Baseball has a problem: Clayton Kershaw, Aroldis Chapman, Felix Hernandez and all the other kings of the hill are just too good.
Ruling with an assortment of big-bending curveballs, sharp sliders and 100 mph heat, a new generation of pitchers has thrown major league hitters into a huge slump.
The spike in strikeouts, the dip in home runs and worries that the game is becoming boring for fans reminds some people of 1968, when Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and their fellow aces dominated.
Back then, the sport came up with a radical solution: The pitcher’s mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 and the strike zone was reduced.
Combined with the addition of four expansion teams, the result was an 11-point increase in the big league batting average in 1969 and a 19 percent rise in runs.
Should baseball drop the mound again?
“I don’t know, man, maybe if they keep going like this,” said Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton said Monday at the All-Star festivities.
“Move the mound back 5 feet,” he added with a chuckle.
There’s some thought that reducing the mound would combat the outbreak of blown-out elbows, which has seen stars such as Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez needing reconstructive surgery, and could also claim Masahiro Tanaka.
With low-run games again in vogue and defensive shifts taking away hits, there’s been more emphasis on small ball. That’s prompted questions about whether this is a cyclical change, or if this style is here to stay.
From his vantage point in the New York Mets’ broadcast booth, former NL MVP Keith Hernandez has an unusual analysis and an equally drastic solution.
“They should get rid of four teams,” he said. “Too many players. There’s too much dilution of talent. The pitching’s not better. It’s the same.”
“I think that the residuals of steroids and aluminum bats has affected how they taught kids how to hit, and now we’re seeing normal bodies and balls that used to get out of the ballpark are caught now,” he said.
It wasn’t too long ago that batters had the edge. The boom years peaked in 2000 with an average of 1.17 home runs per team per game. The runs average of 5.14 was MLB’s highest since 1936.
But offense has steadily shrunk — as have the players — as baseball implemented testing for performance-enhancing drugs and then repeatedly strengthened those rules.
And with complete games virtually a relic, hard-throwing relievers dominate the late innings. Radar guns routinely register mph readings around triple digits.
“Everybody’s throwing 109, so you don’t get to see the starters for your fourth turn,” said Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, exaggerating only slightly. “There’s a lot of guys in the bullpen that are special guys.”
All that gas has contributed to more than two dozen pitchers needing Tommy John surgery this year. Dr. David Altchek, the Mets’ top physician, said a lower mound “should decrease the force as the body gets less far ahead of the arm.”
“As the body falls down the mound, the arm momentarily lags and forces at the elbow cumulate,” he said.
But Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute counters that recent studies disagree whether lowering or eliminating the mound would slightly cut or slightly increase the stress on an adolescent pitcher’s arm. “Reducing the amount of competitive pitching is the most strongly proven action for reducing the risk of pitching injuries,” he said.