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Steeper mound could reduce elbow surgeries

Theory put forth by Honeycutt and Ryan, who combined to pitch 48 MLB seasons

Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt has a suggestion for Major League Baseball in its efforts to slow down the number of Tommy John surgeries.

"I would put Nolan Ryan in charge of overseeing the slope of the pitcher's mound," said Honeycutt. "That would be a big help in dealing with the problem."

Yeah, right.

"Seriously," said Honeycutt. "Whenever I'd pitch in a park of a team Nolan pitched for, the mound was always so well-groomed, and was steep. Think about the onset of Tommy John surgery. It's a modern-day thing. When did they lower the mound?"

Point made.

The big league pitching mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches following a 1968 season in which pitching dominated the game. The result of the five-inch decrease in the height of the mound was a decrease in the steepness of the mound.

The Major League ERA in 1968 was 2.98 -- the 13th lowest since 1901, and the lowest since '18. Since 1969, there have only been two seasons with a total MLB ERA below 3.50 -- '72 (3.26) and '71 (3.46). This year, the ERA at the All-Star break was 3.81, which would be the lowest for a full season since 1992.

"I remember going to Spring Training [in 1969], and it felt like you were throwing on an aircraft carrier," said Ryan. "I'd be against lowering the mound any more. I'd be in favor of raising it. Do I think it will happen? No. But I do think it would keep pitchers healthier."

Ryan and Honeycutt were both models of durability during their pitching careers.

Honeycutt pitched in the big leagues until he was 42, getting time in 21 seasons and making the move from a starting pitcher to a reliever during his career. He made 268 starts and came out of the bullpen 529 times.

Ryan was 46 when he called it quits after 27 big league seasons in which won 324 games, made 773 starts (second most in Major League history) and worked 5,386 innings, which ranks fifth all-time.

Ryan was diagnosed after the 1986 season with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, but he opted to follow a workout program created by conditioning guru Gene Coleman, and counting on scar tissue healing the tear.

Ryan pitched seven more years in the big leagues, working 200 innings four times, pitching two of his record seven no-hitters, leading his league in strikeouts four times -- including 301 in 1989 -- and leading the National League with a 2.76 ERA in '87.

So, they do have a history upon which their beliefs are based.

The slope has never been universal. In ballparks where there was the need to create a crown for water to drain, like old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, there was virtually no slope at all. In domed stadiums, there would be a bigger slope because the playing surface was virtually flat. Just how quickly the 10-inch height of the mound blends into the playing surface could vary by the whims of a groundskeeper.

Honeycutt's belief is that the steeper the grade of the mound, the more stretched out a pitcher becomes before his foot hits the ground, and the more of the impact of throwing a pitch is absorbed by the lower body. With a limited grade, the contract between foot and mound comes quicker, and the shoulder area assums the brunt of the impact of the release of a baseball.

Ryan agrees.

"I always felt I had better leverage with a steeper mound, and it made a differences on the velocity of the fastball and break of the curveball," said Ryan. "I never thought about what Honeycutt said, but I would say there is some truth to it. In those days [with higher mounds], the injuries were not as prevalent as they are now."

And injuries are prevalent now. At the All-Star break, there were at least 35 pitchers on the disabled lists because of Tommy John surgery, including five with the Braves and D-backs and four for the Dodgers.

With improved drainage systems, there is more uniformity in the mounds on big league fields, but they are still often adjusted to the comforts of the pitchers on the home team.

"I know I'd talk with the grounds crew guys about what my preference [was for the grade of the mound], and they would usually work with you to build the mound that way," Ryan said.

There are no favors on the road, where bullpen mounds can come into the equation, too.

"In the old days, you'd have a flat mound in the bullpen," Ryan said. "Then you would go out for the game, and have seven warmup pitches before throwing the first official pitch. It wasn't unusual to struggle in that first inning on the road while you were adjusting to the mound."

It's not like pitchers are working more innings nowadays. Teams have gone from four-man rotations to five-man rotations. A pitcher who takes every turn in a four-man rotation would make 40 starts. In a five-man rotation, the load would be 32 starts.

And starters aren't working as deep into games with the development of bullpens.

Prior to 1969, starting pitchers in Major League Baseball averaged 6.8 innings a start. The average drops to 6.1 innings per start since '69, and is 5.9 innings over the last 20 years.

It's apparent the workload isn't a new challenge for pitchers.

The work conditions -- specifically the slope of the mound -- is, at least in the opinion of two former pitchers.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for Read his blog, Write 'em Cowboy.
Read More: Nolan Ryan, Rick Honeycutt