The New Strikezone (01/25/01)
This year Major League Baseball will start enforcing the strikezone as it is written in the rules. Seems like a logical thing to do. After all, it is in the rule book. Before spring training begins, they are holding training camps for all the umps, coaches and managers to demonstrate what the strikezone looks like so that no one can complain that "they never called it like that before".
It seems like an easy matter to call the rules as they are written, but not always. The strikezone is supposed to begin at the hollow behind the kneecap and extend upward to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, extending side to side by the width of the plate (17 inches). So you can see why it might be hard to call a strike on a pitch that starts above your head and breaks down into the dirt just past the plate. Or one that starts on one side of the plate when the pitcher releases it and ends up on the other side of the plate when the catcher catches it. Or one that you can hardly see. As one umpire said of Walter Johnson's blazing fastball: "It sounded like a strike".
Regardless, one thing is for sure: fewer runs will be scored this year than last. A lot fewer runs. How do I know this? Because three times in the past 40 years, Major League Baseball has decided to enforce the strikezone. Once in 1963, once in 1988 and once in 1999. And with the exception of 1999, which has a good explanation, fewer runs scored by a significant amount.
Baseball had just expanded by 4 teams - 2 in the AL in 1961, 2 in the NL in 1962. With the influx of inexperienced pitchers, home runs totals went through the roof. The general feeling was that home runs were no longer special and that something needed to be done to help the pitchers out. And since it was cheaper to call strikes lower in the strikezone than moving the fences back in every stadium, that's what they did. True to form, home runs and run scoring dropped significantly in 1963, by more than 10%. Pitchers dominated for the next 5 years until 1968, when the pitchers got so good, no one could score any runs. Attendance was dropping - because people want to see at least one run score - and more and more batters were considering therapy. So after the 1968 season, major league baseball lowered the pitchers mound from 15 inches to 10. This gave batters a better visual angle to see the ball out of the pitchers hands and balance was restored.
By 1988, home runs and scoring had again gotten out of hand. Some blamed the ball, others blamed the strikezone. The remedy this time was to call the high strike, which had mysteriously disappeared from the umpires' lexicon. Again, a similar drop in production resulted when they started calling the full extent of the strikezone; runs scored and home runs dropped by more than 10%. However 2 more expansions - one in 1993 and another in 1996 - brought in more new players and consequently more new umpires; the strikezone once again fell into disrepair.
After the home run frenzy that was 1998, Baseball decided once again to try to enforce the strikezone. Over the intervening years between 1988 and 1999, the strikezone had been scrunched down to just the area above the knee to the top of the belt and it's width was largely dependent on who was pitching that day. If a guy had a reputation for good control, he could throw the ball into the opposing dugout and it'd be called a strike. OK, maybe it wasn't that bad. He could throw it into the opposite batters box and get the call, though. Still bad enough. Anyway, for two months of the regular season, the umps called the strike as it is written. Unfortunately, they got tired of hearing every batter whine about the last called strike, and fighting with the managers all the time, so they just stopped calling it and by the All-Star break, runs scoring was back to it's pre-1999 pace. When told by the "commissioner" that they needed to call the rulebook strike, the umpires said "we don't need the aggravation and our union is strong enough that we don't have to listen to you." Actually, they used different words, but I'm paraphrasing, just in case children read my columns.
Fast forward to 2001. Baseball is again attempting to enforce the strikezone. This time, however, the umpires union is more sympathetic, after their crushing defeat in the labor contract negotiations after the 1999 season. And baseball is preparing for the arguments to come by showing everyone what is expected, even going so far as to offer the umpires conflict resolution seminars to help them mitigate disagreements. So unlike 1999, this implementation will likely succeed.
So who's gonna benefit? The nice thing about history is that it often repeats itself. OK, so sometimes when history repeats itself it's not so nice, although much depends on your perspective... but I digress. Who will be most affected by the change in the strikezone? Bill James did a study on this topic before the 1988 season and his conclusions were sound: most hitters aren't gonna be happy about the change; most pitchers will be. More specifically, tall hitters are gonna be brutalized by the expanded strikezone; young hard-throwing wild pitchers are gonna thrive with it.
Tall hitters, that is, guys over 6' 2'', lost an average of 15 points in batting average and 40 points in slugging in 1963. Frank Howard, one of the most feared hitters of his day, partially due to his prodigious power, partially due to his intimidating 6' 7', 255 pound frame, went from hitting .273 and slugging .518 in 1962, to hitting .226 and slugging .432 in 1963. The same thing happened in 1988 as well. Mark McGwire (6' 5") had just come off a rookie year in which he set the record for most home runs by a rookie (49), while hitting.289 and leading the league in slugging at .618. In 1988, he hit 17 fewer homers, his batting average dropped nearly 30 points and his slugging plummeted to a mere .478. Not all hitters were affected so dramatically but most saw their numbers drop.
Young power pitchers on the other hand, loved the new game. In 1963, young flame-throwers like Jim Maloney, Juan Pizzaro, Al Downing and Bobby Veale exploded onto the scene after performing in relative obscurity in '62. Sandy Koufax, while a very good pitcher by 1961, began in 1963 a 4 year reign of terrorizing hitters, in which he averaged 24 wins, 307 strikeouts and an ERA around 1.80. The results were similar in 1988. There were 29 young, wild flamethrowers in 1987 under the age of 26. Combined, their average ERA was 4.50, or just a shade over league average, which was 4.47 in 1987. In 1988, the major league average ERA dropped to 3.72. Of those 29 pitchers, two were demoted back to the minors, and only 1 (perennially injured Bret Saberhagen) saw his ERA rise in 1988. The other 26 saw their ERAs drop, some by huge margins. The aggregate ERA for the 27 who stayed in the bigs was 3.17, more than half a run better than the major league average and almost a run and a half improvement over the previous year.
Why? Because hitters couldn't catch up their high strike and once they got confidence in that pitch, everything else simply fell into place. Danny Jackson was an 18 game loser with a 4.02 ERA in 1987. In 1988, he was a 23 game winner with an ERA of 2.73. Mark Gubizca also lost 18 in 1987, only to turn it around in 1988, winning 20 and dropping his ERA more than a run. Others like Jose Guzman, Bobby Witt, David Cone (who went from 5-6, 3.71 ERA in 1987 to 20-3, 2.22 ERA in 1988), Al Leiter, Jose Rijo and Randy Myers also enjoyed dramatic improvements to their game and record.
So who's gonna suffer this year? My guess is that even though he's healthy again, Mark McGwire isn't gonna come within shouting distance of his home run record. Fifty might even be a stretch. Richie Sexson, the Brewers' tall and lanky first baseman, probably isn't gonna hit close to .300 as he did last year after he was traded from the Indians. More like .260. Or lower. Tony Clark probably isn't gonna rebound dramatically from last year's injury plagued results. Unless they adopt Rickey Henderson's extreme crouch at the plate, a lot of tall guys are gonna wish they were shorter.
There is, however, a type of hitter who might benefit from the new strikezone, or at least be able to keep fairly close to his previous levels of production: aggressive hitters who make contact and who don't strike out a lot. In 1988, guys like Kirby Puckett, Andre Dawson, Will Clark and George Brett had close to as good or better years than they did in 1987. Other than the fact that they were all good hitters, about the only thing that they have in common is that they made contact a high percentage of the time when they swung. However, this theory is not fool proof: Wally Joyner and Tony Gwynn both made contact - and still do - with over 90% of the pitches they swing at, and their numbers dipped significantly in 1988. Regardless, I expect guys like Moises Alou, Bobby Abreu, Nomar Garciaparra and Vladimir Guerrero to hold their production fairly close to what they produced last year, if not improve on it. Others to watch are Alex Ochoa, Magglio Ordonez, Brad Fullmer, Todd Walker, Gary Sheffield and Jose Vidro.
The young pitchers, however, are the ones to really watch. Flame-throwers. Wild men. The Ebby Calvin "Nuke" Lalooshes of the big leagues. Chicago Cub Kerry Wood tops this list. He has 3 devastating pitches - fastball, slider and curve - and now has lots of room in the strikezone to throw them. The Reds' Scott Williamson, Florida's AJ Burnett and Brad Penny, Padre Matt Clement, Blue Jay Cris Carpenter and Seattle's Freddie Garcia also qualify as flame throwing wild men who should see dramatic improvements. Dodger Darren Dreifort is a little old for this list, but expanding the strikezone should only continue the renaissance he experienced in the second half of last season. Two more youngsters to keep an eye on are the Astros' Octavio Dotel and St. Louis Cardinal Matt Morris, especially Morris. Both throw in the mid 90's, but Morris has a little better command of his repertoire and pitches in a much more forgiving ballpark than the homer haven that is Enron Field. The Angels' Ramon Ortiz is another intriguing possibility. The Indians' Bartolo Colon is not exactly unknown, but expanding the strikezone upward will make his 99-mph fastball unhittable. He could be in for a monster year if he can stay healthy. Kevin Millwood is a good bet to rebound to his 1999 form. Amongst relievers, look for stellar seasons from the Braves resident social commentator John Rocker and Diamondback Matt Mantei, whose biggest hindrance to becoming an unbelievably dominant closer is his inability to throw his big curve for strikes. The taller zone will cure that ill. Florida's Braden Looper could take over the closer's spot if Antonio Alfonseca falters any; he definitely fits the profile. Matt Anderson certainly has the stuff to replace Todd Jones as Detroit's closer. As could, dare I say, Kyle Farnsworth on the North side of Chicago if Tom Gordon isn't completely healed. And if Jason Isringhausen can't close things out in Oaktown, Chad Harville is the good bet to become "the man".
Just like there were hitters who might be the exception to the rule, I believe there could be pitchers who won't enjoy this change. Because the umps will be calling the high strike now, they won't be as eager to call the strikes off the black. So those pitchers who make their living on that part of the plate could be seriously affected. There's some evidence to back this up. In 1999, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Rick Reed struggled mightily in the first half of the season when the league narrowed the strikezone to the rulebook standard. Maddux ended the year leading the league in hits allowed, something unthinkable considering his previous five year span of brilliance. Glavine finished the year with his highest ERA in a decade. People said Rick Reed was washed up after his dismal campaign. All three are finesse pitchers who live on the edges of the plate. If the umps start calling those pitches balls - as they should according to the rules - then these guys will have to bring their modest stuff right over the plate. When a hitter has to defend the outer half of the plate, or more specifically, the outer 2 or 3 inches off the plate, he can't exert much power if he makes contact. He's lunging, off-balance and is basically hoping that any ball he hits will carry through the infield. If, however, he doesn't have to swing at that pitch because now it is called a ball, then he can wait for a pitch that is more within his range of power. It would not surprise me at all if all three of these guys finish the 2001 season with ERAs over 4, and with fewer than 15 wins apiece. Others I would be wary of: Yankee Andy Pettitte, the Brewers' Jeff D'Amico and new White Sox ace David Wells. There's no guarantee that each of these guys will fall apart this year. I just found it more than coincidental that all struggled though the first part of 1999, when the strikezone was being called like it will be in 2001. Caveat Emptor - buyer beware!
Finally, because fewer runs will be scored overall, it won't be surprising if attendance dips slightly. Fans like to see runs score and if teams are scoring fewer runs then many casual fans might turn their attention elsewhere. Conversely, baseball purists will be in heaven.
As Bill James concluded his piece on this same topic 13 years ago: "don't take the predictions too seriously; they're just something to add a little bit of interest to this season". And perhaps a little bit of a history lesson too.
In addition to Bill James, I'd like to thank Baseball Weekly's Matt Olkin for his assistance with this article. His January 3rd article was the inspiration for it and my subsequent conversations with him proved very thought provoking. Without their diligent work, we might no better comprehend the mysteries of baseball than the neanderthal man comprehend the mysteries of the universe while staring at the stars; I'm merely standing on the shoulders of giants.
(Editor's note: After looking deeper into their numbers, I decided against advocating Jesus Sanchez and Joe Nathan, largely due to their higher than expected opponent's batting average when they are ahead in the count. For me, this was crucial as that was not so much an issue of a smaller strikezone but one of focus - they simply gave in to the hitter. I found 2 promising replacements in Brad Penny and Ramon Ortiz, both of who were very tough on hitters once they got ahead in the count.)
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