How Baseball Settled on 60 ft 6 inches
A lot of Experimentation and a lot of Strikeouts Along the Way
August 9th, 2021
Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Starting last Tuesday, something new was afoot -- or, rather, a foot -- in the independent Atlantic League. There -- and, for now, only there -- one of baseball’s two most sacred spans will be expanded in the name of exploration.
Say it with us: 61 feet, 6 inches.
That dimension sounds so strange, doesn’t it?
The mere utterance of the number 61 conjures up memories of Maris and McGwire, not mounds. In this context, it feels so foreign, so unfamiliar, so blasphemous. Wasn’t the distance of “60 feet, 6 inches” between the pitching rubber and the back tip of home plate commanded somewhere in the Old Testament or the Dead Sea Scrolls? Why mess with this measurement?
Basically, blame it on the K rates.
“You have to start with the recognition that the pitcher-batter relationship dynamic is a little bit out of balance right now,” MLB rules consultant Theo Epstein told MLB Network in April, “and that we should look for ways to restore some equilibrium to that.”
The strikeout rate in MLB this season, as of this writing, is just shy of 24%. A generation ago, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that number was more typically in the neighborhood of 15%.
That’s a gigantic jump. A recent crackdown on sticky substances has already affected the equilibrium Epstein mentioned, but MLB remains open to other potential means of ensuring more balls get put in play.
Studies by the American Sports Medicine Institute demonstrated no meaningful differences in measures of rotational motion or acceleration for pitchers throwing from distances as far as 63 feet, 8 inches. So there is scientific reason to believe this change will not pose a meaningful increase in injury risk to pitchers. That’s why MLB determined the pitching distance adjustment to be a worthwhile experiment.
And to reiterate, that’s all this is -- an experiment in an unaffiliated league that has become MLB’s partner in monitoring the effects of rules tweaks. The 61-feet, 6-inch distance will have to pass the test in York (the Pennsylvania home of the Atlantic League’s Revolution club) long before it is ever considered in New York.
(Baseball’s other sacred measurement -- 90 feet between the bases -- remains intact, though a season-long experimentation with larger bases at the Triple-A level does actually shorten that span by 3 inches.)
So that explains why this is happening. But you are forgiven if you’re having trouble adjusting to the idea of a different distance.
Odd and unwieldy though it may be when compared to other, simpler sporting standards such as the 100-yard football field or the 10-foot-high basketball hoop, the measurement of 60 feet, 6 inches is as basic to baseball as the stitches themselves. It has been the decreed distance since 1893, which makes it a longer-lasting core component of baseball than ... the baseball’s core component (the cork center wasn’t added to the baseball until the early 1900s).
But of course, baseball wasn’t birthed in 1893. How, then, did 60 feet, 6 inches come to be the standard length between pitcher and hitter?
As is often the case with baseball history, the answer is, um, lengthy.
Thinking inside the box
The center of the mound was not always 60 feet, 6 inches from the back of the plate because there was not always a mound and there was not always a plate.
The Knickerbocker Rules -- the first surviving rules for the sport we know and love today – were codified in 1845 and make no mention of the pitching distance. Back then, “home base,” where the batter stood, was a circular-shaped piece of stone or metal, and there was but one rule pertaining to the pitcher:
“The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.”
That’s revealing wording, deferential as it is to the hitter, particularly with the use of “for the bat.” It was not the goal of the pitcher to throw strikes or for the batter to avoid them, because strikes were still 13 years away from their existence. The goal for both sides, rather, was for the ball to be put in play. Pitchers were required to deliver the ball underhand.
Essentially, they gave the batter something juicy to hit, then ducked for cover.
It was not until the Baseball Convention of 1857 -- a meeting of 16 New York City area clubs -- that an official pitching distance was set. That same meeting was the first to establish the 90-foot distance between basepaths with which we are obviously familiar, but the pitching distance was set at a less-familiar 45 feet. The pitching area was marked by a 12-foot-long line, with the center of the line marked by a fixed circular iron plate. Pitchers were allowed to roam around, as long as the ball was delivered from behind the 12-foot line.
In 1863, a pitcher’s box was effectively created with the addition of a second 12-foot line, 48 feet from home base. The pitcher, therefore, had to operate within that 3-foot space from front to back.
Around this time, though, the relationship between pitcher and hitter was beginning to change. A woefully underappreciated pioneer named James Creighton, who pitched for several Brooklyn ballclubs, was a big reason why that once-productive partnership was breached.
The Creighton effect
“James Creighton’s baseball career was like a nuclear explosion,” writes Thomas W. Gilbert, author of “How Baseball Happened.” “It didn’t last long, but afterward the world was never the same.”
From 1858 until his untimely death at age 21 in 1862, Creighton, who was reputed to be a superb cricket player, employed a swift pitch with an imperceptible snap of the wrist. It was not unlike a bowler’s delivery.
“He pitched with a planted back foot, which was an innovation at the time,” says official MLB historian John Thorn. “He used body torque to come flying forward and impart spin to the ball. It was technically illegal, because you could not snap your wrist in 1860. But no one caught on to him. He had movement as well as speed.”
Though some opponents accused Creighton of cheating, the net effect of his unusual style was that he became widely imitated.
So Creighton, ultimately, is the reason pitchers and batters work in opposition, not in tandem. Called strikes were instituted in 1858, called balls in 1863. And as many a Creighton disciple descended upon baseball in the years to come, it eventually became necessary, in the 1880s, to establish a defined strike zone
Where once games were high-scoring affairs decided by the respective defense’s ability to corral balls in play (in the 1860s, games typically featured around 35 combined runs), now the game began to center around the balls and strikes and the battle that exists between pitcher and hitter.
And as that became the case, a 45-foot gap was no longer enough.
Push ‘em back
The exact dimensions of the pitcher’s box changed here and there in the 1860s and 1870s, but, through 1880, the front line was always 45 feet from home base. By that point, though, the high-scoring games of old had given way to an offensive morass. Between 1877 and 1880, the National League batting average fell from .271 to .245, with the number of strikeouts nearly tripling thanks to an increase in pitch speed and movement.
Any of this sound familiar?
Then, as now, the powers that be considered changes to the dimensions to impart more offensive action. In 1881, it was Harry Wright, the so-called “Father of Professional Baseballl” and organizer of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who successfully proposed pushing back the pitching distance to 50 feet. Though offense experienced a brief uptick, wily pitchers still found ways to befuddle batters. For one, pitchers’ motions by this time had crept up, first to sidearm stylings and then, inevitably, to the overhand tosses that were finally, fully permitted in the National League in 1884.
But there were other, inventive means of inducing outs. The most glaring example of this was a fella named Daniel A. Jones. In a very brief Major League career that took place entirely in 1883 with the Detroit Wolverines of the National League and the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association, Jones made a (nick)name for himself – “Jumping Jack” – with a distinctive delivery in which he would leap skyward prior to producing the pitch.
“He is a tall, good-looking, finely-built fellow, a thorough gentleman and all that,” wrote the Sporting News, “but when he wants to add pace to his ball he jumps fully two feet with every delivery. It is a very funny act, and last week, in Cleveland, as he jumped the crowd hooted.”
Lest “Jumping Jack” have a Creighton-like impact and compel a generation of pitchers to jump around like mad, something had to be done to keep pitchers grounded (literally).
So in 1887 came a new dictum: Pitchers had to have their back foot in contact with the back line of the pitcher’s box, which by this point sat 5 1/2 feet behind the front line. If you’re scoring at home, that means pitchers were now required to throw from a measurement of 55 feet, 6 inches from the now-square-shaped home base (the pentagonal shape was not introduced until 1900).
That 1887 season was significant for a couple other changes: Batters were allotted four called strikes, and walks were counted as hits.
Naturally, those changes resulted in a ridiculous – and roundly criticized -- increase in offensive numbers. The leaguewide batting average rose from .246 to .325.
Even “Jumping Jack” must have thought that was a big leap.
Sanity prevailed in 1888 with the return to three-strike strikeouts and walks going back to their usual status. But that meant that offensive numbers, even with hitters ostensibly aided by the 55’6” pitching distance, continued to wane (the league average plummeted to .239).
A hugely important pitching figure at this time was Amos Rusie, an Indiana native known as “The Hoosier Thunderbolt.” He was the classic example of a hurler who threw the ball at tremendous speed and had absolutely no idea where it was going. From 1890 to 1894, Rusie is credited with five straight seasons in which he walked an astounding 200 batters or more.
“He was big in the shoulders and just reared back and fired,” Thorn says. “Batters must have been frightened for their lives.”
The National League needed a solution for Rusie and for the continuing decline in batting average.
What was the answer? Move the pitchers back another five feet -- to 60 feet, 6 inches. That’s what happened in 1893. The pitcher’s box was replaced with a 12-inch-by-4-inch slab, and, as with the back line of the box, the pitcher was required to place his back foot upon it.
(You’ve possibly read or heard that the plan was for the pitching slab to be an even 60 feet from home, but a groundskeeper misread the blueprints and accidentally placed it another 6 inches further. Like so many fun stories, that one is total bunk.)
The effects of the 1893 change were immediate. The league batting average jumped from .245 to .280. The league strikeout rate dropped from 8.4% to 5.2%.
As for Rusie, he kept walking dudes at roughly the same rate, but his strikeout rate declined significantly.
With that, the equilibrium, as Theo Epstein would one day come to call it, was successfully amended. And though there have been other points when offense needed ignition (most notably after the 1968 Year of the Pitcher, at which point the mound was lowered), we’ve stuck with that pitching distance ever since.
So that’s the convoluted story of how we got to the mandated measurement with which we are so familiar. And as the Atlantic League takes a literal step back in order for the game to possibly take a step forward, the history of 60 feet, 6 inches is worth keeping in mind.
“It was a human decision,” Thorn says. “And the prior distances of 55 feet, 6 inches or 50 feet or 45 feet were all human decisions made to balance the offense and defense in the game so that it would produce a pleasing entertainment product. That’s what this is all about. Baseball is not the 100-yard dash. In baseball, we move the tape. We do what we need to create entertainment.”
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