Thursday, August 13, 2009

Drastically changing the mound height was a terrible idea. Let's do it again!

Yesterday, Bill Conlin came up with quite the conlin.

In a nutshell (and I really don't think I'm being unfair to his work at all, but you be the judge): with the pitcher's mound higher than it is now, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Lefty Grove did good things. Therefore, baseball should raise the mound back to where it was in 1968. They lowered the mound after 1968. This was ostensibly to restore the balance between pitching and hitting, but really it was to restore the balance between the AL and NL. Because, see, the NL was more racially diverse, and was better. Rose led the league in batting average at .335 in the NL, while Yastrzemski led the AL at .301. There were a bunch of Hall of Famers in the NL, and only a couple in the AL. Bob Gibson is in the Hall of Fame, while the pitchers who put up great numbers in the AL in 1968 are not. Therefore, the NL was a whole lot better than the AL, and baseball saw this as a problem, so they lowered the mound just to make the AL as good as the NL again, and now they should raise it again. Ruben Amaro, Jr. doesn't think they should do that. Ruben Amaro, Jr. is an idiot.

Have you already figured out how crazy this is? 'Cause, frankly, this is a busy day for me, so I don't have a lot of time to explain it to you. But here, look at this:
1968 AL: .637 OPS, 2.98 ERA, 3.4 R/G
1968 NL: .641 OPS, 2.99 ERA, 3.4 R/G

If Ichiro! were playing in the 1968 AL, Ichiro! would probably hit .350, even while Yaz finished second at .301. And that wouldn't do a thing to change the balance or imbalance between the leagues. Randomly listing facts about the league leaders in certain statistics is just about the worst way you could possibly look at balance between the leagues as a whole. And in fact, Conlin doesn't just list facts, he lies about them: in extolling the NL, he cites the fact that McCovey led the NL with 36 homers as though it shows you how much better the NL was, but doesn't mention that over in the AL, Frank Howard hit 44 and Willie Horton hit 36.

To Conlin, the AL was embarrassingly atrocious; the NL produced "below-average but not anomalous offense." Back in reality, though, the difference between the two leagues was essentially a rounding error (and they were both very, very anomalous). You know how I feel about Conlin generally, but this is poor even for him. In almost any other profession, if you put in the effort and showed the level of competence Conlin does in this piece, you'd be investigated and probably fired.

Here's a big reason why I hate the writing of hopeless hacks like Conlin: they have the ability to take things I really believe in and, just by writing in support of those things, make me start looking for reasons to disagree with those things. I do think that lowering the mound was a short-sighted, kneejerk reaction to a very weird season (and a pretty weird five or six seasons). It was silly. They shouldn't have done it.

Additionally, I don't doubt that, in the beginning, the AL as a whole was slower to integrate than was the NL as a whole. The lag in some AL teams' response to integration was deplorable, and I don't doubt that it hurt competition. For a while.

On the other hand, I don't think that the mound height is to blame for the high ERAs or low inning totals of today. Starting pitchers threw a lot more innings in the 1970s, low mound and all, than they did in the 1950s or 1960s. Pitching ruled, low mound and all, in 1988-1991. It's a cyclical game. These things happen. Also, I'm not totally convinced (without research) that the competitive disadvantage from the AL's collective racism lingered all the way to 1968, the year 22 A.J. (Anno Jackie, The Year of Our Jackie 22). The fact that the NL seemed to have all the great players of color doesn't mean that the AL wasn't trying. Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey were a lot better than Willie Horton or Tony Oliva, but they were all about equally non-white.

And on a third hand, or something like that, I totally agree with Amaro. Changing the mound height back to where it was more than 40 years ago would be exactly as drastic and rash a change as the one Conlin is denouncing for being too drastic and rash. There's just no reason to do that, and there's no reason to believe that doing so would do the things Conlin thinks it would.

Anyway, read the article, have a good laugh. The craziness and all-around logiclessness of the whole thing is really pretty amazing.

But then come back and tell me what you think of the mound height thing (or what you think you would've thought if Conlin's article hadn't turned you instinctively against the idea).


  1. In general, I'm against raising the mound. If I remember correctly (and I'm at work and can't do significant digging), the strikeout rate in the 60s was the highest ever until this most recent era (which has blown past it). If you raise the mound, presumably, the strikeout rate spikes even higher, and games move even more slowly (can you imagine a Yankees/Red Sox game on a raised mound?). And as Crash Davis taught us all, strikeouts are fascist.

  2. Also (again, with out research), I get the sense that pitchers today are taller than ever before. Can you imagine Randy Johnson or Jeff Niemann or Loek Van Mil standing even taller???