Moving The Mound Back May Not Help Hitters At All
Baseball America learned on Thursday that Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League are planning to announce a series of significant rules changes for the independent league that will include moving back the mound beyond the current 60-foot, 6-inch standard. It will also use computerized doppler radar tracking to call balls and strikes (popularly known as robot umpires, although no robots are actually involved). There are also expected to be unspecified equipment experiments.
There are many significant questions about what these changes will do for the on-field product in the Atlantic League. And there are further concerns as to what such changes will mean for the players. Trackman statistical data that will be provided to all 30 MLB teams will make it easier for players in the Atlantic League to be analyzed by MLB front offices and should help players get signed. But the difficulty of extrapolating data of a different pitcher-batter battle will likely hinder some of that analysis. (Although it will create a small arms race among analytics departments to best figure out how to translate the data).
But when it comes to the even larger questions—will a mound move increase risks of injuries and will it benefit hitters as has been proposed?—the real answer is no one knows. Which is one of the main reasons MLB wants to conduct experiments in a real league which will provide countless data points.
Kyle Boddy is the founder of Driveline Baseball. His company is as data-driven as they come. So when asked about what could happen with a change to the distance from the pitching mound to home plate, his first answer is to point out that there is no research that he is aware of where anyone has significantly studied and actually measured the impact of moving back the mound with actual on-field or lab testing.
But Boddy does have some expectations based on his years of working with pitchers and hitters.
For one, he said he does not believe such a decision would increase the risk of injury. And he knows of no data or research to prove otherwise.
But maybe as interestingly, Boddy believes such a move will actually benefit pitchers much more than hitters. His hypothesis is that rather than increasing balls in play and making life easier for hitters, pitchers will find the combination of computerized balls and strikes and a moved-back mound to be very helpful for them. The move of the mound has been proposed because of the belief that the further distance would help hitters put the ball in play, cutting the skyrocketing strikeout rates that have concerned MLB.
Thanks to Trackman calling balls and strikes, “there are gonna be a lot of fastballs at the knees called balls and top-shelf breaking balls called strikes, plus buried sliders/changeups that are called strikes," Boddy said.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, Boddy also said that moving the mound back will allow pitchers to rely even more heavily on nasty breaking balls. While fastball effectiveness might be reduced slightly (because hitters have more time to react), breaking balls would become even tougher to hit, especially when combined with a computerized strike zone that gives pitchers more options for backdoor sliders or bounced curveballs that catch an edge of the zone.
“The mound being moved back will be way worse for hitters,” Boddy said. “The difference is not large from a velocity/reaction-time standpoint, but the movement difference is huge.”
The further the ball has to travel, the bigger break a breaking ball has both in actual movement and just as importantly in perceived movement to the hitter.
“Play catch with a big leaguer throwing sliders at 50 feet and then play catch at 70 feet,” Boddy said. “(Catch at) 70 feet is infinitely more terrifying.”
A year from now, theories will have turned into reality. But for now, it will be very interesting to see what is learned from the Atlantic League's great experiment.