Saturday, April 17, 2021

Solutions in Search of a Problem

No, not that
Double Hook
As I await the start of the New York Mets scheduled doubleheader vs. the Colorado Rockies, I feel a strong urge to write about something besides the horrible weather and the pathetic boy's club the Mets organization was in dying years of the Wilpon regime. I'm confident the weather will do whatever it wants regardless of my feelings on the matter, and The Athletic will surely have more follow-ups on their story while they continue to ignore the culture of 29 other MLB franchises.

Early in the week, while I was preoccupied with Lisa being in the hospital again, there was reporting on a pair of gimmicks that MLB would try out in the independent Atlantic League this summer. Both of them are pitching-related.

The first would move the pitching rubber back a foot from the current distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. The second is something dubbed the "Double Hook." A team would lose its DH as soon as the starting pitcher left the game, forcing them to make the decisions they're making again in the National League this season: allow the pitcher to hit or pinch-hit for him.

The idea of moving the rubber back a foot has been talked about for a while. The thought behind it is to cut down a bit on the number of at-bats that end in a strikeout by allowing batters a split-second longer to react to fastballs. The unknown would be breaking pitches and how much that extra foot would affect them. The worry is that pitchers who have pitched from 60' 6" since they graduated from Little League might get hurt or, at the very least, struggle to adapt their games to the new distance. That's obviously why MLB wants to try it out in the Atlantic League to see how it plays out.

I'm not in favor of this change. It's not that I expect many pitchers to suffer injuries from moving back a foot. I think that would be an unlikely outcome. I'd be more worried about the unforeseen consequences to secondary pitches. The changes that pitchers might have to make to have their breaking stuff and offspeed pitches work effectively would be more worrisome to me. But really, I question the necessity of making this change in the first place.

I first started watching baseball games in 1968. I was only a kid and didn't have an adult to explain things to me. It took a couple of years before I had much of an inkling about the game's intricacies I was watching, so I don't remember 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, with much clarity. I was somewhat aware of how Bob Gibson commanded games that he pitched with a ridiculously low 1.12 ERA for the season. I knew that Denny McLain had won more than 30 games, even if I didn't completely understand the significance of it. Starting pitching dominated the game of baseball in 1968. Of course, I really had nothing to compare it to, since I had only begun following the game.

I remember watching Mets games in 1969, with my adult baseball tutors Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner, and Lindsey Nelson explaining to me the rule changes put into effect to try to bring more offense back to baseball. As excellent as these three men were at their jobs, the explanations went over my head. It was only years later that I understood the consequences of MLB lowering the mound 3 inches and shrinking the strike zone. There were also 4 expansion teams added: the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the AL; the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres in the NL. This diluted the pitching in MLB quite a bit, which in turn helped offenses.

For all of that, the game I grew up watching in the 1970s was still quite pitching-dominated, particularly among the better teams. As a Mets fan, it was even more exaggerated, as the clubs in the first half of the decade generally featured strong starting pitching and weak offense.

The second half of the 1970s and the decade of the 1980s featured more offense, both for the Mets and MLB as a whole. The 1990s and the early years of the new century featured offense on steroids, literally, with home run totals that seemed almost like a video game rather than real baseball. I remember worrying at the time that MLB offense would soon rage out of control. Silly boy.

Major League Baseball has evolved from the game of my youth that revolved around starting pitching and defense to one that largely ignored defense for quite a while to today, where defense has become a priority again. Baseball changing and evolving goes back further than my lifetime, for that matter. The game has evolved continuously since the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the mid-1800s. This combination of tradition and evolution is something that baseball fans like myself love about the sport.

Before MLB even considers moving the pitching mound back, I'd like to see them standardize and enforce what pitchers can use to grip a baseball. I honestly believe that this would bring down the number of strikeouts quite a bit. Probably more than moving the mound back, and with fewer potential consequences and disruption to the history of the game, where 60' 6" has been the standard since 1893.

Proponents of the change would undoubtedly point to lowering the mound 3 inches in 1968 as an example of successful changes to a long-established standard that had been in place since 1904. While this might be true, changing the strike zone and 4 expansion teams had at least as significant an effect, if not more.

While researching the changes made in 1969 to bring pitchers back down to earth a bit, I was interested to learn that the shrinking of the strike zone was a reaction to an enlargement of the zone prior to the 1963 season. The reason for that change? The length of ballgames had grown to over 2 hours and 38 minutes, and few games took less than 2 hours to play. Baseball wanted to shorten what I guess was considered tediously long games back in that day. The unintended consequence was the over-domination of starting pitchers.

My lifetime of watching Major League Baseball has taught me that pitchers and hitters will constantly evolve and adjust to each other. Smart teams will eventually figure out how to offset the preponderance of strikeouts in today's game.

So, like I said, let's see if we could do something about the grip enhancements that pitchers are using to get such high spin rates on their pitches. If that could be accomplished, changing the distance between the rubber and the plate may no longer seem necessary. I kind of like the idea that Jacob deGrom is pitching from the exact same distance as Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Bob Gibson, and Denny McLain. That should only be altered as an absolute last resort.

On to the "Double Hook" rule, which makes very little sense to me. Oh, I understand the rationale: the threat of losing their DH would incentivize teams to leave their starting pitchers in the game longer. If you hate seeing teams utilize openers to start games, the Double Hook rule would undoubtedly put an end to that. Those things just don't seem desirable enough for me to support something as drastic as this rule.

One or both teams using an opener to start a game doesn't bother me at all. It's just a strategy — I actually enjoy seeing something innovative in MLB. In the end, you're still seeing a starting pitcher come into a game, just in a different place.

As for bullpen games, where a manager tries to use multiple relievers for an entire game, that's just strategy, too. If injuries or doubleheaders cause a team to run out of viable starters, they should be able to use whatever strategy they can conceive of to try to get a win.

I guess folks want to go back to when starting pitchers went deeper into games, but trying to force it with a rule like this seems like a bridge too far for me. Why ultimately penalize a team whose starter gets knocked out early when they're trying to come back from a deficit already? That club losing a DH and potentially running out of pinch-hitting options surely isn't going to put more offense into a game, is it? I get it that Commissioner Rob Manfred likes to tinker with gimmicks like this one, but it feels like a real stinker to me.

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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