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March 7, 2012

Wezen-Ball

Pitcher's Mound Too Close?

by Larry Granillo

Nineteen-sixty-eight was famously "The Year of the Pitcher", when Bob Gibson set the major league record for ERA at 1.12 and the league ERA was a measly 2.98. The scoring environment so heavily favored the pitcher that year, in fact, that baseball immediately made changes to the rules in order to increase scoring in 1969.

But 1968 wasn't a single-year anomaly. In 1967, for example, the league ERA was only slightly higher at 3.30. The league batting average wasn't much different, either, with the 1967 hitters batting .242 to the 1968ers' .237. The OPS's were similarly close, at .664 for 1967 and .639 for 1968. This was also the year that Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown with only a .326 batting average (only three other American Leaguers managed averages over .300). To understate the obvious: it was a pitcher-friendly era.

Unsurprisingly, baseball writers and spectators at the time tried their best to explain this phenomenon. Joseph Durso, writing for the New York Times under the "Sports of the Times" heading, had one such hypothesis:

Is home plate too close to the pitcher's mound? Are boys growing so tall, so strong and so powerful that the 60 1/2 foot distance is as outdated as the 10-foot-high basket, the 4-minute mile, the 7-foot high jump and the 30-yard field goal? Is that why pitchers dominate baseball, why only two batters in the American League reached .300 last year?

Durso and the players he talked to reached for explanations for this:

"In basketball," says Steve Hamilton of the Yankees, "the 10-foot basket is lower today, relatively speaking. We even have a guy at Morehead College in Kentucky who can stuff the ball over his head backwards - and he's only 6-1."
...
"A longer distance might even help my low-breaking stuff break lower. But that's not the whole story. No pitcher throws a ball exactly 60 feet 6 inches."

But not everybody was buying the theory. Hal Reniff, "the new superman of the New York Mets", said:

"The hitters are bigger and stronger, true. And they're quicker with those bats, which are lighter. But the gloves behind the pitchers are better, and there are more players with more talent than before - especially pitchers."

Phil Rizzuto had a more direct theory:

"The fault...is the batter's. Everybody pays off on pitchers, in the Little Leagues, the Babe Ruth Leagues, the school leagues. The biggest kid pitches and the other kids are overpowered and never learn to hit. Then later the batters all try to hit home runs.

"Yes, the pitching distance is too close, but the real reason is that the hitters haven't kept pace. They just haven't learned their skills the way the pitchers have."

Frank Lane, the "impresario of half a dozen front offices", agreed with Rizzuto.

"One year...the Washington Senators had Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jim Lemon and Roy Sievers all popping home runs - and they still lost 18 straight games. Home runs can ruin more batters. They give away 50 points on their batting averages for a few home runs."

Lane then offered a great example of just how passionately he believed in this anti-home run philosophy.

"Once I signed Rocky Colavito to a contract at Cleveland that guaranteed him $1,000 extra if he failed to hit 30 home runs. We traded him to Detroit and Rocky reminded the Tigers of the nonhomer clause in his contract. So they paid him the $1,000 immediately and told him swing away."

In the end, Durso and his pals don't seem to believe the hypothesis ("Maybe the distance to home plate is still fair, but the pitchers already have "shortened" it by their strength and skill."), instead settling for a "pitchers are too good and hitters try too hard" mentality. Of course, only one season later, MLB decided to lower the mounds (and enforce the mound height-limits) in order to give the advantage back to hitters. Maybe Durso was onto something after all.

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