60 feet and six inches is a distance that is nearly ingrained in baseball: since 1893, it has been the distance from the front edge of the pitching rubber to the back point of home plate. Through over a century of rule changes, including even the lowering of the pitcher’s mound following the 1968 season, this distance has stayed constant, and in many ways it is fundamentally symbolic of the game of baseball. However, in an era where many rule changes are in discussion and seemingly nothing is off the table, there are discussions of increasing this distance. Soon, there will be some evidence of how such a change works as well, as the independent Atlantic League is adopting a two foot increase in mound distance among a slew of rule changes for the second half of their season. Such a monumental change appears ridiculous and potentially dangerous, but in an era of high velocity pitchers and even higher strikeout rates, moving the mound back is more than just plausible; it may even be a welcome change to the sport at its highest level.
The primary evidence of a need for change is the strikeout rates, which increase nearly every season as the “Three True Outcomes” become more and more common. The following graph shows the increase in league-wide strikeout rate since 2000:
The trend is nearly linear in the positive direction, and going nowhere but up. A player is over 5% more likely to strike out in a given plate appearance in 2019 than he was less than 15 years ago, with the rates only continuing to swell thanks to a revolution in pitch design and a constant demand for pitchers to throw high-velocity fastballs to attain success. Another factor in the discussion: an increase in home runs. Similarly, here is the percentage of at-bats that end in home runs for the entire league from 2000-2019:
While neither strikeouts nor home runs are bad in their own regard, they’re detrimental in one important sense: the marketability of baseball is a primary concern for commissioner Rob Manfred, and this campaign is centered around action in games. With so many hitters walking up to the plate only to head back to the dugout without sending a ball into play, the strikeout rate and home run rate are certainly concerning with respect to the quantity of action – nearly one fourth of all plate appearances in the league this season end in a home run or a strikeout. This may not be an issue for everyone, but it certainly is for Major League Baseball’s top officials, and perhaps the most practical solution is making it harder to hit a home run and giving batters more time to react to the volatile pitching arsenals with which they are attacked in today’s game by increasing the distance a pitcher has to throw to the plate.
The implementation of the rule would involve a slight increase in the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s rubber- somewhere between 9-24 inches (up to two feet). In addition, the ball would be deadened – a slight decrease in the ability of the ball to fly would do the trick, though with the makeup of the ball this year it’s possible that the change would have to be somewhat significant. Either way, an increase in mound distance will benefit the hitter with more time to react to the pitch being thrown – one to two tenths of a second for a two foot increase, depending on the velocity of the pitch. The corresponding change in the ball will benefit the pitcher as the home run rate will go down, meaning that the greater quantity of batted balls will not directly increase the amount of home runs. In essence, the first change (mound distance) increases offense, while the second change (the ball) decreases offense to cancel that out. This change would have to be implemented in several levels of the minor leagues as well, because it’s impractical to have such a considerable difference between AAA and the Major Leagues. For the sake of ease, I’d suggest that the mound be moved back at all levels above Rookie ball, where players are making the very first adjustment to a life of professional baseball.
The potential benefits of this plan are pretty straightforward: with more time to react, hitters will have an easier time making contact with the ball, resulting in more balls in play (which means more action, which is good) but not an outright increase in offense. Another potential benefit of this change is that it would shift the league off of its current course, where hitters are increasingly becoming more one dimensional, taking advantage of the juiced ball to maximize their home run rates at all other costs. Many fans have complaints with the historic rates of scoring which comes via the home run this season, and that would no longer be a concern when the ball doesn’t fly out as easily.
Continuing with the idea of the juiced ball, changing both the mound distance and the ball generates non-home run offense, eliminating the need for a ball which incurs home runs in order to maintain overall offense. The unprecedented ability of the current ball to fly out of the park is highly controversial, especially among elite pitchers such as Justin Verlander, one of the most established starters in baseball. Players, and many fans, aren’t fans of the current ball, and making a plan to change that seems like it would be beneficial for baseball. Moreover, with the makeup of the ball being such a concern in today’s game, rolling out a comprehensive and intentional plan rather than reacting to unexpected changes in the ball or, more likely, feigning ignorance, will reflect better on the league as well.
There are, of course, several legitimate concerns with such a rule change, the primary being that it will be a considerable adjustment for all players, especially those who are already at or near the Major Leagues. The change would have to be announced well in advance of its implementation to allow for preparation, such as hitters taking batting practice and pitchers training from the increased distance in the offseason. The initial difficulties of many players would be fairly predictable: hitters would swing in front of pitches that now take longer to get to the plate, and pitchers would struggle to locate their breaking balls as they break farther before arriving at the plate. However, in this regard there are two factors that I believe would make these adjustments come fairly easily. First, all players have adjusted to an increase in mound distance before, as the mound distance increases throughout youth baseball as players grow older and stronger. Additionally, even an increase of two feet, seemingly a large change, is just a 3.3% increase in the distance of the mound from the plate. With a small enough change to the mound distance, the adjustment will be possible for all players (they’re also professional baseball players, so they’re probably pretty good at adapting to different conditions already) while making a tangible difference in results on the field.
One topic that is most in the air regarding a change in mound distance is the injury implications of such a change. It’s possible that pitchers will injure themselves more as they attempt to adjust to pitching from a different distance and possibly throw harder, and it’s also a possibility that the increased distance will disincentivize a reliance on high velocity fastballs, potentially saving arms that would go under the needle for Tommy John surgery as a result of attempting to throw as hard as possible.
My best educated guess is that the second will be more true for several reasons. First, with longer reaction time, batters will better be able to catch up to the most elite fireballers, making breaking pitches the most effective means of retiring hitters and causing pitchers to prefer developing great secondary pitches over the fastest fastball. Several studies have shown with decent confidence that velocity and the likelihood of Tommy John surgery are at least somewhat related, indicating that this would decrease the skyrocketing rates of the surgery for pitchers. The second reason that injury rates wouldn’t increase is that it’s already a fairly established practice in the game today for pitchers to train using maximum effort throwing, meaning that they already are throwing as hard as possible in training regardless of the distance they throw in games, and a slight change in that game distance is not going to change how pitchers train when they aren’t on a mound.
It is certainly also in the realm of possibility that pitchers will attempt to throw harder to compensate for the increased distance, but that distance will only make breaking balls more effective and consequently more popular. With more distance over which to break, the best breaking balls in baseball will only move even further, making it more difficult for hitters to meet the path of the ball. This may benefit pitchers greatly, as swings and misses are the primary goal of pitchers, but it will also help the batters with the best plate discipline, as more pitches will break out of the zone for balls than had previously. With the ability to make their nastiest pitches even nastier, though, it seems like common sense that pitchers would prioritize the development of elite break over velocity, which would be safer on arms.
Ultimately, the prospect of moving the mound back is a very promising one in several ways, and it may be a solution to some of baseball’s biggest problematic trends which is more transparent than changing the ball itself without notice. An increased distance could change the game of baseball quite a bit or hardly at all, but it merits investigation and thought. Every speculation on what the effects of such a change will be are supported by nothing more than guesswork, and everyone has slightly different thoughts on how the game will change with the first implementation of the rule. Unfortunately, a meaningful sense of the effects of the increased mound distance in the Atlantic League will be difficult to glean, as there are many other new and revolutionary rules which will undoubtedly impact the game and the mental states of the players who attempt to play it. Like many revolutions, this one will take time, and the pushback will be especially severe in this case. The willingness of MLB to experiment with it, even in an independent league, is promising, though, and making such a change is likely more beneficial than many people think.
I would like to extend a special thanks to Jim Passon for his input on this article!