In the wake of Jose Fernandezâs injury, SI.com writer Tom Verducci says what needs to be said: âThe idea that careful professional workload is the gold standard of prevention — the âsaving bulletsâ theory — seems much too simple now. Itâs not working.â
Clearly, heâs right that something needs to change, if the very thing that innings limitations are supposed to prevent instead is occurring at an alarming and apparently increasing rate.
And it isnât just babying pitchers from the minors on up. As Verducci points out, the mishandling of pitchers before they turn pro or even before they reach high school is perhaps the biggest factor.
Iâm not a youth coach or a member of any whatever-age league and never played real hardball, so I have to rely on the assessments that others make about torque and angle and physical development and biomechanics and so on. Verducci cites medical studies and his own research in concluding that too many kids are throwing too hard too early.
His solution to reducing âthe stress of violent pitchingâ is for MLB âto lower the mound — and for the entire amateur market to follow its lead.â The idea is that a lower mound will result in less stress on arms and presumably fewer serious injuries.
Would that work, though? The mound was 50 percent higher than its current 10 inches when MLB had enough of microscopic ERAs and ordered the change following the 1968 season.
That was done to improve run scoring, but if decreased elevation is supposed to be better for pitchersâ arms now, wouldnât it have been better then, too? So were there fewer injuries to pitchers after that? Fewer serious elbow ligament injuries (which before TJ surgery meant the end of a career)? Fewer pitchers hit in the head with batted balls?
We donât know. At least, that information isnât in Verducciâs article. Examining how things went after the mound was lowered by one third would be helpful.
âThere happens to be another compelling reason to lower the mound besides saving the elbows of pitchers,â Verducci writes. âThe game needs offense.â
See, thatâs because strikeouts are way up, singles are way down and batting averages from the seventh to ninth innings are on a level with the worst-ever leaguewide averages for regular seasons. Everybodyâs bringing in a succession of fireballers and making late-inning comebacks harder. Games are longer and more boring.
Iâm not saying those things, Verducci is. Well, I do say games are longer, but at least some numbers demonstrate that. And I can offer the opinion that longer games on the whole are less interesting.
But Verducciâs point about late-inning offense comes down to the National League batting average being .232 in innings 7 through 9, a mark seven points lower than the worst NL full-season average, in 1908. âSo what is happening in today’s game is that the late innings have turned into a brand of offensive baseball that is worse than the deadest of the Deadball Era years,â Verducci writes.
Are todayâs hitters doing nothing but whiffing at fastballs and pinging weak liners around the infield once the bullpen emptying commences? I donât have the stats, but I doubt it. The Deadball Era, after all, was about a paucity of home runs. The best-slugging team of 1908 wouldâve been last yearâs second worst. Late-inning heroics donât happen all the time, but they donât seem rare, either.
When the NL was batting .239 in 1908, how did it do in the late innings? Better, because there were no hard-throwing specialists, right? I guess so, and that would help prove Verducciâs contention. But we arenât given that statistic, so we donât know.
Lowering the mound, as Verducci points out, would lead to more offense. That would mean more pitchers being used per game and therefore more of them throwing more often and in comparatively more stressful situations. Wouldnât that increase injury risk?
Do we want to go back to the big-bashing days of the Steroid Era (which, incidentally, ended a few years ago forever and ever)?
Games would be even longer, and even more pitchers would be run through the grinder. So less offense is a better idea. Not much less than we have now, but less than weâd have with, say, a five-inch mound.
Many more factors affect the way big-league pitchers are used, like expansion (which coincided with the change in 1969), minor-league preparation and strike zone size.
Oh, and money. Always the money. Canât do much about that.
Hereâs what we can do to help pitchers without lowering the mound and turning the game into softball BP.
Donât let kids throw breaking balls until, I donât know, high school. Throw more often, but more slowly. Teach and enforce proper mechanics. Educate coaches. Regulate it. Show how pitchers raised this way go on to more success and fewer ligament tears than those who go all out all the time from Little League on. Assuming they do, that is. Get on it, you folks who know a lot more about youth ball than I do.
Stretch ligaments over time by gradually building up speed at the college and pro levels.
Draft, sign and value pitchers who get batters out with changeups, properly developed curveballs and why-donât-you-challenge-me junk. Give them more time to learn and grow in the minors.
While youâre at it, MLB, make your umpires call high strikes. Oops â thatâll boost strikeouts even more. But maybe not, if pitchers arenât throwing as hard.
Look, Verducci made an important contribution to this discussion. He just left out a few useful facts. His primary recommendation might or might not be supportable. I donât think itâll solve more problems than it causes.
But at least he identified a key problem: waiting too long to protect pitchers. So letâs keep talking about it until something is done.