There’s a lot of noise in the sports press this week and last about a recent announcement from Major League Baseball (MLB) that they are exploring a significant change to the definition of the strike zone. The change would redefine the bottom of the strike zone and move it up, from the hollow at the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the kneecap. If that doesn’t sound like much, then … well …
If you’ve never pitched to good hitters, or hit against good pitching, or called balls and strikes for both, then it may be difficult to appreciate just how
big of a change this would be. In real-world physical distance it’s a change of roughly three inches; in baseball space-time, on the other hand, it’s roughly half a mile.
For the record, the bottom of the strike zone was formerly defined at the top, not the bottom of the kneecap. This changed in 1995 when MLB was concerned about an overbalance of offense in the game and lowered the bottom of the zone to below the knee. The effect was dramatic.
The situation is reversed, now, and recent concerns about declining offense seem to be driving the discussion. Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun goes a bit further by suggesting that the decline in offense over the past few years results, at least in part, from MLB going “to war against performance-enhancing drugs.” The inference is that all this talk about redefining the strike zone is connected to fixing the effects of taking PEDs out of the game.
Of course, another step in the inference chain could suggest that player’s gravitating to PEDs in the 1990s may have been caused, at least in part, by the lowering of the zone in 1995. Whether the two trends were coincident or causal is pure speculation, of course, but maybe subject for another post. Another point to note is that such a change will require buy-in from the Player’s Association and syncing up the change with their bargaining agreement. So even if this idea gets traction, nothing can happen this upcoming season (2016).
But let’s get back to the point. Tweaking the rules of the game to drive a desired effect is tricky. The Game is like an ecosystem. You let one species go extinct and all of a sudden you have a cascade of side effects that you didn’t expect and don’t know what to do about. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying, think about it.
There’s an expression about pitching – “Live low, die high.” There’s a lot of baseball in that phrase. A lot of practice and execution. A lot of coaching. A lot of missed spots and high fastballs tattooed over the wall. Millions of ’em. And a lot on the other side, too. Good hitting has learned, patiently, to handle the low pitch – how to dig it out or just lay off. So those low breakers aren’t always a strikeout pitch. Far from it. So there’s no question that raising the bottom of the strike zone a half mile (or whatever) will have plenty of effects, both direct and indirect, and on both pitchers and hitters.
For one thing, it’s going to nudge the curve of pitching competency away from the low-pitch, ground-ball specialist, and toward the power pitcher (as though we needed more of that). In fact, SBNation.com, for one, has explored the implications of this effect and on Friday (1/29/16) published an good piece written by Jason Cohen entitled “CC Sabathia wouldn’t survive a raised strike zone.”
The piece is an interesting read and includes heat maps and pitch graphics that tell us a lot about a pitcher who works down in the zone; that, and about sliders and sinkers and other pitches whose effect is most manifest at the bottom of the zone. Then again, leave it to SBNation.com to include a companion piece entitled “MLB is talking about raising the strike zone, and that’s good for Tigers’ pitchers,” this one written by Christopher Yheulon (1/28/16). The point snaps shut and it maybe makes you chuckle at how far you can take this.
Whatever the outcome, it won’t come easily. A move like this won’t likely raise the passions so much as the other hot off-season “thinking about” issue started by the new MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred (that the National League would adopt the DH), but it’s going to generate some. It’s conceivable that a change like this will hurt the careers of some pitchers, maybe even end it for others; on the other hand, others will have the value of their native skills enhanced. And ultimately, the nature and culture of the Game will adapt.
Postscript: The image of the strike zone that we use at the start of this article does a good job representing the proposed change to the bottom of the strike zone. The image’s representation of the top of the zone, however, while it appears to represent the rule-book definition of the top of the zone (Definitions of terms: “strike zone”), instead represents the single most glaring example of the culture of the game outstripping the rule of the game; because few players over the age of twelve are going to get a strike called where that graphic says they will. What I’m saying is, it’s the only one of the Official Baseball Rules that is willfully overridden by the cultural definition (if that’s what to call it) of the top of the strike zone. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.