good pro hitters can hit good pro pitchers.”
Let’s experiment with it
Taking a somewhat different point of view is retired Barron, Wis., High School baseball coach and WBCA Hall of Fame member, Arlyn Colby.
“I’ve always been amazed at how a major league baseball player can hit a baseball at all,” he says. “In a split second, you must adjust to the height of the pitch, the width, the speed, and the spin. And you need be able to get out of the way if the pitch is at you!”
But, Colby allows, there is the viewpoint of the people outside the lines.
“I am a typical baseball fan,” he says. “It looks so easy on TV and it looks like it ‘takes a while’ for the pitch to get to the batter, when in reality, it is a split second.”
In view of the rising strikeout rate, “moving the mound back probably would help, but I don’t know how much,” Colby says. The emphasis now is on Earl Weaver’s philosophy (of pitching, defense, and three-run homers). And where it would take three singles to produce a run, one swing can get you that run.
“So, MLB teams are willing to forego the Red Schoendienst or Nellie Fox hitters and get a big bomber, and I can’t really blame them, although it certainly takes away the game we grew up with,” he adds.
Getting to the truth of the matter could require some experimentation, Colby thinks.
“Would moving the mound back help batting averages? Or would it just mean that it would be easier for the hitters to see/hit the ball for a home run?” he asks.
“Would pitchers have more trouble throwing strikes? On the major league level, it may not change much, but if this was extended to lower-level ball and amateur ball, where pitchers have trouble throwing strikes now, it might be a real problem.
“I really like that idea of experimenting with it in the minor leagues to see what happens, like they are doing with the automatic strike indicator umpire,” Colby says.
And safety remains a concern, he adds.
“I am afraid that we are going to have some amateur player killed soon because of the hardness of the baseball, especially now that everyone (outside the majors) uses a metal bat,” Colby says.
“It’s bad enough that a ground ball hits a player in the face but a line drive back at the pitcher is going to kill someone someday,” he says.
“They now have limits on the bat, but the ball is still hard. It’s time to make a ‘softer’ baseball for everyone concerned. (And) high school pitchers should be required to wear a helmet, and maybe a face mask, like softball players do.”
Length? How about height?
Aurora, Ill., cable television station owner Terry Wido has a lot of baseball history behind him.
His late father, George Wido, was a minor leaguer who, after World War II, played ball for a South Dakota team in Great Northern League, and, later, the South Atlantic League (aka the “Sally League”) and the American Association.
“I still have a newspaper clipping of him in an All-Star game in Charleston, South Carolina,” Wido says.
Introduced to the game when his dad took him to Comiskey Park, Wido recalls chatting up Wilbur Wood one day, when his father called to the knuckleballer from the grandstand, and asked Wood about his experiences playing hockey.
As far as mound distance is concerned, Wido thinks that might be barking up the wrong tree.
True, “pitchers are bigger, taller and throw faster,” he says. “But then, why do they give up so many home runs? As my father used to say, good hitters can hit good pitchers.
“The answer has always been raising or lowering the pitcher’s mound...not moving it back,” he adds. “My father said “anyone with a bat is dangerous.”
In the 1963 pennant race, he points out, Bob Gibson was dueling Sandy Koufax, and led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth.
“Up steps the immortal (and light-hitting) Dick Nen, pinch-hitting and he hits the first pitch for a game-tying home run,” Wido says. “The Dodgers go on to win the game in extra innings and then take the next two games to sweep the series and moving into first place and ultimately win the pennant (and the World Series).”
The years 1961 and 1962 “were really hitters’ seasons,” he says. “There were record numbers of HR’s in both leagues. So they raised the pitching mound one foot, and it made a great difference. By 1968, only Carl Yastrzemski hit over .300 in the American League. The next year they lowered the mound.”
Slow it down, or speed it up?
Dave Wierzba is an engineering consultant from Weyerhaeuser, Wis., who was a star athlete in baseball at both Weyerhaeuser High School and with the Black Hens during the 1970s and 80s.
He cautions that moving the mound may have unforeseen consequences, especially the length of the games – and the limits to fan patience.
“I would agree the pitchers at the MLB level seem bigger, stronger and throw harder than years past,” he says. “However, I am not sure that MLB wants to move the mound back and give the hitters a better opportunity -- because then, the games would probably take longer. And MLB seems to want to shorten the game.”
He also speculates on whether moving the mound could increase injuries.
And “there already seems like (there are) a number of elbow injuries,” he adds.
Hitting, as a pure science, seems to be fading, according to Wierzba.
“From what I can tell, I don’t see … guys like Pete Rose, Rod Carew, George Brett, even Joe Mauer” now playing in the majors, he says. “Those guys were hitters, and they looked to put the bat on the ball,” he adds.
“Now, all I hear them talk about is launch angle. The hitters are trying to hit more home runs, so they are going to strike out more.
“I believe moving (the mound) back would also create challenges for the pitchers’ control,” Wierzba says. “It seems like some of these hard throwers already struggle with control. If they can’t control it, then there will be more walks and, again, taking up more time.”
Summing up, Wierzba confesses to having a bit of interest in Lindbergh’s proposal.
“Part of me would like to see the mound moved back six to 12 inches,” he said. “It would be interesting to see what happens! My guess, more hits, more home runs, and longer games.”
Let’s try something different
A far different approach to the problem is suggested by Bart Gosnell, varsity head baseball coach at Prairie Farm, Wis., High School.
Noting that the Lindbergh story “only speaks of strikeout rates, but doesn’t address batting averages or ERA,” Gosnell said other factors should be considered.
“The whole thing is a bait and switch,” he asserts. “(Lindbergh) assumes that if MLB makes the change, it will automatically trickle down to college and high school, when aluminum bats prove otherwise.
“If you really want to tinker with pitchers, decrease the number on the roster,” he said. “It will force each pitcher to be more durable, in effect, preventing Stephen Strasburg from being Stephen Strasburg.”
It’s evident to me (and, I’m sure, many other fans my age) that Major League Baseball isn’t much interested in what we think about today’s game.
Marketing is the science of extracting the most lucrative reaction possible from the deepest possible pockets. And, in an era in which a 22-year-old shortstop with a bum shoulder can be paid $340 million over only 14 seasons, that means maximizing the return on investment.
It’s also evident that the attention span of MLB’s prime market demographic, young adults with incomes hovering around the six-figure mark, is shorter and less-informed than it might have been as recently as a couple generations ago.
As a fan, I think these factors have played heavily into the current emphasis on power, both from the mound and the plate.
That said, I think there’s still room for the kind of game that was played by the first World Series team I can clearly remember following, the 1959 White Sox. Not much for run production, but the Go-Go Sox had the best bunter I ever saw in Nellie Fox (who was also MVP that season), and they knew how to cobble strategy (like squeeze plays, sacrifices and base stealing) together with unforeseen opportunities (like walks, wild pitches, passed balls, hit batsmen and the occasional base hit).
So, come this summer, it’s likely I will return to Haugen, Brill, and, maybe some other tiny ballparks around the North Woods, to watch that kind of game continue to be played.
If, in the meantime, MLB does choose to experiment with a more distant pitcher’s mound, or, even, a smaller pitcher roster (an intriguing idea), so much the better.
This article appears in the 2021 Edition of Baseball Wisconsin.