These bold new rule changes could finally fix MLB's offensive incompetence

Apr 26, 2024; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Cleveland Guardians right fielder Estevan Florial (90) loses
Apr 26, 2024; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Cleveland Guardians right fielder Estevan Florial (90) loses / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been less than two years since Major League Baseball implemented a series of controversial rule changes designed to jack up offense. Those changes included limitations on shifting, larger bases and requiring relief pitchers to either end an inning or face three batters.

In that short time frame, one thing is painfully obvious: the changes aren’t working.

One-quarter of the way into this season, teams are averaging just 4.32 runs per game. That’s barely above the 4.28 average of 2022 – the year before the rules changes were implemented – and a full half-run less than just five seasons ago.

It gets worse. The league's .239 batting average is on pace to be the lowest since 1968 and the fourth lowest in the game’s nearly 150-year history. Only three seasons have seen fewer balls in play, and those three were 2020, 2021 and 2023.

When he announced the changes prior to the 2023 season, Theo Epstein said they were designed to add action.

“No one would have asked for the league to hit closer to .240 than to .265,” Epstein said at the time. “Nobody would have asked for a league strikeout rate higher than Bob Gibson's career strikeout rate. Nobody would have asked for fans to have to wait more than four minutes for balls to be put into play.”

All true. But there’s one more thing nobody would have asked for: Nobody would have asked for implementation of a series of rules changes that failed to address the problem.

MLB's rule changes failed to address offensive issues

That problem: pitchers are throwing harder, they’re also learning how to mix pitches more effectively, and batters are swinging harder with a distinct disinterest in strikeout rate. That rate, for the record, is on pace to be the sixth-highest in history, behind only 2018 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2023.

Can you legislate how hard pitchers throw? Yes, actually you can, and there are several ways. Some, perhaps all, would be highly controversial, but given the ongoing paucity of offense and MLB’s failure to actually address it, it’s time to at least discuss more radical measures than were implemented prior to 2023.

Here are several that could be considered.

First, further restrict the number of pitchers a team can have on active status. A few years ago, MLB set a limit of 13 pitchers on an active roster. It may be time to revisit that limitation with an eye toward reducing it to 12 or even 11.

What would that do? It would force teams to use their pitchers – both starters and relievers – longer and more discretely, which in turn would force pitchers to abandon the ‘throw as hard as you can for as long as you can’ mentality in force today.

To reduce roster manipulation, this kind of change would have to be accompanied by some sort of adjustment governing the frequency of pitcher callups that would prevent teams from storing available arms at Triple-A. But that detail work can be managed.

Second, consider lowering the mound. This was done following the season of 1968 when pitchers dominated. That season, teams averaged just 3.42 runs per game, the second lowest in history. Batting averages hit an all-time low.

One season later, with the mound lowered by five inches, scoring increased by more than half a run per game, batting averages rose from .237 to .248, and the league OPS jumped from .639 to .689.

Third and most radically, let’s have a serious discussion about moving the mound back two, three or four feet. That change would give hitters fractionally more time to react to a pitch and basically reset the balance between hard throwers and hard swingers that has been lost in the velocity-first era.

This may surprise some fans, but the mound distance is not sacrosanct. On three previous occasions in baseball history, the rules makers addressed concerns about dominant pitching by pushing pitchers back. It worked each time.

Between the seasons of 1880 and 1881, the pitching area – it wasn’t a mound at the time—was pushed back from the original 45 feet to 50 feet, six inches. The result: Nearly a half run increase in offense and a 41 point jump in OPS, although nobody called it OPS at that time.

Six seasons later, a second adjustment was needed, so the pitcher’s box was pushed back another five feet to 55 feet six inches. The result: More than three-quarters of a run added to scoring, batting averages up 25 points and a more than 70 point jump in OPS.

Finally between the seasons of 1892 and 1893, the present pitching system – 60 feet, six inches and a mound -- came into being. The result: a 1.46 run per game increase, 35 points added to batting average and a 50 point improvement in OPS.

If something as radical as moving the mound were to be seriously discussed, pitchers would be sure to howl. That’s what happened in 1893 when – in an effort to offset the presence of fireballers Amos Rusie and Cy Young – the present rules were imposed. The good ones would adjust.

Young, a 36-game winner under the 1892 rules, won 33 games under the new 1893 rules, played 19 more seasons and set the record for career wins (511) that has never been approached. Rusie, a 32-game winner with 304 strikeouts in 1892, saw his whiff total fall to 208 under the 1893 rules. But he still won 33 games.

There were no radar guns in the 1890s when Young and Rusie dominated, but given improvements in training and the broader emphasis on velocity, it seems a safe bet that modern pitchers are throwing harder than they did back then. Yet the game has made no adjustment in its most fundamental aspect – the distance between pitcher and hitter – to maintain the competitive balance that is so critical to the game’s popularity.

When Theo Epstein talked about loss of fan interest due to fewer balls in play, he may not have realized it, but he was talking about that imbalance.

If MLB actually wants to restore that critical balance, it probably needs to rethink some of the game’s most established paradigms. Further limiting pitcher availabilities, and serious discussion about the placement and height of the mound, are the logical places to start.

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