MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Baseball has a problem: Clayton Kershaw, Aroldis Chapman, Felix Hernandez and all the other kings of the hill are just too good.
Ruling with an assortment of big-bending curveballs, sharp sliders and 100 mph heat, a new generation of pitchers has thrown major league hitters into a huge slump. The spike in strikeouts, the dip in home runs and worries that the game is becoming boring for fans reminds some people of 1968, when Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and their fellow aces dominated.
Back then, the sport came up with a radical solution: The pitcher's mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 and the strike zone was reduced. Combined with the addition of four expansion teams, the result was an 11-point increase in the big league batting average in 1969 and a 19 percent rise in runs.
Should baseball drop the mound again? "I don't know, man, maybe if they keep going like this," Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton said Monday at the All-Star festivities. "Move the mound back 5 feet," he added with a chuckle.
There's some thought that reducing the mound would combat the outbreak of blown-out elbows, which has seen stars such as Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez needing reconstructive surgery, and could also claim Masahiro Tanaka.
With low-run games again in vogue and defensive shifts taking away hits, there's been more emphasis on small ball. That's prompted questions about whether this is a cyclical change, or if this style is here to stay.
From his vantage point in the New York Mets' broadcast booth, former NL MVP Keith Hernandez has an unusual analysis and an equally drastic solution. "They should get rid of four teams," he said. "Too many players. There's too much dilution of talent. The pitching's not better. It's the same."
"I think that the residuals of steroids and aluminum bats has affected how they taught kids how to hit, and now we're seeing normal bodies and balls that used to get out of the ballpark are caught now," he said.
It wasn't too long ago that batters had the edge. The boom years peaked in 2000 with an average of 1.17 home runs per team per game. The runs average of 5.14 was MLB's highest since 1936. But offense has steadily shrunk — as have the players — as baseball implemented testing for performance-enhancing drugs and then repeatedly strengthened those rules.
And with complete games virtually a relic, hard-throwing relievers dominate the late innings. Radar guns routinely register mph readings around triple digits. "Everybody's throwing 109, so you don't get to see the starters for your fourth turn," said Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, exaggerating only slightly. "There's a lot of guys in the bullpen that are special guys."
All that gas has contributed to more than two dozen pitchers needing Tommy John surgery this year. Dr. David Altchek, the Mets' top physician, said a lower mound "should decrease the force as the body gets less far ahead of the arm."
"As the body falls down the mound, the arm momentarily lags and forces at the elbow cumulate," he said. But Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute counters that recent studies disagree whether lowering or eliminating the mound would slightly cut or slightly increase the stress on an adolescent pitcher's arm.
"Reducing the amount of competitive pitching is the most strongly proven action for reducing the risk of pitching injuries," he said. This much is certain: The major league batting average is down to .252 this year, according to STATS. It hasn't been that low since 1972, the year before the American League adopted the designated hitter.
Teams are averaging a full one run less per game, with the 4.14 scoring average MLB's lowest since 1992, just before the spread of better hitting through chemistry. There's a lot less contact, too: Teams average 7.70 strikeouts per game, on track to set a record for the eighth straight season and up more than 60 percent from 1981's 4.75.
From the seventh inning on, baseball resembles the 1960s, the greatest era for pitchers since the lively ball days began in 1920. The .241 batting average in the late innings is the lowest since STATS's records began in 1974, and teams are averaging just 1.30 runs — not much incentive to keep fans in stadiums or watching their televisions.
"Obviously the real 'solution' here is to ban setup men and closers," ESPN's Keith Olbermann said. "I'm not sure lowering the mound would have much impact. Does a lower mound transform strikeouts into homers? Viscerally this doesn't even feel like the results of cleaning out PEDs, because batters continue to hit the ball harder and farther — and less. Ultimately this seems like just more in the decades-long transformation of batting into mere swinging," he said.
Baseball remains the most traditional of American sports. Change comes slowly — widespread instant replay for umpires only began this year. "I would be reluctant to lower the mound further," said John Thorn, MLB's official historian, "as this might be using a sledgehammer to swat a fly."
Ever cautious, the players' association says the time to consider such a step is "too far off right now," according to new union head Tony Clark. "It's a game of adjustments," the former All-Star first baseman said, "and we'll see as the pitching has adjusted how the offense adjusts and how long it takes to adjust or if it can adjust based on the current circumstances."
San Francisco pitcher Tim Lincecum, who last month threw his second career no-hitter, put it simply: "It's been one of those things it's a staple in the game. The bases are going to be 90 feet. The distance to the plate's going to be 60 feet, 6 inches. The mound's going to be yay high. It'd be weird to think of it any differently."