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May 14, 2014 at 9:15 pm ET
Raising the Point of Lowering the Mound

Another young arm is slated for Tommy John surgery, and we have to do something.

In the wake of Jose Fernandez’s injury, SI.com writer Tom Verducci says what needs to be said: “The idea that careful professional workload is the gold standard of prevention — the ‘saving bullets’ theory — seems much too simple now. It’s not working.”

Clearly, he’s 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 isn’t 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.

I’m 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 “the stress of violent pitching” is for MLB “to lower the mound — and for the entire amateur market to follow its lead.” 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 pitchers’ arms now, wouldn’t 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 don’t know. At least, that information isn’t in Verducci’s article. Examining how things went after the mound was lowered by one third would be helpful.

“There happens to be another compelling reason to lower the mound besides saving the elbows of pitchers,” Verducci writes. “The game needs offense.”

See, that’s 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. Everybody’s bringing in a succession of fireballers and making late-inning comebacks harder. Games are longer and more boring.

I’m 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 Verducci’s 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. “So 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,” Verducci writes.

Are today’s hitters doing nothing but whiffing at fastballs and pinging weak liners around the infield once the bullpen emptying commences? I don’t 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 would’ve been last year’s second worst. Late-inning heroics don’t happen all the time, but they don’t 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 Verducci’s contention. But we aren’t given that statistic, so we don’t 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. Wouldn’t 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 we’d 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. Can’t do much about that.

Here’s what we can do to help pitchers without lowering the mound and turning the game into softball BP.

Don’t let kids throw breaking balls until, I don’t 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-don’t-you-challenge-me junk. Give them more time to learn and grow in the minors.

While you’re at it, MLB, make your umpires call high strikes. Oops – that’ll boost strikeouts even more. But maybe not, if pitchers aren’t 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 don’t think it’ll solve more problems than it causes.

But at least he identified a key problem: waiting too long to protect pitchers. So let’s keep talking about it until something is done.

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2 Responses to “Raising the Point of Lowering the Mound”
  1. Red Sox Fan says:

    Fascinating topic if only because there’s no clear answer. I wish I had something clever to offer but I don’t. I hurt my arm throwing curve balls too early (age 13) and later they clamped down on it in my town (so I heard). That was the last time I pitched but I did learn to play ping pong (tiny tennis) left handed in the meantime.

    The dynamics of the different solutions all have the opportunity to backfire. If all your competition (you pick the age group) is throwing slower then you’re the star if you throw faster. If the mound is lower then pitchers may just try to chuck the ball even harder to make up for it not wanting to give up more runs than the year before.

    I agree that teaching better mechanics is a great path to take. We all know throwing overhand is unnatural to begin with. And none of us understand biomechanics or even know what term to use (I don’t! Is it biomechanics?). My yoga experience tells me that we’re born to do certain things and we spend the rest of our life doing them the wrong way and then having to learn what we should have known in the beginning. Everything seems natural if you’ve done it long enough until someone points out you’re doing it wrong and then you learn.

    Another alternative is pushing the mound back a little closer to second base. I suspect that way we could keep the current arm angles which may be better than pitching on a smaller mound – imagine throwing off a flat surface and you get the idea. But then the pitcher would throw harder to try to make up for it – or the pitchers who can’t throw hard will try to use more curve balls and hurt their arm.

    I think we should just let the batter hit the ball out of his hand – as long as he calls which field he’s hitting to. :-)

  2. Wayne Laufert says:

    The temptation to throw harder is always going to be there, especially if the short-term results are good. Maybe the situation would improve if more pitchers who CAN’T throw 90-plus mph make it to the big leagues and have success. The first part, at least, would require a change in the mindset of MLB teams’ decision makers. After that, it would be up to the pitchers. Success breeds imitation.

    Who makes that first move, though?

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