The State of the Game in 2001     (01/02/01)

During the holiday season, I received an email from a reader that, well, covered just about everything.  So, I'll just let him do the talking:

"Thane" Ross Snyder of Omaha, NE asks: "What forces drive MLB to change the rules and specifications of the game? Go ahead and talk about the strike zone, but I'm really interested in the pitching mound and ballpark dimensions. Maybe talk about hitting backgrounds as well. I recall (visiting) hitters complaining about hitting off lefties in Fenway for day games, until they closed the season ticket sections behind the camera well about ten years ago.  When the mound was lowered around 1968, was there one player who complained?  Was there a marketing bonanza on the supposed offensive explosion to come? Was it a safety concern? Are there older examples of the mound going up or down?  The trend in ballpark design these days seems to be bandboxes. Were there trends in the past, like deep centerfields? no outfield fences at all? Are there gigantic economic forces at work, or does one owner or player set the wheels in motion for things like outfield padding, erecting walls instead of "grassy knolls," close-cut infields, artificial turf, etc.? Can we anticipate a trend in the future? Will the CoPa usher in a "better" era of baseball, or will its pathetic attendance mean the '90's breed of Jakes and Camdens survive another few decades for high-scoring affairs?"

Well, Thane, that covers a whole lot of ground, so I'll take it one topic at a time.

1) What forces drive changes in the game?  There are many, but I'd have to say that money is the most prevalent and influential.  When it was determined by marketing studies that fans wanted more offense, MLB made sure that more offense is what they got..  In the early 70's, AL executives found that NL teams drew more fans on average and also that NL teams on average scored more runs.  They put 2 and 2 together and figured they needed to find a quick way for their teams to score more runs.  Since talent takes a while to develop, they decided to add an extra hitter to the line-up - in theory, one who was already established, but was no longer effective in the field.  The AL started scoring more runs with their new-fangled designated hitter and "balance" was restored.  Another form of change driven by money is expansion.  MLB gets huge sums of money from new owners: the last 4 teams paid over $150 million each to enter the major leagues.  Television contracts are another way that money governs changes: In 1984, the Cubs were supposed to host 3 games of the NLCS, but because they didn't have lights, they could not host any prime time games.  So the Padres were given the advantage of hosting 3 games and the rest, as they say, is history.

2) What caused the change to the strikezone?  The theory many umpires subscribe to regarding the size of the current strikezone is that it became wide back in the 70's when they were using the large, thick chest protectors.  Because it was hard for them to maneuver the protector enough to see the low strike, and they didn't want to pinch the size of the strikezone so pitchers would be unfairly penalized, they became more apt to call fringe strikes on the black edges of the plate.  When MLB went back to the old style protectors in the 80's, the umps already had the habit of calling the wide strike, and without any regulating entity to oversee that the strikezone was called correctly, they simply kept calling it.

3) Has the pitching mound changed much throughout history?  Did anyone complain?  I'm sure a lot of pitchers complained after the change in 1969, especially when they started getting hit with more regularity.  I doubt many hitters complained - they could see the ball out of the pitcher's hand much more easily.  To my knowledge, however, there weren't any formal protests.  The change in 1968 was not the first time the height of the mound had been changed.  The pitching rubber, or pitching plate as it was originally called, was set 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate in 1893.  In 1903, a rule established that the pitcher's plate could be no more than 15 inches higher than the rest of the infield.  However, this rule was not very tightly enforced, as the mounds in several parks were higher, most notably Shibe Park in Philadelphia, where the mound was measured as high as 20 inches on occasion.  In 1950, a rule established that the pitcher's plate had to be 15 inches higher than home plate; no more, no less.  In 1969, the mound was lowered to the present day 10 inches.  To my knowledge, those are the only changes to the rules regarding the height of the pitcher's mound.

4) Did MLB encourage a marketing bonanza for the offensive boom that was to come back in 1969?  Not a chance.  No business does a worse job of marketing it's product than Major League Baseball; MLB is without peer in this respect.  Owners constantly complain about paying salaries to players who, according to them, are not as good as the ones in years past.  Well, paying the salaries is something the owners have complete control over; they don't have to pay players one nickel more than they want to, at least no more than any employer does.  And the notion that today's players are not every bit as good as the heroes of yesteryear is completely ludicrous - Barry Bonds, Ivan Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez have a very good chance to finish their careers as the best ever to have played their respective positions; Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux are already recognized by many as 3 of the best pitchers of the 20th century.  Marketing their product, either the high quality of it or any substantial improvement in it, would mean more money the owners would have to pay out in order to maintain it.  And as we've seen in the half dozen work stoppages since the advent of free agency, baseball's owners loathe more than anything giving money to anyone but themselves.

5) Why do ballparks change?  More generally, ballpark changes occur for any number of reasons.  Outfield padding was added because owners were tired of paying for players on the DL.  Who knows how great the careers of Pete Reiser and Terry Moore would have been had they not crashed into so many  brick outfield walls.  Deep centerfields were once common because the ballparks fit the dimensions of the city block where they sat.  In baseball's infancy, few parks had outfield walls; the field of play ended where the fans stood, which was around the perimeter of the block.  When fan interference became a concern - and owners realized they could make a profit by charging admission - outfield walls were added.

6) Are ballparks smaller today than they were?  Will they continue to get smaller?  Bandbox ballparks are not a new creation.  Ebbett's Field was a small park, with power alleys no greater than 365 feet from home plate at any point in it's history.  The Baker Bowl, home to the Phillies in the 1930's, and Braves Field in Boston also had inviting dimensions for hitters, improving run scoring by 20% or more.  Ballparks aren't any smaller than they've ever been - there're just fewer of them favorable to pitchers than there were 20 or 30 years ago.  However, if I had to speculate as to a trend, I guess I would have to say it depends on who's winning.  Right now, the teams that are winning are the teams in ballparks where the pitchers don't fear for their ERA.  The Giants just moved into a pitcher friendly park and won more regular season games than anyone in baseball last year.  The Tigers moved to a good pitcher's park and were a very good team in the second half of last year once they got past the injury bug.  The Astros, on the other hand moved from a good pitcher's park, where they had just won 3 straight division titles, to a hitter's park, where they finished 23 games out of first.  So I'm guessing we'll see more parks that favor pitching in the near future.

Hope that answers your question(s).