RAISE THE MOUNDS, RYAN’S HOPE

August 13, 2009

Bill Conlin recommended in the Philly Daily News that MLB raise the pitcher’s mounds and lower the ERAs. “FOR 66 YEARS – 1903 to 1968 – major league
pitchers conducted their business from a turtle-backed office roughly 15 inches higher than home plate. I say “roughly” because dirt being dirt no two “mounds” were built to spec. The Dodgers were often accused of tacking as much as 5 inches onto the legal standard after moving to Los Angeles. Babe Ruth had his 60-homer season facing pitchers throwing off 15-inch mounds. Ted Williams hit .406. Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games. Great pitchers also thrived in an era when each league had eight teams, many of them perennially lousy. Lefty Grove led the American League with 28 victories in 1930 and also led it with nine saves
in 17 relief appearances. Teammate Jimmie Foxx hit 58 homers in 1932 – at age 24. With the 15-inch mound a constant, good hitters hit, good pitchers thrived, and the pastime thrummed along through three wars, a cruel Great Depression, and crowned its World Series champions. So why did the Lords of Baseball decide in a fit of panic after a 1968 season known as “The Year of the Pitcher” that after 65 years of baseball’s rhythmic swings they needed to lower the mounds by 26.6 percent to 11 inches? It’s an easy answer when the third-most radical rule change of the 20th century – behind creation of the designated hitter and the ban of the spitball – is viewed through the prism of 40 years. The mound was lowered in an attempt to restore competitive balance to a game where the once-mighty AL had become decidedly inferior to the National.
How and why? Well, let’s take a look at that so-called “Year of the Pitcher”:                                                                 
Five American League pitchers – Luis Tiant, Dave McNally, Sam McDowell, Denny McLain and Tommy John – had ERAs under 2.00. None is in the Hall of Fame. Now, let’s check the hitters they faced that season: Carl Yastrzemski led the AL with a .301 batting average. At No. 10 at .274 was Rick Monday. Only Yaz is a Hall of Famer.                                                                                                                                                          Now let’s check the National League:                                                                                                                   
Pete Rose won the batting title at .335; Roberto Clemente was 10th at .291. The NL produced below-average but not anomalous offense in a season when Bob Gibson’s ERA was a modern-era record 1.12. Willie McCovey led the NL with 36 homers. But the most telling numbers in the power stats were these: Six of  the top 10 NL home-run leaders that year went to the Hall of Fame; all six were players of color. Just two of the top 10 AL home-run leaders, Yaz and Reggie Jackson, are HOF members. Just two, Willie Horton and Jackson, were players of color. Therein lies the real story. By the late 1960s, the integration of African-Americans and Hispanics into MLB had become imbalanced. The National League had more talent and diversity, pure and simple. A rare confluence of peaking pitchers had driven the AL’s offensive wing to its knees. But it had damn little to do with a mound that was the same height in 1961, when Norm Cash hit .361, Roger Maris hit 61 homers and six AL sluggers hit more than 40 bombs. Same damn 15 inches . . .The Lords of Baseball wanted to restore offensive balance. That’s what they said at the winter meetings. What they didn’t mention was that they really wanted to prop up the AL. And, wow, look how it worked. In 1969, five AL sluggers, led by Harmon Killebrew’s 49, hit more than 40 homers. Offense was up in both leagues. What the Lords didn’t say was that the diluted pitching supplied by expansion teams in Seattle, Kansas City (replacing the A’s’ carpetbag move to Oakland), Montreal and San Diego might have had as much effect as the lowered mounds. So here we are in 2009, and most games it takes at least four pitchers working off those itty-bitty mounds to seal the deal – or blow it. Know how many extra beers and hot dogs all those pitching changes sell? The hitters are in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Era – blown up and going
for the downs. And the new wave of retro parks would have been perfect for Willie – Keeler, not Mays. Imagine Mike Schmidt hitting in the Bank – and he’ll
turn 60 next month. Picture DiMaggio’s elegant swing in Yankee Stadium Lite. Al Gionfriddo would have to play him on the subway platform. The game has
gone full-tilt. Now that the orthopedic surgeons have done enough Tommy Johns and labrum debridements to retire on Hobe Sound, it’s time to restore the 4 inches of dirt the Lords bulldozed away for no good reason after the 1968 season. Reverse the moundectomy. Tim Lincecum might be a scary sight, long-striding off a 15-inch mound, but I think Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA is safe. Expansion to the current 30 teams – come on, AL, you’re two light – has added so many high-ERA pitchers to the talent pool, a few less runs and trips to the mound per game won’t make a dent. Ruben Amaro Jr. took a few minutes on a busy Monday to ponder the question. “I like the idea of raising the mound a little,” the Phils’ general manager said. “Too drastic a move could prove to be too big of a change to the players.” Hmm . . . Too big of a change?
There’s one they should have thought of in 1973 when the AL, still losing ground and paying customers, decided pitchers would be replaced in the batting order by piano movers.
Get ‘er done, Bud.

 

 

 

The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan reasoned, “Don’t you love it when baseball gets macho?
Compared to football and hockey, it’s a noncontact sport, except that its centerpiece item is a hard, round object capable of inflicting major damage, whether propelled by a bat or thrown by a human being. Even relatively small, physically unimposing guys (e.g. Pedro Martinez) can become very dangerous, tough guys when in possession of a baseball while standing on a little hill 60 feet 6 inches away. Getting hit unintentionally is part of the game. Everyone in baseball accepts the idea that a pitch can get away from any pitcher at any time. The problem is, getting hit intentionally is also very much part of the game. Sometimes this is not so easy to accept. Kevin Youkilis was most definitely not in a forgiving mood when Detroit rookie Rick Porcello’s first pitch hit him in the back Tuesday night.
He unhesitatingly charged the mound, flung his helmet at the Tigers hurler, and chased him until he sacked him in the vicinity of first base. The baseball code dictates that the benches empty – baseball has no third-man-in prohibition – and there was a lot of yelling and finger-pointing and holding people back, but there was no more real physical activity. Youkilis was, predictably, ejected from the game. After great discussion and the passage of a fair amount of time, Porcello was similarly told that his night’s work was over. Unlike Youkilis, who knew from the moment he took off toward the mound that he would not be playing any more baseball that evening, Porcello was upset about the adjudication. He felt he had done nothing wrong. And, according to the aforementioned baseball code, he hadn’t. While it’s conceivable he simply threw a bad pitch, the far greater likelihood is that he was following up on the heated activities of the previous evening,
plus a first-inning plunking of Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera by Red Sox rookie Junichi Tazawa (unquestionably unintentional, by the way). Knowing what we know about baseball, we have every right to assume that Porcello, with or without direct orders from above, nailed Youkilis – just because.
The situation was, frankly, close to ideal. It’s the bottom of the second, 3-0 lead, you already know you’ve got your good stuff, and not much harm’s likely to come from putting this guy on. Drill him in the part of the body where the worst that could happen would be a bruise, send your nobody-intimidates-us message, and then concentrate on the rest of the lineup. The complicating factor here was the identity of the plunkee. Kevin Youkilis is hypersensitive about being thrown at. He feels he is thrown at far too much. This was HBP No. 10 of the 2009 season. He had been hit the night before, and he obviously felt that enough was enough. So, mindful of both the short-term and long-term consequences, he decided he would apprehend the perp himself.
Some guys go along with this game-within-a-game better than others. The Red Sox once employed Don Baylor, who regarded getting hit by a pitch as an art form. Like anyone else, he didn’t appreciate pitches thrown at his head, but he had an amazing tolerance for pitches hitting him in any other part of his body.
Youkilis, obviously, is not Baylor. The fact that a baseball is hard, and it hurts, dictates a lot of what goes on in the game. No one can make it to the major leagues if he is afraid of the ball, but being afraid and having a healthy respect for the consequences of being hit by a ball is another matter. The Don Baylors, guys who actually relish being hit by a pitch because it gets them on base and, therefore, helps the team, are the rarest of all baseball creatures. Most people very much want to get out of the way. Thus, the reality of “knockdown’’ pitches, “brushback’’ pitches or “purpose’’ pitches. Pitchers who feel the need to keep batters from crowding the plate, and therefore reducing their options, will attempt to maintain what they feel is the proper balance of power by throwing a pitch sufficiently inside to make the hitter move. Some pitchers scrupulously avoid throwing at the head when playing the brushback game. Others are less discriminating.
They become known as “headhunters,’’ and they become loathed, until, of course, they wind up on your team.
What happens in baseball is that because it really is accepted that people must be thrown near, if not necessarily at, things will inevitably get out of hand.
Team A’s batter is hit, and Team B feels the need to retaliate. Retaliation leads to retaliation until the umpires seize control of the situation via warnings and
ejections.
There being no DH in the National League, a pitcher who is believed to have thrown at someone in violation of The Code must come to bat himself and face the consequences. Not so in the American League, where it’s all a matter of surrogates. You throw at my big guy and I’ll throw at yours. Then it’s vice, followed by versa, and off we go, until it all runs its silly course. You can only hope someone doesn’t get hurt.
Meanwhile, in modern baseball umpires are asked to become mind readers. Some situations are obvious. If a pitcher gives up a home run and then sends the first pitch to the next guy at his head, well, we all can add two and two, not that the connection makes any sense in the first place. That’s just the way baseball is played. There are many other times when it’s not so easy for umpires to decide if a pitch is intended to cause bodily harm, or if it isn’t. When in doubt, the arbiters generally choose to err on the side of caution and toss the pitcher out of the game. The foolishness usually stops there.
I’m bored by it all. Should it be that complicated? Managers and pitchers should have enough respect for each other to rule the head out of bounds. Moving guys back off the plate is legit. Throwing at surrogates is absurd. What everyone in baseball should realize is that, even in the age of helmets, a pitch to the head can cause great damage. Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen is the latest example. He was hit on the head Aug. 2, and is now on the disabled list because he has had recurrent headaches and other problems after sustaining the blow.
A baseball is a serious weapon. Throwing it at an opponent from 60 feet 6 inches away makes a macho man out of no one.

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