The Mechanics Of Baseball
Baseball has evolved in favor of the hitter. Here are nine factors that have
changed the game.
BY JIM KAAT
Illustrations by Paul Kratter
Editor's Note: A major-league pitcher for 25 years, left-hander Jim Kaat
won 283 games and earned 16 Gold Gloves while playing for the Washington
Senators, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, New York
Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. He currently broadcasts Yankee games on the YES
network and WCBS.
Critics of baseball will tell you that Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N.Y.,
invented the game in 1839 and not a thing has changed since. Nothing could be
further from the truth. First, no one has yet proved that Ol' Abner actually
invented the game, and second, the game of baseball changes constantly--with
every game, every day, and every player bringing something unique to the sport.
The peanuts and Cracker Jack are still there, but everything else is
different than it was 20, 30, even five years ago. In my opinion, no sport has
changed as radically as baseball has in the past 20 years. To me, baseball is a
matter of who is in control--the pitcher or the hitter. The vast majority of the
changes in major-league baseball over the past 20 years have favored putting the
hitter in control. Why? Because fans would rather see an 11-8 ballgame with
balls getting smacked over the fence than a 2-1 pitcher's duel. And hitters
today are delivering.
SMALLER STRIKE ZONE
Once stretching from the letters to below
the knee it is now reckoned from the
rmpit to above the knee. Umpires tend to
call an even shorter, wider zone.
Bigger And Stronger
Players today are bigger and more durable than in years past. Take Anaheim's
Troy Glaus, for example. This guy's 6 ft. 5 in. tall, 245 pounds and quick on
his feet. It's a matter of simple physics that a stronger player is going to hit
the ball farther. And they've been doing it with regularity.
Today, many of the pitcher's weapons have been taken away from him. The
Yankees' Roger Clemens and a few other old school power pitchers like him make
their money pitching inside. That sets up low and away, which is the most
difficult pitch to reach with the fat of the bat. Throwing high and inside makes
a hitter feel uncomfortable and keeps him from diving in. That makes the outside
corner fertile territory.
While there are no rules as to how close a hitter can crowd the plate, the
current situation borders on ridiculous. Today, either the grounds crew doesn't
line the inside of the batter's box at all or the first few hitters scratch it
out with their foot. So you'll see the Mets' Mo Vaughn or the Yankees' Derek
Jeter or the Giants' Barry Bonds right on top of the plate with their front arm
hanging in the strike zone. They no longer fear the inside pitch. And why should
they? Consider all the protective gear batters are allowed to wear today--wrist
guards, forearm protectors, elbow protectors, gloves and double-flap batting
helmets. Then there are the knockdown rules.
Can you imagine a guy hanging right over the plate in the old days with
someone like the Cardinals' Bob Gibson or the Dodgers' Don Drysdale on the
mound? As soon as a guy leaned over into the strike zone, the first pitch from
one of those pitchers was a blazing fastball high and inside. Today, a pitcher
can't push a hitter off the plate because of the knockdown rules that are in
effect. If you do throw one up and in and the umpire deems that you have thrown
it there intentionally, there's a warning. A second close pitch gets you thrown
out of the game. It's in the written rules. So that takes away the inside pitch
The Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone
In 1963, the strike zone was defined in the rules as the width of home plate
horizontally, extending vertically from the batter's letters down to the bottom
of the knee. In '69, it was changed to the bottom of the armpit down to the top
of the knee. In the rule book, that's still the strike zone. But today, umpires
are allowed to "interpret" the strike zone as they see fit in any given game.
Thus, on one hand, you see strikes being called that are well off the plate. On
the other hand, when was the last time you saw a strike being called on any
pitch higher than the batter's belt? It just doesn't happen.
The 1968 season was the one that started the shrinking process. It has been
called the "year of the pitcher." St. Louis's Bob Gibson had a monster year,
winning 22 of 31 games, carving out a 1.12 ERA, striking out 268 batters and
pitching 13 shutouts. If pitchers were hot, batters were not. Carl Yastrzemski
of the Boston Red Sox led the American League in batting with a paltry .301
average. Baseball moguls feared diminishing fan interest in low-scoring games
and felt they needed more excitement in the game--which translated into more
offense. Since then, most rule changes have favored batters.
Television has given baseball an opportunity to review an umpire's performance
and determine how many pitches he's missed--or called correctly. The pitch
missed most often is on the low outside corner. That's due, in part, to the
umpire's inside chest protector that has replaced the old, cumbersome inflatable
protectors. Simply put, the inside protector is less bulky but doesn't protect
as well. Nowadays, you don't see umps squaring up right behind the catcher,
which would allow them to see both corners. Instead, umpires peek over the
inside corner. Why the inside corner? Because if a ball is fouled off, it's
almost always toward the outside. The umpire doesn't want to get hit with a foul
ball. They hurt. So he stays inside. Better for the ump, but it makes for a lot
more guesswork in the outside pitch.
LOWER PITCHING MOUND
A lower mound puts pitchers at a disadvantage.
In '69, Major League Baseball also lowered the pitcher's mound from 15 in.
to 10 in. The higher you can get on the mound and look down on the hitter, the
more leverage you have and the more that ball is coming from 12 o'clock to 6
o'clock. That makes it more difficult to hit the ball squarely compared to
pitches coming in on a flat plane. Again, another advantage for the hitter.
Yankee Stadium has shrunk since it
opened in 1923. Center field and the
power alleys are reduced. Yet pole
distances have increased.
The lighter, harder maple Sam Bat.
With just about everything else in baseball shrinking except players'
salaries, it's no surprise that most of the newer ballparks are smaller than the
ones they replace. Take Yankee Stadium. In the original ballpark, the distance
to hit one out in center field was an unbelievable 487 ft. Left-center wasn't
called Death Valley for nothing. You had to slam it 500 ft. to reach the stands.
The new stadium, remodeled in 1988, has left-center at 399 ft. and center field
at 408 ft. Still healthy shots but nothing like it was. Poor Joe D. He hit many
a tremendous shot to left-center or center at the old stadium and they were mere
fly balls. Yet, the short 295-ft. distance down the right-field foul pole (314
ft. today) was tailor-made for the likes of the lefthand-hitting Babe Ruth and,
in recent times, Mickey Mantle (when he batted left), Reggie Jackson, Bobby
Murcer and Jason Giambi. Today, a season doesn't go by without a McGwire, Sosa
or Bonds hitting 50, 60, even 70 home runs. No wonder.
Bats And Balls
Speaking of hitting home runs, Baseball contends that ball specs are the
same as they've always been. But players believe that the ball is harder and
unquestionably more lively. I personally believe--and so do a lot of current
players--that the ball today is livelier than it was 10 years ago. We've written
extensively about the physical changes in baseballs in POPULAR MECHANICS
("Baseball's New Baseball," Oct. 2000, page 62).
Couple that with the new bats, which reflect a much more significant change, and
hitters have yet another big advantage. Bats traditionally have been made of
ash, which is a less dense wood compared, say, to maple. Ash is porous and
absorbs moisture. Years ago, hitters I played with, such as Mantle or Harmon
Killebrew, wouldn't swing a bat that weighed less than 34 to 35 ounces. The
Canadian-made Sam Bat used by Barry Bonds weighs just 30 ounces, has a very thin
handle and is made of sugar maple. It is kiln dried down to a 7 to 9 percent
moisture content and then varnished. Drier, harder bats give you a higher
coefficient of restitution. In other words, they spring back quicker after
making contact with the ball. This, combined with higher bat speeds and the
livelier ball, means the ball jumps off the bat faster and travels farther. More
Did you know that the artificial turf and "hard" natural grass found in
today's ballparks give hitters yet another advantage over pitchers? They do.
When hit on the ground, the ball travels much more quickly through the infield.
More balls go through for hits because the infielders simply can't get to the
ball in time. Batting averages go up, more runs are scored, and the fans cheer.
Health And Fitness
It's better. No question.
Years ago, a trainer was kind of an all-purpose guy who handed out vitamins and
salt pills, and he had a can of ethyl chloride to temporarily freeze an area to
kill pain if you got hit with a ball. Trainers today are much better qualified,
and they have all kinds of special equipment to treat just about everything.
Massage therapists, common today, were unheard of in the old days. And the list
of bodybuilding supplements today--both legal and questionable--is almost
With weight training and exercise regimens, players are stronger and more
durable. Stretching exercises and equipment are used every day to prevent as
well as treat injuries. Another thing: Nobody looks at you funny if you spend
some time in the whirlpool. The old saying used to be, "You can't make the club
in the tub."
Sports surgery is another area that's really come a long way, and it directly
impacts player durability and longevity. Years back, surgeons would try to keep
a player's muscles together with staples, and that just about ended many a
career. With the new arthroscopic techniques, a surgeon can do a guy's knee or
elbow, and the player can be back on the active roster in weeks. All this adds
up to hitters who are bigger, stronger, more durable and hit the ball a
ton--like that Troy Glaus guy I mentioned at the beginning.
Expansion has seen Major League Baseball go from 16 teams to 36 teams over
the past 40 years. Is it any wonder that pitching talent is scarce and getting
scarcer? There simply aren't enough good pitchers to go around. Which is great
if you're a hitter.
In the old days, it was common for the best all-around athlete to be a pitcher.
It was a prestigious position. After all, nothing happened until he threw the
ball. I was very proud to be a major-league pitcher. But if I had to do it all
over again today, I'd probably want to be a hitter like Jason Giambi or Paul
O'Neill. That's where the glory is now.