Moving the mound, the ‘Double Hook’ — what MLB and the Atlantic League are trying out next
By Jayson Stark Apr 14, 2021 515
There hasn’t been much you could always count on in baseball these last 128 years. But there is one thing that hasn’t changed. You could always find the pitcher’s mound and pitcher’s rubber sitting right where you left them the day/month/year/decade/century before:
Precisely 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
Well, 128 years is one hell of a run. But now even the mound is on the move. Starting this summer, sources tell The Athletic, in eight Atlantic League parks from Kentucky to Long Island, that pitcher’s rubber will creep 12 inches farther from the plate than it has been at any time since 1893 – to an unfamiliar distance of 61 feet, 6 inches.
That’s because, in conjunction with its friends at Major League Baseball, the independent Atlantic League is up to its old experimentation tricks again. And moving that rubber back a foot is only half of this story.
Besides the mound change, the two leagues also announced Wednesday that the Atlantic League will be trying out another new wrinkle – this one a variation on the Universal DH that you actually read about right here in The Athletic. They’re even using a name that was suggested by, well, me: the “Double Hook.”
Here’s the way the Double Hook works: Every team starts out the game with a designated hitter. But once the starting pitcher leaves the game, that team also loses its DH. Hence the DH 2.0 terminology – Double Hook. Brilliant, right? Wait. Don’t answer yet.
So why should a Dodgers fan or a Cubs fan or a Twins fan pay attention to anything that happens in the Atlantic League? Hey, why do you think? Because what happens in the Atlantic League doesn’t always stay in the Atlantic League.
You know the ever-popular (except with artists once known as situational left-handers) three-batter rule? Don’t forget, it started in the Atlantic League in 2019. It’s now in its second season in the big leagues. And a bunch of other 2019 Atlantic League rule-change experiments have already made their way to various minor leagues for further examination in 2021.
So if MLB is trying these things out in York or High Point now, it’s telling us something. Today, it’s the Gastonia Honey Hunters – but tomorrow … maybe Fenway?
You may snicker, but there has never been more interest among the higher-ups in this industry in using rule changes as a vehicle to create a more action-packed and entertaining sport. So you should know that everything about 61 feet, 6 inches and the Double Hook will be the subject of intensive study this summer. Everything.
What’s interesting about these two real-life baseball lab experiments is that they’re not all they appear to be on the surface. The intent of the Double Hook isn’t really aimed at designated hitters. And the intent of moving the rubber back a foot isn’t really intended to impact pitchers.
So what is the potential impact? And what will MLB be looking for most closely? Let’s examine that now.
Does one foot back equal a big step forward?
WHAT’S HAPPENING: For the first half of the Atlantic League season, which begins May 27, the mound isn’t going anywhere. But for the second half, starting on Aug. 3, the distance between the plate and the rubber will shift to 61 feet, 6 inches.
WHY IT’S HAPPENING: We’re guessing you’ve noticed that pitchers these days throw harder than at any time in recorded history. (Average fastball velocity in 2021: 93.4 mph, the highest ever.) We’re guessing you’ve also noticed that’s produced a whole cyclone’s worth of swinging and missing. (Strikeout rate in 2021: a ridiculous 9.5 per nine innings, the most ever.)
So if this keeps up, it would make 16 years in a row that the strikeout rate has increased. And you know what that means? Forget the Three True Outcomes. It’s really just that One True Outcome that is swallowing up this sport. So how can baseball counteract the effects of all that velocity? Moving back the mound, even by a foot, might be an answer. Or not.
FIRST, A HISTORY LESSON: Two years ago, the Atlantic League announced it was planning to move the pitcher’s rubber back two feet, to 62′ 6″. Remember that? Of course you don’t. For good reason. It never happened.
So many pitchers expressed so much worry about the potential effects on their health that they threatened to bolt for other independent leagues or not sign at all. The league then decided this was one experiment that wasn’t worth the aggravation.
But two years later, here we are again. Except this time, with the mound moving back just one foot instead of two, and for only a couple of months, there appears to be much less fear of a mass pitcher defection for the Pioneer League.
NEXT, A SCIENCE LESSON: So why would there be less concern about health now than then? Because this time around, baseball is armed (literally) with the results of a 2019 study conducted by Dr. James Andrews, Glenn Fleisig and the American Sports Medicine Institute.
In that study, 26 college pitchers threw fastballs from three mound distances: 60 feet, 6 inches; 62 feet, 6 inches, and 63 feet, 8 inches (half the distance between home and second base). The study’s conclusion? “It is unlikely that moving the mound backwards (by any of those distances) would significantly affect pitching biomechanics and injury risk.”
So as this shift to 61 feet, 6 inches grows nearer, it’s a shrewd bet that you’ll hear many baseball officials citing this study to calm nervous Atlantic League pitchers across the East Coast. Wish them luck!
BONUS HIDDEN WRINKLE: MLB also conducted a study of where big-league catchers set up in the box — and found the difference can be as great as three feet. In other words, pitchers are already throwing the baseball farther than 60 feet, 6 inches. And some of them have been found to be throwing it as much as 65 feet, 6 inches.
Have any of those pitchers even noticed or complained about how catcher set-up is altering their mechanics? Not that we’ve heard. Good chance you’ll be hearing more about that study, too.
IF IT’S SO SAFE, WHY MOVE IT “ONLY” ONE FOOT? How many American sports fans think that “60 feet, 6 inches” is a sacred number, handed down by the baseball gods on a stone tablet in 1893 (since all the laser printers were definitely out of order back then)? Well, however many that is, every single one of those fans will no doubt look at this experiment as an outrageous sacrilege that dramatically alters the foundation of the game.
Maybe they’re right. But if you think 12 inches will rock the fabric of the sport beyond recognition, then imagine moving the mound back two feet, or three feet, or five feet. If you’re trying to help the hitters and produce more contact, you would get way more impact at 65′-6″ than at 61′-6″ – but you would also produce way more pitchers sprinting for the hills and a fundamentally different sport.
So the thinking appears to be: Let’s try one foot and see if it helps. If not, you just might see the Atlantic League tinkering with 62 feet, 6 inches next year.
HOW MUCH WILL ONE FOOT HELP THE HITTERS: We’ll let you know in six months, OK? But in the meantime, MLB has run some projections that indicate that even a one-foot move should give hitters just enough increased reaction time to make a difference.
According to MLB’s data, that extra foot means that a 93.3 mph fastball (i.e, the average velocity in 2020) will look to the hitter like a 91.6 mph fastball (average velocity in 2010). For the record, there were 8,500 fewer strikeouts in 2010 than there were in the last full season, in 2019. That’s not a coincidence.
MLB’s study also estimated that the extra foot would give hitters an additional 1/100th of a second of reaction time. That’s an undetectable difference to those of us just watching. But that 1/100th of a second is enough to reduce projected swings-and-misses by 2.2 percent.
Again, that seems microscopic, but over the course of a big-league season, it would mean thousands of fewer swings that no longer hit nothing but air. So this move is all about what it means for hitters. Stay tuned.
WHAT BASEBALL WILL BE LOOKING FOR: Never in independent-league history will checking those Atlantic League box scores feel so exhilarating. The big questions those box scores could answer:
Will the strikeout rate go down?
Will the walk rate go up, since that extra foot is expected to increase movement on all pitches, which could wreak havoc on command?
Will we see a contact rate that looks more similar to 2010, since effective velocity will feel more like 2010 to the hitters?
And above all, will this have any significant negative effect on pitcher health? If it does, that figures to be the last time baseball messes with 60 feet, 6 inches.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: You know who is heavily involved in all of these rules experiments? A fellow named Theo Epstein, currently working as an MLB consultant. Here’s what he told me and Doug Glanville on our Starkville podcast recently when we asked where he stood on moving back the mound:
“I think it’s impossible to talk about how to restore the right balance between modern pitchers and modern hitters without giving consideration to the dimensions … If you move the mound back a foot, (that) would sort of mean that you’re restoring velocity to where it was maybe eight to 10 years ago, when the contract rate was a little bit better, the strikeout rate was a little bit more under control. So it would certainly be a worthwhile experiment.”
Time to double down on the Double Hook?
WHAT’S HAPPENING: Unlike the 61-6 experiment, the Double Hook will be in effect all season long in the Atlantic League. So in case this wasn’t clear earlier, here’s the deal with how that will work:
Every team starts the game with a DH. If the starting pitcher goes nine innings, the DH hangs around for all nine innings. If the starting pitcher gets knocked out in the fourth, the DH gets knocked out with him. If the starting pitcher is in trouble in the top of the sixth and the DH is due up in the bottom of the sixth, then the manager has a fun decision to make. Talk-show lines are open.
WHY IT’S HAPPENING: Remember back in the good old days — by which we mean, oh, 2010 — when the first question you asked before you watched a baseball game was: Who’s pitching tonight? That’s because we spent a century thinking of starting pitchers as the biggest names and most significant players in the whole sport. It was fun century while it lasted.
In 2020, the average starting pitcher got a measly 14 outs per start. In 2010, that average was 18 outs. And would you believe that even if we prorate last year’s stats over a full season, fewer than 500 starters would have been permitted to go through a lineup three times in 2020? Ten years ago, that number was more than 2,200.
So the Double Hook isn’t really about the DH at all. (Or at least not much.) It’s really about dangling an incentive in front of managers and data-driven front offices to keep their starting pitchers in the game long enough for your average season-ticket holder to have time to gulp down a hot dog and still watch those starters work their magic.
SO WHO LIKES THIS IDEA ANYWAY? Hey, you’d be surprised at the baseball people I’ve heard from since I first wrote about this idea a couple of months ago. Let me tell you about a few of them.
Adam Wainwright loved this thing at the time and told me this spring he’s still a huge fan. Max Scherzer brought it up unsolicited to the Washington Post in February — and even casually referred to it as the Double Hook.
I heard from one All-Star position player on a perennial NL contender (also unsolicited) who told me his team was “all in” on the Double Hook, hitters and pitchers alike. And Rockies manager Bud Black started talking it up over the winter at the virtual Winter Meetings, saying: “It’s not a bad thought.” When I asked him later where he’d first heard the idea, he replied: “It might have been from you.”
I’m honestly not looking for any credit (unless you like it, that is — in which case, you’re welcome). Other than the name, it wasn’t my own personal brainstorm. It’s an idea that actually has been kicked around behind the scenes in baseball for a couple of years. I just thought it would be fun to write about.
But unlike most of the brilliant ideas I decide to champion, which end up in some exotic solid-waste landfill, this one somehow is about to spring to life, in real games, in a real league. What’s everybody thinking out there anyway?
SO WHO HATES THIS IDEA? Oh, there’s a much longer list of baseball people who think this is the most misguided thing to hit baseball since the White Sox played a major-league game wearing shorts. And what do you say we don’t quote all of them?
But I will quote one AL exec whose unabashed loathing of this idea came through loud and clear when I first ran it by him over the winter.
“I hate this rule so much,” he said then, “because it’s loaded with so many unintended consequences. In fact, it has the largest range of bad, unintended consequences of any rule anyone has thrown out there.”
I’m guessing you’re wondering what those unintended consequences might be, right? Well, there’s this one: His team falls behind, 4-0, in the third inning. Then his starter goes out and walks the leadoff hitter. So out he goes. But wait. Out his DH goes, too.
“Now we have to play the rest of that game — when we’re losing — with a worse lineup, or at least one less hitter,” he said. “So the other team has one additional batter in the lineup, and we have our pitcher hitting, and we’re trying to come from behind? Doesn’t that mean your odds of winning that game are reduced dramatically?”
Yeah, excellent point. Meaning … that’s all from him!
HIDDEN WRINKLE: I’ve never actually gotten into this angle before. But one baseball official who loves this idea told me recently that one of his favorite things about it is that it would bring “that Matt Stairs kind of guy” back into prominence.
So why is that? Because pinch-hitting would be a thing again. If baseball goes to the traditional Universal DH, teams would have no reason to stockpile “that Matt Stairs kind of guy” on the bench anymore because he’d never bat. Like ever. With all 30 teams using the DH last year, teams used just 0.65 pinch hitters per game — the fewest since 1912.
But the Double Hook changes all of that. In those late innings, once the starting pitcher exits, we’re assuming no level-headed managers would want their relief pitchers to hit. So all that fun late-game National League strategic razzle-dazzle would roar to life pretty much every night. And that big old, let-it-fly, Slo-Pitch-softball pinch-hit dude would roar to life every night with it, right? Sign me up for that!
WHAT BASEBALL WILL BE LOOKING FOR: If the Double Hook accomplishes what its proponents dream it will accomplish, it should be obvious. These are the big questions.
Will it restore the luster of the starting pitcher by motivating managers to keep their starters in the game longer on any sort of semi-regular basis?
Will it create cool, second-guessable, strategic moments by forcing those managers to think long and hard about every pitching change?
Will it incentivize managers to gravitate away from one-dimensional DHs in favor of more versatile, multi-talented DHs who can be switched into the field when the starter exits to keep their bats in the lineup?
Or will fans hate the idea that if a starter is so bad that he gets knocked out in the first inning, they might not get to see the best hitter on their team get a single frigging at-bat, just because the DH got knocked out in the first inning, too?
But mostly, there is this pivotal question: Will this be the magic formula that allows the DH and the last vestiges of National League baseball to co-exist — or will it just feel like a gimmick that creates more problems than it solves?
QUOTE OF THE DAY: It’s easy to find 1.8 billion opinions of the Double Hook. The truth is, nobody knows what this thing will look like until we see it in action because it has never been trotted out anywhere. So with the Universal DH debate rolling soon toward a labor bargaining table near Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, why not find out? It’s now or literally never.
“Look, it’s something to think about,” said Black. “It’s like a lot of these ideas to make our game more appealing. Off the cuff, you might think they’re crazy. But maybe they’re not.”
(Top photo: Alex Trautwig / MLB Photos via Getty Images)
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