BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
13 July 2021
ORLANDO, FL -- Novelist John Irving once wrote, “Baseball is a game with a lot of waiting in it; it is a game of increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action.”
That seems particularly true in Major League Baseball these days with the increase in the “Three True Outcomes” (home runs, walks and strikeouts) – plays that require the participation of only the pitcher, catcher and batter.
For baseball, the problem is how to replace those periods of waiting with more moments of action involving more players, and with additional offense.
Hitters have complained for years that MLB tends to favor pitchers whenever it makes rule changes. Well, here are some possible solutions, not necessarily in order of importance, that favor batters.
Ban the Infield Shift.
The radical defensive alignment in which a team defends left-handed hitters by positioning three infielders on the right side of second base, with one player – usually the second baseman – stationed in short right field is becoming increasingly prevalent. (Shifts against right-handed batters are less pronounced and less frequent because the first baseman needs to be relatively close to that base.)
In 2020, teams employed a shift 50.8 percent of the time against left-handed hitters, a considerable increase from the 29.6 percent just two seasons earlier.
This defense essentially has taken away hits on grounders. As we noted in a May 8 story (“A Change in Strategy”), a 2019 article on pitcherlist.com reported that shifts against left-handed hitters lowered batting average by 46 points (.248 to .202), and lowered batting average on pulled ground balls from .205 to .109 (96 points) and from .241 to .214 (27 points) on balls hit to center.
That is significant because, the story notes, the average MLB hitter pulls 46 percent of his ground balls and hits 40 percent to center, leaving only 14 percent to the opposite field. It’s a no-brainer, then, for teams to shift their infielders to where grounders are most frequently hit.
Ground balls that used to be hits are now outs. Naturally, it’s led frustrated hitters to fixate even more on increasing loft, launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls in order to get the balls into the air and over the shift and over the fences. That hunt-for-homers mentality also has lead to a record increase in strikeouts, and more bases on balls.
“The combination of a lot of defenders on the right side of the field and the way a hitter is being pitched now is basically all built into either a strikeout or weak contact on the right side of the field,”Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto told MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM. “I fell victim to that. Even when I would pop a ball hard and hit it to the right-field grass, it was one-hop to the second baseman or a line drive to the shortstop or second baseman. I felt like no matter what I was doing it was an out.”
“That was a base hit automatic three, four years ago, not even that long ago… A ground ball off the bat, even top-spin hard line drives are bad right now.”
As a remedy, Major League Baseball should require that, at the beginning of each pitch, all four infielders must have at least one foot on the dirt portion of the infield, and that there be only two infielders on each side of second base.
Unfortunately, this penalizes defenses for adjusting, and rewards hitters for stubbornly refusing to change. But, baseball’s offense needs a jolt.
Reduce the strike zone.
The current strike zone is defined as from “the midpoint between the top of the batter’s shoulders and the top of his pants,” down to “just below the kneecap.”
With their increase in velocity and movement on breaking balls, pitchers today are skilled at overpowering hitters with fastballs at the top of the strike zone and then getting them to chase breaking balls and off-speed pitches at the bottom. The combination is proving lethal to batters – the league’s .238 batting average is the lowest in 53 years.
“It used to be that pitchers offered straight fastballs and something that moved,” Washington Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long told Joel Sherman of the New York Post. “You don’t see straight fastballs any more, unless it is 98 [mph] at the top of the zone. That is a hard pitch to hit. And then you are exposed to anything low, which is an off-speed pitch.”
If New York Yankees’ left-hander Aroldis Chapman is throwing a 103-mph fastball with movement at the top of the strike zone, good luck trying to square up that pitch. And, then if he comes back with an 85-mph breaking ball at the knees, it’s doubly difficult when the batter is geared up for that 100-mph pitch.
So, make the strike zone from the top of the belt to the kneecap. That would give hitters a better chance of squaring up a pitch and making harder contact.
Increase -- and rigorously enforce -- penalties for pitchers who doctor baseballs with illegal foreign substances.
For years, sunscreen-and-rosin has been a popular combination to help pitchers improve their grips on the baseball. But, why do pitchers need sunscreen if they’re pitching at night or in a domed stadium? Hurlers also are using illegal substances that are essentially glues, to get more movement on their pitches and make them more difficult to hit.
“I think the substance issue is real. I think pitchers are using a lot more substances now than they have in the past,” Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto told Martin Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Not just a lot more, but it’s been more effective than it has been. Guys are increasing their spin rate. That’s why there’s so many walks and strikeouts every game, because guys are just letting it rip with all the spin. It’s harder to control but also harder to hit. I think if they fix that idea that could help a lot.”
“Everyone has swing-and-miss stuff from top to bottom and it’s not because everyone got so much better in the last three years,” Realmuto adds. “To be honest, that (illegal foreign substances) helps a lot.”
Currently, the penalty for pitchers found guilty of illegally doctoring baseballs is a 10-game suspension (which amounts to two starts for a starting pitcher). That’s not nearly enough, especially given that the penalty for use of steroids or Performance Enhancing Drugs is 80 games for first-time violators.
For illegally doctoring baseballs, make the suspension 30 days – and teams are not allowed to replace the suspended pitcher during that time. A second violation brings a 90-day suspension, and a third results in a one-year suspension.
Cap the number of pitchers a team can carry.
Currently, most teams have 13 pitchers, sometimes 14, on their 26-man rosters. MLB should limit it to 11 or 12 pitchers. Doing so would help reduce the number of pitching changes in a game by making starters go deeper into games and reduce the parade of one-inning relievers.
Requiring a starter to pitch longer would enable the hitters to become more familiar with his pitches and adjust to the velocity of his fastball and movement of his breaking pitches, thus increasing the batters’ chances of getting a hit.
More and more, starting pitchers have adopted a “relievers mentality.” No longer are they concerned with pacing themselves or going through an opponent’s batting order for the third time in a game – when, statistically, hitters have better success against most pitchers. Instead, the philosophy largely has been to attack hitters with maximum effort and velocity from the very beginning. Pitching today no longer is geared toward going nine innings, or even eight. It’s go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and then call in the relievers.
Using that approach with an 11-man pitching staff would quickly tax the bullpen, so managers would be forced to stick with their starting pitchers longer and some relievers would pitch multiple innings.
Lower the pitching mound by four inches, from 10 inches to six.
This change is as much about helping to improve the “batter’s eye” as it is combating pitchers’ 98-mph fastballs and 92-mph, drop-off-the-table sinkers.
Respected ESPN baseball analyst and a former major-leaguer Eduardo Perez says, “The hitters don’t care about velocity. They’ve proven they can turn on 100 miles per hour, but if you flatten the mound from 10 inches to 6 inches it is going to be a significant difference as far as angle of the ball coming to the hitter.”
A lower mound will reduce the angle in which the pitch arrives at the plate, theoretically making it easier for batters to “square up” and drive a pitch. Perez says doing so will lead to more hits.
Reducing the height of the mound has worked before. After the offensively challenged “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, the league lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10. The combined batting average in both leagues improved from .237 in 1968 to .248 in 1969. Plus, the pitchers’ Earned Run Average rose from 2.98 in 1968 to 3.61 the following season.
Two other factors contributed as well: MLB reduced the strike zone; and it also was the first year for four expansion teams (Kansas City, Seattle, Montreal, and San Diego), which historically helps improve offense due to the fall-off in the caliber of pitching talent in the league. Still, lowering the mound widely was considered the most significant difference.
Move the Mound Back.
The most controversial of the suggestions is to move the pitching mound back one or two feet.
Beginning in August, The Atlantic League, an independent baseball league that over the years has served as a quasi experimental lab for Major League Baseball, will move the mound back one foot, to a distance of 61 feet 6 inches.
The idea is to give batters more time to react to fastballs, and to breaking pitches since they will break sooner. The league believes this will help hitters make contact more frequently, thereby putting more balls in play and creating more action.
According to some estimates, that additional one foot will give hitters an extra one one-hundredth of a second of reaction time. That may not sound like much, but could be beneficial against those triple-digit fastballs.
“I would think it would make a huge difference,” Realmuto told Breen. “It would put the hitters at a little bit more of an advantage that we’re at right now because we would have that extra foot. It would make breaking balls break earlier.
“The good guys have stuff that breaks late, so you don’t see it,” the Phillies catcher continued. “But now, basically everyone’s stuff you’re going to see because it will be breaking earlier in the box. I feel like it will help hitters a lot.”
There is a precedent for moving the mound. In 1893, facing a similar slump in offense, baseball raised and moved the original “pitcher’s box,” which was flat and 55 feet 6 inches from home plate.
Finally, there’s good, old-fashioned patience.
Maybe we just have let this whole TTO thing play out, hoping it is only a cycle. Maybe hitters eventually will adjust and learn to hit to the opposite field to defeat the infield shifts. Maybe emphasizing hitters making contact will make a comeback.
MLB is very much a copycat league. Perhaps a team winning a championship with a “small-ball approach” – bunting, hitting to the opposite field against an infield shift, hit-and-run plays, moving runners over, aggressive base running, stealing bases, etc. – might be enough to change the all-or-nothing approach to hitting that dominates the game today. “The game has a way of self-adjusting,” Cincinnati Reds reliever Sean Doolittle says.
But, until teams and players change their philosophies on hitting, the league’s problem with the Three True Outcomes will continue. And, as Irving pointed out, baseball fans will continue to wait long periods to see increasingly limited action.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.