by Alex Langer
Rules-what are they good for? That is the focus of the next few weeks here at the Tattered Pennant. Each of us are looking at a rule change in a major sport and letting you, the reader, know what we think of it. Today we’re beginning with baseball’s, biggest rule change of the past fifty years. No, it’s not the addition of the designated hitter to the American League; rather, it has to do with the mound. Since 1893, the pitching rubber (the place the pitcher must throw from) has been 60 and ½ feet from home plate. It sits just a few feet closer to home plate than it does from second base, almost perfectly in the center of the baseball diamond. Originally, pitchers threw from flat ground, but the pitcher’s box (as they originally called it) rose slightly throughout baseball’s early decades. Between 1903 and 1968, the height limit was 15 inches off the ground. Then came the big shift in 1969, when the MLB changed the maximum height from 15 to 10 inches, where it has stayed ever since.
Rule changes in sports generally come about in order to make the game more watchable, or more even between offense and defense. Lowering the mound was a little bit of both. MLB lowered the mound to level the playing field (pardon the pun) between pitchers and batters. It lowered the mound to make it more difficult for pitchers to dominate games, and to give batters a better chance to hit the ball. Spoiler alert: it worked. It worked so well that three seasons ago, as bats went cold, talk grew about lowering the mound again.
Pitching is about three things: velocity, accuracy, and pitch movement. The mound does little to affect accuracy, but helps with both velocity and pitch movement. Pitching begins with the legs. A pitcher uses the stride of their pitch to generate momentum, momentum that transfers to the throwing arm when the front leg hits the ground. A higher mound meant a steeper drop-off. Think of it as the difference between running downhill and on flat ground. The higher the mound, the faster the pitch. Mound height matters more for pitch movement. Pitches coming from the mound already had an extra fifteen or so inches of vertical drop. The extra height allows for more movement in the pitches as well. The difference between ten and fifteen inches may not seem like much, but a baseball bat “sweet spot” is only an inch or so in diameter.
That was the situation in 1968. If baseball before the 1920s was the dead ball era, dominated by pitchers, singles, bunting, and low scoring games, and baseball from the 1920s through the 1950s was the live ball era, highlighted by batting stars like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Lou Gehrig, the 1960s were the years of the pitchers. Bob Gibson, Tommy John (of surgery fame), and Sandy Koufax set records that may never be topped. In Koufax’s case, the rumors (and visual evidence) were that the Dodgers’ mound was almost twenty inches tall-five inches taller than regulation and almost twice the height of modern mounds. Koufax, who pitched most of his career with an over-the-top arm motion and a two-pitch arsenal, benefitted tremendously from this height. His four-seam fastball seemed to rise as it reached the batter, partially because of its backspin, partially because it came from higher than was typical. His curveball, which may be the best curve of all time, had even more room to drop, descending almost a full foot during its trip to the plate.
Koufax was one of the most famous beneficiaries of the expanded strike zone and high mound, but he wasn’t the only one. Leading up to 1968, the “year of the pitcher,” batting averages and runs scored across both leagues dropped dramatically. In 1968, the league-wide batting average was .237, the lowest batting average in baseball history. (The next lowest was in 1888, when batters combined for a .239 batting average). For the sake of comparison, the league batting average reached its peak in 1930 with a .296 average. The league average in 1930 was only five points less than the batting champion’s average in 1968. Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 average, the lowest ever. (Last year’s batting champion in the American League, José Altuve, had a .338 batting average).
Meanwhile, pitchers in 1968 had their way with batters. Bob Gibson won the NL Cy Young with a 1.12 ERA. That number ranks second all-time, behind only Dutch Leonard in 1914. In 1968, seven starting pitchers had an ERA under 2.00, more than in any other baseball season. Some of this was due to talent, but mound height had a lot to do with the inflated numbers in 1968. Bob Gibson’s ERA+, a baseball statistic that accounts for his home ballpark (i.e., does he pitch in a pitcher’s park, like Seattle’s Safeco Field, or a hitter’s park, like Denver’s Coors Field), and for league averages, shows that he was 158% better than the major league average. Amazingly, that number is actually seventh in history, behind multiple Greg Maddux seasons and Pedro Martinez’s magical 2000 season, where he had a 1.74 ERA at a time when the league average was 4.77! The league ERA in 1968 was 2.98, the only time since 1919 that league ERA dipped below 3.00. For comparison, in 2014, journalists decried the growing dominance of pitching, and suggested that the mound should be lowered again, or that the baseballs needed to be juiced. The dominant pitching that brought about these radical suggestions? 3.74 ERA, three quarters of a run higher than in 1968.
Because of the pitchers’ prowess, the average team only scored 3.42 runs a game that season. It was one of the only times in MLB history that run averages fell below the 4-run range. MLB is remarkably consistent with its run scoring. Since 1920, when the live-ball era began, there have only been eight seasons where teams averaged less than four runs per game. Five of those seasons were between 1963-1968, and only two have come since the mound was raised in 1969. To inject more scoring into the game, an MLB rules committee voted to lower the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. They also shrunk the strike zone again, and pledged harsher punishments for pitch doctoring (scuffing the ball, using grease, throwing spitballs, etc.). It worked: runs per game jumped from 3.42 to 4.07 that year, and held just around 4 runs a game until the early 1990s, when they jumped to the high 4’s and low 5’s.
This was a good rule change. One of the greatest parts of baseball is that statistics remain largely consistent through time. You can, with some caveats, compare hitters from 1932 and 2016. This isn’t possible in the other major American sports, thanks to the radical changes in how the game is played. Baseball teams score about four runs a game. Their batting averages and ERA might shift, but BA is typically around .250 and ERA typically hovers around 4.00. This allows us to compare statistics across generations. For a statistic-obsessed sport, this is a good thing. It’s why every baseball fan knows the significance of 61 home runs, or 262 hits. From a fan perspective, as well, four runs a game feels right. It hits that perfect sweet spot between boring pitchers’ duel and batting practice. The MLB decision to lower the mound in 1968 was as important to the continued beauty of the sport as any rules change in the last fifty years, across any sport.
 “With Hitting Down, Should MLB Lower the Mound?” http://www.espn.com/espn/wire?id=11216723§ion=mlb, “Notes: Is It Time to Lower the Mound?” http://m.mlb.com/news/article/69882656/tracy-ringolsby-is-it-time-to-lower-the-mound-again/
 The dead-ball era, a period when baseball was dominated by pitching and so-called “small ball,” ended in 1919 when Babe Ruth hit a record 29 home runs. The dead-ball era was so-named because the baseballs were in use for most of the game, leading them to become softer throughout the game, and harder to hit far. Also, ballpark dimensions were much deeper than is normal. Center field at the Cubs stadium before Wrigley was 560 feet away from home plate.
 This would be the result of the infamous steroid era in baseball.