Rather than a realistic proposal that has a chance to be the future of baseball, this is better considered as a thought experiment for examining how we want baseball to look or what we want out of the game than a worthy proposal. I don’t like this any more than you. Let me get that out of the way first and foremost. Fully aware of all the grief I’ll likely catch for this, and not lost on me is the fact that I write for a site called PitcherList, I still feel compelled to consider it.
What if MLB had a pitching machine instead of real life pitchers? (Please don’t fire me.)
Again, let me stop here and acknowledge this is maybe a terrible idea. Possibly the worst. But! Like a Chopped contestant making risotto, even though I know it’s bound to get me in trouble, I’m going ahead anyway.
With strikeouts making up nearly a quarter of all plate appearances now (and at their highest level ever), and hits at their lowest point since 1908, there has been no shortage of compelling ideas to increase action in the game and to put the ball back in play.
Deadening the ball. Banning the shift. A pitcher “speed limit.” Lowering the mound. Moving the mound back. Giving the hitters their own mound. All are ideas with varying degrees of merit and only one that’s made up. However, introducing a pitching machine to replace pitchers is one that truly solves the trend of increasing velocity, movement, and other issues that have pitchers way ahead of the hitters, gradually more and more essentially since the game began. It introduces many other problems, of course (more on this later), but it does solve for what I think most agree is the main issue with the lack of balls in play.
Here I won’t litigate whether that actually is an issue or if baseball needs “fixing.” Suffice it to say, some are happy with the game as it is. Instead, I’ll posit that there is a limit to which balls in play can decrease before the game loses some of its enjoyment at least. If you ask 100 baseball fans what that limit is, you may get 100 different answers. But if there is that limit, baseball is continuing to get closer to it, and a pitching machine may not be as revolutionary an idea to address that issue as it seems at first glance.
The philosophical argument against the pitching machine is that it takes away the heart of the game, which is the batter-vs-pitcher matchup. I understand that completely, as that has been the story of Major League Baseball throughout everyone’s lifetime. The historic roots of the game, however, did not envision or create baseball to be a pitcher-batter matchup. Instead, the game was one of batting the ball and running the bases, with batter versus nine fielders (this excellent article by MLB historian John Thorne sums up this idea well). At first, pitchers were required to throw underhand with a straight wrist. The idea was for the batter to put the ball in play and let the fielders sort it out.
Had the inventors of cricket/rounders/baseball had access to the technology, baseball may have even started with a pitching machine.
Of course, we needn’t be beholden to the original founders of organized baseball. We have, after all, evolved the game to include gloves, tagging instead of hitting a runner with the ball, and sausage races. The point is that baseball as originally designed was supposed to be a batter facing fielders rather than a pitcher, whose main objective was just to be there to kind of get the action started.
Even once baseball moved past that phase and recognized that balls were a way to encourage pitchers to throw strikes, the game was concerned about pitching gaining too big of an advantage with strikeouts, and allowed hitters to even call for a high strike or a low strike. If the pitcher missed, they would be penalized with a ball, even if it hit the rule-book strike zone.
An automated pitching machine wouldn’t even necessarily give hitters as much of an advantage as early professional players had! The strike zone could remain the same as it is now without hitters having the ability to cut the zone in half and look for only high or low pitches. Now that I have baseball traditionalists completely on my side with no objections whatsoever, I’ll address the modern rationale for a pitching machine.
Even today we still recognize the value of consistent chances for batters to hit the ball. In little league, players start with tees, and then typically move on to “coach pitch” so they learn the game at-bat and in the field. Now, of course, six-year-olds learning to play for the first time are a far cry from Mike Trout, but the point is that we understand there’s value in hitting and fielding, and there’s at least some point at which too few opportunities to put the ball in play is not baseball. Again, how close you believe the MLB game is to that point is a matter of preference; however, everyone pretty much agrees that there’s benefit to throwing consistent hittable pitches.
A batting cage-style pitching machine from your local go-kart place wouldn’t quite solve baseball’s issues, of course. Turning the game into home run derby every night isn’t what we’re after, either.
In order to keep some competitiveness and challenge to hitting, several rules would be in place. First, the pitching machine would be able to throw all pitches, and would be programmed to throw them randomly, eliminating the ability of batters to “look” for certain pitches. The difference would be the pitching machine would have a “speed limit” on it for different pitches (e.g., a slider could max out at 90– sorry, Jacob DeGrom). So, you’d have more “hittable” pitches, that would likely be somewhat offset by the fact hitters can’t “guess” what’s coming, or even time pitches as well as they currently can with a pitcher who consistently delivers within a range of speeds. Even in MLB’s actual home run derby, hitters aren’t hitting one out every time– and those are batting practice fastballs without break and placed in ideal hitting zones.
Given that the machine would pitch in the “zone” each time (however that would be defined), walks would go away– again something that wasn’t an initial part of baseball. Restrictions would have to be placed on the number of pitches batters would see from the machine, to avoid batters just standing there as random pitches go by until they see 90 miles per hour right down the heart of the zone. Clearly, the premise is on thin ice with the rule changes that would be necessitated by such a drastic move.
There are also intractable problems in a pitching-machine professional baseball. First and foremost would be essentially the loss of half of the jobs in baseball, as real-life pitchers would be a thing of the past. Likewise, there would have to be some major adjustment to how runners steal bases. If there’s no pitcher to throw the ball, how are baserunners to know when to steal? And pickoffs would likely be impossible, so there would have to be additional rules to limit leadoffs.
Tipping the scales closer to the game’s origins of balls in play and fielders versus the batter is an aesthetic preference, but not one I’d advocate for in exchange for Shohei Ohtani’s splitter, included here for reference and not a naked attempt to try to bring me back into your good graces:
Or Devin Williams’ changeup:
Introducing a pitching machine to professional baseball is less than unlikely to happen. The (live) pitcher versus batter matchup is too far down its path to reverse 100 years of the sport, even if the game’s founders envisioned something different. Beyond the logistics of it, from a humanistic standpoint it’d hardly be fair to tell half of players they’re out of a job because they were too good at it. The idea though, is one that by thinking through its implications perhaps gets us closer to imagining what problem we’re trying to solve, and what solutions are best suited to address it.
Initially the idea seemed foolish, and it probably still is given those aforementioned hurdles. However, after spending some more time thinking about it, I’d at least be interested in seeing what a baseball game would look like under such circumstances, or at least one in which the focus of the action is entirely the batter against nine fielders.
Featured image by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)