Given a choice, the brass over at Jimmy John's Field in Utica probably would prefer their United Shore Professional Baseball League not have such a pigeonholed reputation.
But the truth is, as the independent baseball league sets to begin its fourth season this month, it's increasingly clear it's a "pitcher's league." At least, as of today. Seventeen of the 27 players who have signed with major league organizations have been pitchers, including five of the seven who signed such contracts in 2018.
Much of that credit can be attributed to Justin Orenduff, the league's director of baseball operations and himself a former pitcher who was a first-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.
"We're definitely ahead of the pitching side than we are of having a similar quality hitting program," Orenduff said Monday, as the USPBL held its annual media day. "It's at the forefront of the success we've had as a program."
Orenduff is the founder of the Delivery Value System and creator of the DVS Scoring System, an analytic- and science-heavy program designed to, among other things, increase velocity and decrease the likelihood of injuries.
The USPBL has had scores of pitchers see significant increases in average velocity — most notably, Devin Alexander, a left-hander from California, who arrived in Utica with a fastball that sat at 85, and eventually was sitting at 91. Another success story, Chris Dula, a right-hander from North Carolina, who was throwing 102 when he was signed last season by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Meanwhile, the league has experienced just a single major arm injury to a pitcher, and it happened last year. Deshorn Lake, a right-hander from the Virgin Islands, suffered a major UCL injury, the damage having built up over years.
This year, the Orenduff and the USPBL — not handcuffed by the rules of being affiliated with minor-league baseball — are making a significant change that they believe will continue to cut down on injuries, while continuing to increase velocity. The mound at Jimmy John's Field, the uniform standard of 10 inches during the league's first three seasons, will increase to 12 inches for 2019.
Baseball's mound was famously lowered from 15 inches to 10 following the 1968 season, known as MLB's "Year of the Pitcher," led by Cy Young winners Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers and Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals. Heightened scoring returned starting in 1969 and has never really left, though injuries, especially significant injuries, eventually started becoming more of a reality, and are through the roof these days — despite decreased workload. These days, 200 innings is quite a feat, compared to the 300 plateau in the 1960s and before. At least 29 major league pitchers had Tommy John surgery in 2018.
Orenduff's theory is the mound-raising will benefit his continued obsession of curbing injuries to pitchers.
In simple terms, a taller mound leads to less stress on a pitcher's body. The momentum of the extra two inches decreasing the stress on the arm, which lags behind the legs.
"If you just allow the back leg and pelvis to start matching the slope, the body will naturally start picking up speed," Orenduff said. "Then the brain senses it doesn't have to make for it so much in the arm, and the arm essentially starts to go along for the ride.
"You're not having to feel like you're shifting the car from second to fifth gear. You're merging onto the highway, and you're already at your 70 mph."
Per usual, Orenduff and his baseball-ops staff will keep gobs of data, down to every little this and every little that — to see how the mound raise proves beneficial. If the results are good, another mound raise, to say 14 inches, could happen in coming seasons.
Raising the mound, though, is just part of the equation, Orenduff said. He said properly learning to use the mound to your advantage is another big part of the equation, and that's heavily emphasized in his system. He said of the 41 pitchers the league had in spring camp, as many as 36 of them, in his estimation, didn't know how to use it.
Several major league organizations will be paying attention to this, and perhaps even MLB itself, which already is toying with the idea of moving the mound back two feet, to 62 feet, 6 inches. The interested parties will include a bevy of scouts who regularly check in on the USPBL — again, mostly for diamonds in the rough on the pitching side of things. Orenduff has a mountain of data on each of his arms, and given the league's track record, signing organizations can be confident they're getting a healthy arm.
One big, ambitious goal for Orenduff is to be on the front end of a game-changer that could get baseball back to where it was when pitchers weren't getting hurt at such an alarming rate, like in the 1990s, when the Atlanta Braves had Mound Rushmore.
"You know the rotation in spring training, fans can build an affinity with these guys, instead of the revolving door with guys you can't wrap your arms around," he said.
"Some of that is because guys get injured."
This is the latest think-outside-the-box change that the USPBL has instituted since launching in May 2016.
Last summer, the USPBL introduced a rule instituting a time limit of two hours, 30 minutes. No new inning starts after the 2:25 mark.
Clocks in baseball usually are frowned upon by purists, but the younger generation is more easily distracted. This addresses that, with fans knowing — like when they go see a movie — how long they'll be out, and when they'll be home. Orenduff said that change was made with families in mind, too.
The one downside is the 2:30 rule meant that games could end in ties, a no-no in baseball (just ask Bud Selig). There are plans in the works to install a tiebreaker early this season, which would tack no more than 10 to 15 minutes to the final time. Details aren't finalized, but the change should be in the spirit of a shootout in hockey or penalty kicks in soccer, Orenduff said. Perhaps, the manager will get to send his best three hitters to the plate for extra time, with his fastest runner starting on second base.
"Quick, fast and lots of strategy to it," Orenduff said.
The tiebreaker won't be in place by Opening weekend, which kicks off at 7:05 Friday, with the Eastside Diamond Hoppers against the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, and continues at 7:05 Saturday, with the Utica Unicorns playing the Westside Woolly Mammoths. Later in May is a possibility, though.
Get to know the USPBL
What: United Shore Professional Baseball League, an independent professional baseball league based out of Utica, at Jimmy John's Field
Teams: Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers (defending champions), Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Woolly Mammoths
Schedule: Season starts Friday, and runs through playoffs in early September
Tickets: Pre-sale, from $6 (lawn seats) to $35 (front-row club), and game-day, from $7 (lawn seats) to $35 (front-row club), and available at uspbl.com
Weekly theme nights: 2-for-1 Wednesdays — buy one grandstand ticket, get one free for all eight Wednesday night games; Thirsty Thursdays — $2 domestic beer specials, plus $5 craft-beer specials; Friday fireworks, live-music Saturdays, Sunday kids days.
Notable nights: Opening Day, Friday; Mutts Gone Nuts, June 1; Nerf Night, June 14; Jimmy Buffet Night, June 20; All-Star Game, July 6; Faith Night, July 12; Andy Appleby Bobblehead Night, Aug. 1; ZOOperstars, Aug. 10; Pistons Night, Aug. 24; and championship game, Sept. 8.