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Three Fixes for MLB’s No-hitter Epidemic

With strikeouts at record highs and the likes of Jeremy Hellickson sniffing perfectos, baseball’s balance of power has officially shifted too far toward pitchers. What to do? Move the mound. Or … consider the rhombus.  

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I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff in my brief sportswriting career, but I’ve never seen a no-hitter in person. A no-hitter is one of baseball’s great single-game achievements, yet it’s common enough to feel like something every sportswriter, or even hard-core baseball fan, ought to witness at least one, at some point.

Two weeks ago, I sat through an Astros homestand where there was a no-hit bid every night. I was certain Gerrit Cole had it when he kept the Angels off the board through four innings on Monday night, and I was bouncing in my seat when Nick Tropeano and Justin Verlander had dueling perfect games through three innings two days later. On Friday, Dallas Keuchel and Sean Manaea both got through the first three innings without allowing a base runner, and on Saturday Lance McCullers kept Oakland hitless through five. There was a no-hit bid worth getting excited about in just about every game. I brushed it off as the combination of a hot week from the Astros’ superb starting rotation and Baader-Meinhof effect after Manaea no-hit the Red Sox the week before.

But it turns out there really is a no-hit bid in just about every game. Earlier this week, my Ringer colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote about the near-epidemic levels of no-hit bids in this young 2018 season. Turns out, a league with record strikeout totals and a declining number of hits is going to end up with record numbers of no-hitters through five, six, and seven innings, and more than a few that last all nine. Just a month and a half into the season, we’ve already seen three no-hit bids go the distance: Manaea’s, the Dodgers’ combined no-hitter, and James Paxton’s gem in Toronto on Tuesday. As Paxton was wrapping his no-hitter up, Nationals right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who at this point in his career has that all-slow-and-spinning old-man pitching repertoire, had held the Padres without a base runner through six innings.

Even though I yearn to see a no-hitter in person someday, the near Paxton-Hellickson goose-egg doubleheader was something of a tipping point for me. Because if Jeremy Jetpacking Hellickson can grind out six perfect innings, the balance of power has slipped too far toward pitchers.

The threat of having two no-hitters on the same day is a familiar one, especially after reading this, from Ben’s Wednesday article: “As a percentage of games, no-hitters through five and six haven’t happened this frequently since 1968.” That year, Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 batting average. Don Drysdale set a record with 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and pitched 13 complete-game shutouts, and Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games. McLain’s Tigers won 103 games and the World Series with a teamwide batting line of .235/.307/.385, an OPS of .692. In 2000, Tony Womack posted a .692 OPS with similar OBP and SLG numbers, and his OPS+ was 71. The 1968 Tigers’ aggregate OPS+ was 107.

After that season, MLB did something we can barely fathom nowadays: It changed the parameters of the game, radically, to promote a more entertaining style of play. In 1969, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches, and the strike zone reduced in size. In 1973, the American League introduced the designated hitter, and the rest is history. Since the current problem is obvious—strikeouts are too common now and only becoming more so, while hits are rarer and rarer—what could MLB do to fix it?

1. Move the Mound Back

The mound has been 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate since 1893, and in the past 125 years, baseball players have only gotten bigger and stronger. Even power pitchers at the turn of the 20th century weren’t that big by modern standards: Cy Young was 6-foot-2, Walter Johnson 6-foot-1. If 6-foot-6, 240-pound Noah Syndergaard had been born in 1892 and not 1992, he wouldn’t have been a ballplayer: He’d have been a circus performer who lifted his wife and young children over his head with one arm for a living.

Bigger pitchers not only release the ball closer to home plate by virtue of their long limbs, they also throw harder. We have league-wide PITCHf/x data for only 2007 on, but just in the past 12 seasons, league-wide average fastball velocity has increased from an even 92 miles per hour to 93.7 miles per hour in 2018. One way to reduce strikeouts would be to give hitters more time to react to a pitch, and since just asking pitchers not to try so hard isn’t exactly an option, we could adjust the size of the playing field to better accommodate the modern athlete’s body.

Back in 2014, when panic over strikeout rates was a fraction of what it is today, Ben examined this possibility in depth at Baseball Prospectus. He noted that the mound moved back by a few feet every few years in the late 1800s, and moving the pitching rubber back five feet could bring strikeout rates back to where they were in the late 1970s. A correction that extreme might throw the entire game into chaos, but smaller or more gradual adjustments to the mound would give players on both sides of the ball time to adjust.

The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate because the players are smaller and don’t throw as hard. Nobody’s suggesting that high schoolers can’t pitch from a 60-foot, 6-inch mound as their bodies mature, so why can’t MLB give the pros a playing field appropriate for their bodies?

2. Make the Field a Rhombus

Right now, the baseball diamond is a square 90 feet to a side, with the bases at right angles. Just as pitchers have outgrown the mound, larger hitters and runners have also outgrown the 90-foot base distance. But while the ball now travels too quickly from rubber to plate, the problem for runners is that they can’t cover the distances between bases quickly enough. Lengthening the distance between bases would give batters more fair territory to aim at, but also more ground to cover between bases, which would counteract the effect at least somewhat.

But what if you could make fair territory bigger without altering the distance between bases? You can, by changing the square diamond to a rhombus. A rhombus, for those of you who forgot everything you learned in geometry, is a quadrilateral with four sides of equal length that are not necessarily connected at right angles—all squares are rhombuses, but not all rhombuses are squares. Right now, a straight line between first and third base is a little more than 127 feet, 3 inches, and a straight line between two foul poles 330 feet from the plate is a little more than 466 feet, 8 inches—that’s the width of the target the hitter has to aim for.

Imagine a giant lifting up a baseball diamond, holding second base and home plate in its thumb and forefinger and squeezing to reduce the distance between second and home, but increase the distance between first and third. Let’s say the angle of the corners of the rhombus at first and third base is reduced to 85 degrees and the angle of the corners at second at home is 95 degrees, not a perfect square, but not so squished that a batter running from second to third on a sac fly could high-five a batter running from third to home. Fair territory would then be 132 feet, 8 1/2 inches wide at first and third base, and 486 feet, 7 inches wide at the foul poles. The total area of the field wouldn’t change much (in fact, the triangle created by home plate and the foul poles would be slightly smaller if the foul lines were set 95 degrees apart) but defenders don’t necessarily have to cover area, they have to cover angles. One and a quarter extra degrees per infielder would be nearly imperceptible on a play-to-play basis but over the course of a season would allow more line drives to fall in and ground balls to sneak through.

One downside to this solution would be moving second base about six feet closer to home plate, which would make it much harder to steal second—a proposition many teams and players already consider too risky to try routinely for any but the fastest base runners. But perhaps the new dimensions would also make it riskier to bunt a runner from first to second, so in addition to giving hitters more room to work with, we’d be trading one exciting play for a relatively boring play.

3. Nothing

“There are too many strikeouts and too few hits” is a value judgment, and one that not everyone agrees with. There are people out there, baseball fans, who are overawed by pitchers’ ability to throw hard and break off ridiculous breaking pitches; on the flip side, nothing gets fans out of their seats like a home run. But most of all, fans want their teams to win. Yes, strikeouts and home runs are at historical highs, but the amount front offices know about baseball is also at a historical high. So today’s players and managers hit the field armed with more knowledge and training in how to win than anyone else in history. In short, the quality of play is at an all-time high, if quality of play is measured by efficiency in pursuit of winning.

We value efficiency in our society, and I want efficiency in many aspects of life: health care, public transportation, fast food. But efficiency for efficiency’s sake isn’t necessarily beautiful. And while baseball’s individual actors pursue efficiency as a path to victory, baseball on the whole as an entertainment entity ought to pursue beauty and excitement. Maybe you think a game that’s largely strikeouts and home runs is beautiful, or maybe you value efficiency for its own sake.

Regardless, the league is willing to tinker around the edges with the game, with trivial things like counting mound visits or making the intentional walk automatic. But the foundations of the game—things like four balls for a walk and 90 feet between bases—are like the U.S. Constitution: established by people after extended discussion and tinkering to fit the needs of the time. But the people who set the rules are so far in the past they’re indistinguishable from a divine proclamation handed down on Mount Sinai. The foundational rules of baseball could be changed, but nobody’s interested in actually doing it.

Unfortunately, there’s a next-to-zero chance that MLB would consider changing the shape or size of the playing field, no matter how much the shape and size of the people who populate that field change, or how little modern baseball resembles the sport that it evolved from. My only hope is that in 30 years’ time, when 95 percent of at-bats end in strikeouts and the youths have deserted the national pastime for esports, some forlorn soul might pick up this piece and derive a little joy from imagining a world in which the rhombus saved baseball.