The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals will not play their scheduled game at PNC Park on Aug. 20. Instead, the two teams will travel 200 miles east to Williamsport, PA where they will participate in the first MLB Little League Classic, a legitimate regular season baseball game scheduled to take place during the 2017 Little League World Series.
Pittsburgh and St. Louis will occupy BB&T Ballpark, which normally hosts the Williamsport Crosscutters, a Single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. Only the kids in the tournament and their families will be invited as guests, so for the young players who idolize and emulate these baseball heroes, this promises to be an immensely cool experience. It’s like Mark Ruffalo taking a break from a Hollywood blockbuster to star in a high school film project or Foo Fighters headlining a Battle of the Bands in a middle school cafeteria.
Unfortunately, Little League Classic will not offer much in the way of impressive visual ambiance. BB&T Ballpark isn’t much to look at. The 2,366-seat minor league stadium is plopped into the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town. Unlike PNC Park, there is no scenic backdrop. There are only trees. And a couple of houses.
Basically, this game will be a novelty, appreciated by the relatively few people in attendance and not many others. Watching on ESPN will be cool for maybe an inning or two, but after a while it’s just a Major League game in a minor league park. So what could the MLB do make the Little League Classic a truly unique and must-see experience?
Let the Pirates and Cardinals play where the Little Leaguers play.
Howard J. Lamade Stadium is actually a visually impressive venue, with its 3,300 seats multiplied by the tens of thousands of fans who annually gather on the hills just beyond the outfield wall to watch the youngsters play ball.
Of course, playing the game at Howard J. Lamade Stadium would present a whole host of dimensional issues for the Pirates and Cardinals as the Little League field is two-thirds the size of the standard professional baseball field. That means 60-foot basepaths instead of 90 ft., a 46-foot mound instead of the standard 60’ 6”, and outfield fences that sit just 225 feet from home plate.
Excuse my rudimentary Photoshop skills, but this is roughly what a Little League playing field would look like within the confines of PNC Park:
With the playing field limited so dramatically, the game would obviously be different. Would it be … better? We asked an expert.
Alan M. Nathan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois who has dedicated countless hours to researching the physics of baseball, explained that playing Major League baseball on a Little League diamond would dramatically throw off the game’s balance.
“The MLB game is perfectly well-balanced,” Nathan said. “How many times do you see a grounder to the infield, and the batter is thrown out by a half of a step? It happens several times a game. All you have to do is change the dimensions a little bit and the outcome could be very different.”
One might look at the 225-foot walls in the outfield and assume that the Pirates and Cardinals would each score 30 runs, and the game would continue into infinity. But the biggest transition from the Major League field to the Little League field would be the 14-foot difference from the pitching mound to home plate.
From a 60’6” mound, a 90 mph fastball takes 0.4 seconds to reach home plate, and the batter needs 0.25 seconds just to see it. At that distance, a substantial amount of experience and guesswork is needed just for the hitter to be able to swing the bat in time to hit the ball. Even the best hitters in baseball fail more than 60 percent of the time. If the league moved the mound to 46 feet, reacting to that pitch would become markedly more difficult.
“If you make the mound 46 feet, the fastball would take about 0.3 seconds from release to home and that’s a huge difference,” Nathan said. “Considering many Major Leaguers struggle to consistently hit high-quality fastballs from 60 feet, I think it would be quite difficult for hitters to hit Major League fastballs from that difference.”
Not everything would be in the pitcher’s favor, however. A Little League pitcher’s mound is only six inches above the playing field while a Major League mound is ten inches high. The discrepancy would certainly affect the downward movement of the ball, and the shorter distance to the plate would impact curveballs and sliders that have more opportunity to break from 60 feet than they do from 46 feet.
But even without effective breaking balls, the speed of an MLB fastball from 46 feet would be nearly un-hittable. The average Major League fastball in 2014 hit 92 mph, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Since then, the number of flame-throwing pitchers has only increased and many of the league’s pitchers sit firmly in the mid-90s or above. That would be bad news for any batter standing 46 feet away, as a 90-mph fastball from that distance would feel like it was going 118.4 mph.
Hitting a Big League fastball from a Little League mound would be tough. But Major League batters can time even the fastest of the league’s fastballs (at least from 60 feet) after a time or two through the lineup. And while it may be extremely difficult to make hard contact under these adapted conditions, the batter wouldn’t necessarily need to barrel the ball up to hit one out of the small-scale ballpark.
“In the batter’s favor, 250 feet is nothing,” Nathan said. “A well-hit ball in MLB has an exit speed of about 100 mph. If the ball comes off of the bat at its optimum launch angle of 25 or 30 degrees, that ball is going to carry 400 feet. To get a ball to go 250 feet only requires an exit velocity of 75 mph, which by MLB standards is a poorly hit ball.”
In other words, as long as a hitter could get his bat onto the ball, there is a good chance it would be a home run.
Hitting a home run might be the only way to score runs, because Major League fielders should be able to cover the small ground pretty easily. That, plus the quicker reaction time for swings, could make bunting more important strategically, as batters look to limit the effectiveness of a pitcher’s fastball while taking advantage of the modest 60-foot sprint to first base. Players could also use lighter bats than they are accustomed to, which would allow a hitter to swing faster at the expense of power they’d no longer need.
So what would happen?
Obviously this exercise is rooted in fantasy, but what if this game really happened? What if, tomorrow, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, in his desperate attempt to make baseball more widely appealing, decided that teams would play one game each year in a local Little League park?
First and foremost, the game would be very dangerous. If a hitter really got a hold of one, even by luck, every player on the field would be in the line of fire. The pitcher, the corner infielders, even the catcher would have a dangerously small amount of time to react to the speeding baseball.
But, ignoring the players’ physical peril, how would this game between the Pirates and Cardinals pan out? Nathan suggested that the result might be similar to fastpitch softball, where pitchers dominate and hitters bunt as often as they swing for the fences.
“A good 70 mph softball pitch from 43 feet comes onto a batter about as quickly as a 90 mph fastball does from 60 feet, so that part is a wash,” Nathan said. “On the other hand, the trajectory is very different. Softballs rise and baseballs sink. My guess is that they wouldn’t do well at first, but they would learn. And probably learn very quickly.”
Major League Baseball players are incredibly good at making adjustments at the plate. A hitter’s approach changes constantly throughout the course of the season, a game, or even at-bat. While the pitcher would have an extreme advantage starting from so close to the plate, the hitters would likely adapt and start sending balls over that 225-foot outfield fence.
We might get our 30 runs, but it could take a few innings to get there.