Major League Baseball has proposed two rule changes to the players’ association, according to Jayson Stark. One is perfectly sensible: eliminate the need for pitchers to throw four balls to the plate on intentional walks. No one would miss this, even if it’s tradition and occasionally results in a wild pitch. The second one is bound to be far more controversial.
MLB’s proposal would raise the lower part of the strike zone to the top of the hitter’s knees. Since 1996, the bottom of the zone has been defined as “the hollow beneath the kneecap.” But data shows that umpires have been increasingly calling strikes on so many pitches below the knees that, if umpires enforce the redefined strike zone, it would effectively raise the zone by an estimated 2 inches.
Why? Because Major League Baseball is all about that action, boss.
The change in the strike zone, however, could have a much more dramatic effect, MLB believes. Its intent is to produce more balls in play, more baserunners and more action at a time when nearly 30 percent of all hitters either walk or strike out — the highest rate of “non-action” in the game’s history.
It’s definitely an interesting theory, but it has no chance of getting the okay from players. No pitcher in their right mind would sign up for a smaller strike zone. There’s too much money at stake here.
Personally, I don’t care for the idea either. While the lack of balls in play is a problem worth addressing, making the game more hitter-friendly in the interest of shortening games is an example of hustling backwards. More offense means longer games. It’s hard for me to believe this won’t increase run production.
The change would also present a significant challenge for pitchers who rely on location and pitching down in the zone instead of hard, high fastballs. The most effective breaking pitches are thrown down by the knees, if not lower. If batters know these low pitches won’t be called strikes, they’ll be more inclined to lay off.
One prime example of those who would suffer is American League Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. He is not blessed with the option of blowing belt-high fastballs by hitters and must rely on guile and an ability to induce groundballs. My fear would be that an elevated zone would lead to a one-size-fit-all mold for hurlers. Throw 95-plus with a hard slider or prepare to get lit up.
Finally, there are more walks in strikeouts in the game today because of the emphasis on on-base percentage over batting average. A base on balls has rightly been identified as a powerful weapon. Shrinking the zone won’t cure change that approach. If anything, it will make it even more appealing. A strikeout has also been judged as just another out — especially with the bases empty. A simple change like this won’t reverse that culture.
I applaud MLB for a desire to improve the game, but this sounds like one Pandora’s Box better left unopened.