MLB…Honey, I Shrunk the Strike Zone!

Here it is! The latest, greatest solution to the issue of diminished run production since, well…ever! The Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball now presents the new, improved shrinking strike zone! It sounds like a bad, late-night infomercial, right? When I first heard the news that MLB was considering this, I was a bit skeptical. But then I had a little time to reflect, and here are my thoughts on it. I am going to take the scenic route, so stay with me….
Over the last few years, we have watched strikes get called on pitches that, let’s just say are not even close. Since when does a sweeping curveball that misses the plate by six inches and is at a height somewhere between a batter’s kneecaps and the tops of his shoelaces constitute a called strike? That is not how I learned the game. This issue is a particular irritant to me because I was a catcher, and I actually started off my baseball life as a pitcher. Take from that what you will. I was either such a wonderful pitcher that they decided that I would be better off as a catcher, or I had an insight into pitching that would go on to serve me well as a catcher, and later as a coach. I will take the latter. My point is that I know what a strike looks like, and that ain’t it…
The MLB rule that constitutes what is a strike is defined as ‘… that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball’ (MLB Official Rule Book, 2014 Edition, Rule 2.00, Definition of Terms). The rule book even has a very nice picture of a left-handed batter getting ready to take his hacks. To some degree, this rule is not being followed by MLB umpires, and it gets more convoluted on a season-by-season basis. ESPN has ‘K-Zone’, and this tool illustrates my point quite nicely.
I understand the argument about the ‘human element’ of officiating. I even agree with the point about game officials in any sport having the right to use discretion (the ‘in the neighborhood rule’ as far as turning a double-play goes, the first down marker in football, and so on). The discretion of the game officials has been accepted since the game was born, and while there is room for it, when the rule is just episodically ignored, there is a problem…
And now to my point…This whole discussion is centered upon some perception of diminished run production. Let’s be real. The casual fan is certainly more interested in seeing a game with lots of offense and higher run totals, whereas most purists appreciate the value of good pitching and solid defense. The question is which one of these is more entertaining for the average fan? Is it more exciting to see a game with a 10-9 score, or a defensive gem that ends with a 2-1 final score? What makes for higher ticket revenues and better television viewership? What will bring back the fans that have abandoned baseball for something with more, for lack of a better term, excitement? The answer, in the opinion of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is RUNS! I had made a statement in an article a few weeks ago about nobody paying good money for a ticket to see David Ortiz hit an easy grounder to second base and get thrown out by a mile. The fans that paid for that ticket want to see David Ortiz smash the cover off a ball that lands somewhere in the Triangle of Fenway Park. And what is one way to generate a potential for more base-runners, and therefore a potential for more runs? Shrink the strike zone. I get it. But before MLB pulls the trigger on a rule change, why don’t they simply enforce the rule that is already in place? There is  technology available to help umpires get the calls right (K-Zone?).
To close, I am overwhelmingly against the shrinking of the strike zone. There is no need to change a rule that, when it is properly called, works perfectly well. To change this rule for the sake of higher run production is a slippery slope. If we change this basic rule, what is to prevent MLB from saying, for the sake of the run production, that batters will now get four strikes? Maybe only three balls will constitute a walk? Maybe they will lower the height of the pitcher’s mound again? It is simply a bad idea. Overall, umpires do a good job. When they enforce the rules that already exist, the strike zone issue, and the runs per game issue will solve itself.


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