Baseball is a game steeped in history and tradition. The National League started up in 1876 and the American League in 1901 — and it’s a testament to baseball’s attachment to custom that interleague play didn’t arrive until 1997. Half the fun of being a serious baseball fan is fighting change.
This season, though, baseball will experiment with an idea that may cause purists to incur dental damage gnashing their teeth. The Atlantic League, an independent minor league affiliated with Major League Baseball, will move the pitcher’s mound back a foot — increasing the distance from the rubber to home plate to 61 feet and 6 inches.
This audacious step is a response to trends that some fans find regrettable. As pitchers have increased their average velocity, strikeouts have soared with twice as many in 2019 (the last full season) as in 1980. As analytic advances have spurred hitters to try to reach the fences rather than settle for singles, the number of home runs has also doubled in the past three decades.
The number of batters who reach base by drawing walks or being hit by pitches has also risen. The overall result is that nearly one-third of plate appearances end without a ball being put into play — which has the effect of reducing fielders to expensive lawn ornaments.
All this means less action for fans to watch. It may not be a coincidence that total attendance at major league games fell every season from 2016 through 2019.
You can’t make pitchers throttle back. You can’t make hitters slap the ball the other way. You can’t force managers to order steals when they deem the risks excessive. But you can make changes that could elicit more action on the field.
After the 1968 season, in reaction to excessive dominance by pitchers, MLB lowered the mound and shrank the strike zone. In 1973, the American League excused pitchers from the generally hopeless task of batting, turning that duty over to designated hitters.
In 2014, runners were barred from smashing into catchers at home plate. In 2016, MLB adopted new rules to prevent base runners from bowling over infielders trying to make double plays.
The 60-feet, 6-inch distance from mound to plate, however, has always seemed sacrosanct, like the 90-feet span between bases — which legendary sports writer Red Smith said “may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.”
Pitchers will doubtless resist the move, with a plausible fear of more arm injuries. As for attendance, the average baseball game draws some 11,000 more spectators than the average NBA game, even though basketball has far more action. And it’s always possible that the extra foot won’t prove to help hitters.
The people in charge of the game, however, fear that velocity and other changes are warping the way baseball is played. As an anonymous MLB official told The Washington Post, “We kept coming back to the fact that we can try to change four or five things. … 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.”
Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, told The New York Times that “the rules aren’t written on stone tablets.”
They’re not? If nothing else, the experiment will give fans something to argue about. Which is not a bad way to pass the time between home runs.
— Chicago Tribune