Bring Back the Hill
Jim Henneman's hill-raising remedy to level the playing field for pitchers and hitters.
By Jim Henneman
It has been 40 years since baseball reacted to a once-in-a-lifetime performance and took away the pitchers’ comfort zone. The time has come to make amends and do something to prevent the modern starter from becoming little more than a five-inning wonder.
In short, the time has come to “Bring Back The Hill.”
Until Bob Gibson dominated the game and tortured hitters while compiling a 1.12 earned run average in 1968, pitching mounds were generously listed as 15 inches high -- though in many cases it was an approximation, depending on whether the home team’s pitcher that night was a fastballer, a la Jim Palmer, or a soft tosser, a la Mike Cuellar.
Dodger Stadium, home to the likes of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, was reputed to have the highest mound in the game, while Palmer himself once said if you tried to step off the back of the mound in Anaheim “you’d fall down.”
But something strange happened in 1968, when average ERAs in both leagues dipped below 3.00. Denny McLain won 31 games, Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a miniscule .301 batting average and too many scores were looking like preliminary rounds of soccer tournaments. Knowing how much our country prefers offense over defense, baseball quickly overreacted and made a drastic change, mandating pitching mounds be a uniform 10 inches high -- lopping off one-third of the built-in height advantage pitchers had traditionally held over hitters.
Detroit left-hander Mickey Lolich didn’t react kindly when asked about the looming changes during the spring of 1969 -- a year after he won three World Series games as the Tigers beat Gibson’s St. Louis Cardinals. “They’ve lowered the mound, changed the strike zone and said we can’t go to our mouths,” said Lolich. “Are we the bad guys, the villains?”
The answer, obviously, was yes -- even though there had been no indication of a trend prior to Gibson’s breakthrough year. The American League ERA of 2.98 was the lowest it had been since 1918, when a certain left-handed soon-to-be slugger pitched a certain Red Sox-legged team to a World Series victory before departing to join the hated team in Manhattan.
In the National League the ERA of 2.99 was the lowest since 1919. The lowering of the pitching mound was generally recognized as the deciding factor in the ERAs jumping more than a half-run a game the following year. But that still wasn’t enough for the AL, which broke ranks with its NL counterpart three years later and introduced the designated hitter.
Many traditionalists suggest the DH is more damaging to the health of pitchers than the size of the pitching mound -- but would also agree it would be easier to adjust the amount of dirt in the middle of the diamond than it would be to change the rule that caters to the defensively challenged.
Beyond that, however, is the overriding belief that all changes in baseball over the last century have benefited the hitters. Smaller balls, smaller strike zones, juiced-up balls, juiced-up bodies (though some of them belong to pitchers, too) and protective gear that encourages hitters to crowd the plate have contributed to offensive numbers that have not challenged soccer scores for decades.
In addition, the age of specialization has crept into the game -- with pitch counts often getting equal billing with results. Starting pitchers especially have been affected by the new trends, with some numbers so alarming the purists argue comparisons between eras are no longer possible.
The only thing for certain is that pitchers in the last 40 years have been working from a mound lowered by a third, for reasons not completely known, or at least understood.
“Five inches was pretty drastic,” said ex-Oriole pitcher Dave Johnson, who now spends his time analyzing on radio and television. “Why not 12 inches instead of 10?”
Johnson never pitched off the higher mound but thinks raising it a couple of inches would help pitchers without hurting the game.
“They might throw a little harder, and maybe be a little more confident throwing strikes inside, and be able to stay in the game a little longer,” he said, acutely aware of the dominating effect of the ever-present pitch count.
Finding a way to extend starting pitchers beyond the sixth inning is an overriding consideration in any evaluation -- and one of those most vocal about it is Hall of Famer Don Sutton. Having pitchers comfortable going six innings is like, “telling kids if you get all C’s during school you are a great student,” is his analogy. “We are setting the bar too low.”
While few would argue raising the mound would help pitchers, there are also other schools of thought about what might help.
“Just let them pitch inside,” said Bruce Kison, who helped the Pirates win a couple of World Series against the Orioles but is now one of the O’s highly-regarded scouts.
“You’ve got hitters up there wearing all that (protective) crap and if you throw a ball close they want to throw you out of the game. If they’d stop protecting the hitters so much, that would help the most.”
Al Kaline, the native Baltimore Hall of Famer, thinks pitchers today throw harder than those of his era.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” said Kaline, who serves as a special assistant for the Tigers. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if they raised the mound, but I do agree that it seems like everything that’s been changed over the years has seemed to go against the pitcher.”
Three other things they didn’t have in Kaline’s day, all of which enter into the occasion, were the radar gun, the specialist known as the closer and the dreaded pitch count.
Still, what has seemingly worked against pitchers more than anything is the influx of new ball parks. Only a handful fall into the category of a pitcher’s paradise, with the rest, especially the most recent, highlighted by a lack of foul territory and short porches, masquerading as home run havens.
Innings pitched has become the most drastically affected statistic in baseball. Complete games have virtually become a thing of the past -- a gem almost as rare today as no-hitters were a few generations ago. There were a mere 136 complete games in 2008, and 19 of them were recorded by two pitchers, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay.
While the workhorses of years past, like Lolich and Palmer, routinely worked 300 innings and often completed 20 games on their own, teams now spend lavishly for those who can log 200 per season -- a reduction of one-third, which by the way coincides exactly with the amount of leverage taken away from the guys on the hill.
Has the time come to reclaim that precious real estate? A good answer to that question might be the same one Frank Robinson used so often during the Orioles’ near-magical run in 1989. Why not? Based on the numbers, how could it hurt?
TV analyst Tim McCarver, who ironically was one of Gibson’s catchers with the Cardinals, is among those who have campaigned in the past for baseball to return to the 15-inch mound. “I’ve been suggesting a return for years, but nobody seems to be listening,” he said. McCarver made his living catching pitchers like Gibson and Steve Carlton and believes a change is needed to establish a better balance between pitching and hitting.
In reality, the rule establishing the 15-inch mound was one of the most abused rules in the game. Prior to 1950, the rule stated it should be “no more than 15 inches” before the height supposedly became standard. Pat Santarone, the late groundskeeper for the Orioles, once gave a demonstration on how a mound was constructed using a series of one-by-two-inch wooden slabs as the centerpiece with the mound then shaped around it.
“If you wanted to,” Santarone had pointed out, never saying one way or the other whether he did or not, “it would be very simple to add or take away a block or two depending on who was pitching.”
And, according to those who lived through that era, 15 inches was a lot higher in Dodger Stadium than it was anywhere else. It has been suggested the difference between that mound and the one Santarone prepared for him at Memorial Stadium was the reason Dave McNally was uncommonly wild in Game 1 of the 1966 World Series (which Moe Drabowsky dominated with fastballs previously unseen) but dominant in Game 4, when he was a 1-0 winner.
According to Richie Garcia, a former AL umpire who now serves as a supervisor, baseball now has inspectors who routinely check things like the lighting and pitching mounds in both leagues.
“They (the pitching mounds) are checked regularly,” Garcia said, “but in the past, there were a lot of things that went unnoticed -- things like moving the coaching boxes closer to the foul lines so you could steal the catcher’s signs. I doubt if those things were monitored as much as they are now.”
If Major League Baseball is serious about trying to find ways to escape the fallout of the steroid era, raising the pitching mound would seem to be a no-brainer. So much so, in fact, that baseball actually approved such a move 14 years ago -- at the very height of the home run epidemic.
Looking for ways to speed up the game (following previous efforts to lengthen it by padding the scoring), owners voted in 1995 to adopt several measures suggested by Steve Palermo. The former umpire had been charged by commissioner Bud Selig with the task of finding ways to reduce length of games, which had crept over three hours.
One of Palermo’s recommendations was raise the pitcher’s mound to 12 or 13 inches, figuring it would also raise the confidence level of those throwing the ball, which in turn would lead to a quicker pace. Somehow baseball has managed to eliminate almost 15 minutes from the average time of a game but has done nothing to increase the amount of time starting pitchers hang around.
For some reason, most likely because of the home run fever epidemic in vogue at the time, Palermo’s recommendation to raise the mound never got beyond the approval of the owners, who obviously didn’t realize how little control they actually had over their game.
It’s time to take another look. It’s time to realize Gibson’s 1.12 was an exceptional year by an exceptional pitcher. Those tiny ERAs? Evidence suggests they were more a mirage than a trend -- and hitters have been having far too much fun.
It’s time to give the pitchers a break. It’s time to restore at least part of the real estate missing from the middle of baseball diamonds everywhere.
It’s time to Bring Back The Hill. Now.
Issue 139: July 2009