Sources: MLB could alter strike zone as response to declining offense

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Major League Baseball is considering altering the textbook definition of the strike zone for the first time in nearly two decades, fearful that the proliferation of the low strike has sapped too much offense from the game, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Royals' Nori Aoki swings through a low pitch. (AP)
The Royals' Nori Aoki swings through a low pitch. (AP)

Concern around baseball about the strike zone filtered down to the MLB’s Playing Rules Committee, which must formally adopt a rules change before it’s implemented. The committee will pay close attention to the size of the strike zone in 2015 with an eye on change as early as 2016 after studies showed it has expanded significantly since 2009, coinciding with a precipitous dip in run scoring. Of particular concern, sources said, is the low strike, a scourge not only because it has stretched beyond the zone’s boundaries but is considered a significantly more difficult pitch to hit.

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Runs per game fell to 4.07 in 2014, the lowest mark since 1981 and the 13th fewest since World War II, and studies from The Hardball Times' Jon Roegele and Florida professor Brian Mills pegged the low strike as a significant culprit.

Since 2009, the average size of the called strike zone has jumped from 435 square inches to 475 square inches, according to Roegele’s research. The results: Pitchers are throwing more in the lower part of the zone, and hitters are swinging at an increased rate, knowing the tough-to-drive pitches will be called strikes.

Roegele’s study estimated 31 percent of the offensive drought could be attributed to the strike zone while Mills estimated it’s between 24 percent and 41 percent. After seeing a strong correlation among the size of the strike zone, all-time-high strikeout rates and historically low walk rates, members of the committee now are fairly certain the relationship is causative, too, and seem primed to do something about it.

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The problem, sources said, stems from technological leaps that caused unintended consequences. In 1996, when the league last changed the strike zone to extend it from the top of the knees to the bottom, beneath the hollow of the kneecap, it did so to encourage umpires to call knee-level strikes. The lower end of the zone, in practice, was about three-quarters of the way down the thigh, so the idea was that by adjusting the eye levels of umpires to look lower, the result would be a more traditional strike zone.

Then along came Questec, the computerized pitch-tracking system, followed by Zone Evaluation, the current version tied in to MLB’s PITCHf/x system. With a tremendous degree of accuracy – especially in recent years – the systems tracked textbook balls and strikes, and the home-plate umpires’ performances were graded on a nightly basis. Over time, not only did umpires’ strike zones move down to the knees, they went to the hollow and even a smidge below.

“I don’t think the Playing Rules Committee at the time of the last change ever expected that the umpires would call strikes at the hollow of the knee,” said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, the current chairman of the committee. “To their credit, the umpires now are.”

The strike zone has lowered about three inches since 2009. (Hardball Times)
The strike zone has lowered about three inches since 2009. (Hardball Times)

Working in baseball’s favor is the effect of Questec and Zone Evaluation. After years of individualized strike zones, the umpire-to-umpire consistency of balls and strikes is believed to be higher than ever. The technology’s intention worked, and if baseball does return the strike zone to the top of the knee, the learning curve might be lessened because of the constant grading.

“What we’ve done is eliminate one variable, which is the varying application of the strike zone among umpires,” Alderson said. “Now, as a result, one can decide how the strike zone should be defined with some confidence that the umpires will call it that way. There’s a lot less slippage between the policy reflected in a rules change and the actual outcome.”

At baseball’s GM meetings last November, the room of executives teemed with discussions about how to jolt offense in a game lacking it. Radical ideas were proposed, from putting rules into place on defensive shifts to the possibility of forcing relief pitchers to throw to more than one batter. Generating the most agreement was the problem of the low strike.

If the Playing Rules Committee sees more of the same in 2015, it could make a proposal for a rules change, which the World Umpires Association and MLB Players Association would need to ratify before it could be implemented. One fear committee members expressed were so-called “Band-Aid” fixes that would result in other issues.

Most agreed that raising the strike zone almost certainly would spark offense. The potential issue: More offense equals longer games, and with pace of play one of new commissioner Rob Manfred’s priorities, balancing the two remains a difficult proposition.

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