The dominance of pitchers, and the rise of strikeouts, has baseball in a mound of trouble again

The dominance of pitchers, and the rise of strikeouts, has baseball in a mound of trouble again
During Bob Gibson’s record-setting 1968 season, he hung a sign above his locker that read, “Here comes the judge.” He felt untouchable, he said. The St. Louis pitcher owned the inside half of the plate; he would leer down at batters who feared stepping in the box against him.

Gibson started 34 games that season and went the full nine innings in 28 of them. He had 13 shutouts and 268 strikeouts. In one stretch from June 6 to July 30, he won 11 straight starts — all of them complete games — and allowed only three runs.

Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA for St. Louis in 1968, a.k.a. the Year of the Pitcher. Gibson’s mark was the lowest in modern baseball history. Baseball responded by lowering the mound.  (Focus On Sport / GETTY IMAGES)

But Gibson was only the tip of spear in baseball’s first Year of the Pitcher. Twenty-two pitchers had sub-2.00 earned run averages. Gibson’s was an Earth-shattering 1.12, the lowest in modern baseball history.

“Defence now dominates offence to the point of extinction,” wrote Rex Lardner in The New York Times, speculating that by 1971 no-hitters would be common and fans would celebrate the occasional foul ball. “With the batter being as helpless as he is, the game has become largely one of pitcher throwing to catcher and catcher throwing back.”

It sounds familiar. As pitchers emerge again with a clear upper-hand against hitters — there were more strikeouts than hits in 2018 for the first time in Major League Baseball’s 147-year history — the game’s leaders floated the idea last week to once again lower the pitchers’ mound, as baseball ultimately did after the 1968 season.

Pitchers in that era had a distinct advantage over hitters. The strike zone was much larger, measuring from the shoulders to the bottom of the knees, rather than today’s armpits to top of the knees. Regulations also allowed for a mound 15 inches high, though the real heights varied by ballpark.

“I remember 1968, it felt like every pitcher was right on top of you that year,” Ken Harrelson, an all-star right fielder that year, told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian in 2011. “It felt like they weren’t 60 feet, six inches away. It felt like they were 40 feet away.”

Pitchers had hacked the game of baseball. Top hurlers slung fastballs nearly as hard as modern greats toward a larger strike zone with more lenient officials. Umpires rarely cracked down on illegal pitches like spitballs or curveballs coated in Vaseline or pine tar.

The resulting lack of offensc had thrown baseball into a crisis. Seven teams hit .230 or lower. The Yankees as a team batted .214. The big-league average ERA that season was 2.98, more than a run less than 2018’s mark. Teams combined to score 6.8 runs per game in 1968. They averaged 8.8 last year.

“There is ample evidence that the public is getting a wee bit tired of all these’ pitchers’ duels’,” The Washington Post’s Bob Addie wrote in late 1968.

So after the season, MLB officials lowered the mound to 10 inches and shrank the strike zone to its modern size. The changes were made, according to one wire service, “to add more enjoyment for the fans and more offence in the games.”

Baseball also asked umpires to better enforce rules about illegal pitches. A pitcher who brought his hand to his mouth while standing on the mound would have his next pitch called a ball. A pitcher found to have thrown an illegal pitch or with an illegal substance on the mound would be ejected.

But big-league players and managers weren’t convinced the rule changes would have the desired effect or that baseball even had a problem.

“I wouldn’t change the rules,” Lou Brock told The New York Times before the alterations were approved. “Things have a tendency to go in cycles.”

The Times wrote that the changes were meant “to put more punch into a game that ended its first century in some disorder and much competition,” and that the dominant pitching was “boring the customers.” Others weren’t buying it.

“Excuses were made for the hitters last year about how great the pitching was. The hitters sort of accepted it with few exceptions. An alibi was made for them and they were willing to go along with it,” said Gene Mauch, the Montreal Expos’ manager. “But a guy like Pete Rose managed to hit. [Rose hit .335 for Cincinnati in 1968.] You have to apply yourself like Pete does. I never saw anyone who could teach pride and determination and that’s a big part of hitting.”

Denny McClain, who led the majors with 31 wins for Detroit in 1968, predicted the shorter mounds would cause more pitchers shoulder pain because they’d have to put more stress on their throwing arms. He didn’t pick up a baseball all off-season, instead focusing on his business and playing organ in his four-piece band. Two years later, he was traded to Washington and led the league in losses thanks to chronic arm trouble.

The rule changes did what they were meant to do. The league-wide average ERA jumped nearly a whole run. Average scoring increased by 1.2 runs per game. Hits, RBIs and walks all saw gradual increases, too.

Now lowering the mound is again in the news. Citing sources, ESPN reported that MLB “is interested in studying mound height, with the potential for (commissioner Rob) Manfred to implement a lowering of the mound in 2020.” That’s among a slew of new ideas discussed by Manfred and the players’ union to boost batters, increase scoring and improve the pace of play. Other proposals included introducing a 20-second pitch clock, a universal designated hitter and a three-batter minimum for pitchers.

Those proposals are likely to be assailed by pitchers, just as Gibson continues to revile the 1968 changes sparked by his historic season. He joked in 2008 that he ought to sue MLB over the new mound height.

“Why should they take away the pitcher’s livelihood because he becomes proficient at it?” he asked. “That, to me, seems like what they did. The hitters weren’t doing very well against you so they say ‘Well, we’re going to fix that.’
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