Pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training will find that baseball’s elevator has not yet moved the mound. The operative word here is “yet.”
After being lowered 5 inches in 1969, the mound could be headed in the other direction after major league general managers, perhaps tired of watching singles hitters turn into sluggers, asked the rules committee to raise it from the current 10 inches to 13 inches.
The theory is, this will fine-tune the balance between pitchers and hitters, which seems out of whack after a record 4,962 home runs were hit last season.
“We have to look at the effect the height and slope of the mound has on pitchers’ bodies, their arms, backs, legs,” said Bill Murray, chairman of baseball’s rules committee. “A number of doctors have studied arm motion and its stress on different parts of the body, wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, hips. We have to do a careful analysis to try and gather information. There’s a lot of concern about that. It may not be resolved quickly.”
There is also the matter of getting the approval of the players’ association, which may not be in an approving frame of mind after the recent unpleasantness over the collective bargaining agreement.
Union attorney Gene Orza, who embraced inter-league play, is less enthusiastic about the need to raise the mound. “I don’t believe the evidence exists to support that contention,” he said.
What’s more, Orza said, the owners have yet to raise the matter and “Hopefully, they never will.”
None of this was an issue the last time the rulesmakers looked at the mound and lowered it from 15 inches to 10 in 1969. That was a year after Bob Gibson had a 1.12 earned-run average, Denny McLain won 31 games and Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting championship with a .301 average.
The effects were immediate. The National League went from six .300 hitters in 1968 to 10 the next year, and the American League went from one - Yastrzemski - to five. Willie McCovey led the N.L. with 36 home runs in 1968 and 45 in 1969. The two leagues totaled 1,995 home runs in 1968 and 3,119 in 1969.
There were other factors, however. Both leagues expanded in 1969, each going from 10 teams to 12, creating 40 major league pitchers who were laboring elsewhere the year before. Hitters always flourish on expansion pitching.
With no expansion last season, there has to be some other explanation for 16 batters hitting 40 or more home runs and three teams breaking the record of 240 homers set by the New York Yankees in 1961.
The answer, the GMs decided, was the height of the mound. And those most directly involved, the pitchers, will be interested observers of the upcoming debate.
American League Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen of the Toronto Blue Jays used the geometric approach.
“What it will do is change the trajectory of the ball from a higher point,” he said. “It means the ball is not as level. It will be moving on a downward plane.”
Part of the idea is to speed up the game by helping pitchers throw more strikes. Hentgen questioned that theory.
“If they want to speed up the game, all they have to do is call higher strikes,” said Hentgen, pointing to what he calls a shrinking strike zone.
John Smoltz, who won the National League Cy Young, doesn’t much care how high the mound is.
“I think it will help the majority of the pitchers,” he said. “I don’t know if it will have any effect on myself personally. It might help some of the pitchers that might need a little extra help.
“Expansion has hurt the quality of pitching. Bad pitching is not going to get any better by raising the mound.”
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