You know the strike zone, right? That box-like thingamajig where pitchers prefer to throw the ball and hitters prefer to hit the ball?
Yeah, you know the one, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what it looks like: the width of the plate from side to side, and basically from midsection to knees from top to bottom.
Suddenly, however, here's us with some debate fodder! Two ideas have come to light about how the strike zone should be changed, and it just so happens they completely disagree with one another.
A couple days ago, famed sportswriter Frank Deford said on National Public Radio that Major League Baseball should make home plate smaller, which, in turn, would shrink the strike zone.
So that's one idea, and the other one out there comes from St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. He told Derrick Goold and Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the size of the strike zone should actually be expanded.
There are the two ideas on the table. Now, here we come to ask the inevitable question: Which of these ideas should Major League Baseball actually consider?
Aha! You see, that's a trick question. The answer is neither.
On to bolded subsections!
The Problem with Deford's Idea
In Deford's defense, his reasoning isn't completely off base.
His argument is in response to the rising trend of strikeouts in baseball, which certainly is an actual thing considering that the number of strikeouts per game has been rising since 2008. With this going on, Deford's of the mind that pitchers don't need a strike zone as wide as a 17-inch plate:
That's too broad for the pitchers today, especially when so many strikes are on the corners, or even 'on the black,' the small fringe that frames the plate. If you cut, say, an inch and a half off each side, pitchers would have a 14-inch target. Batters would have a more reasonable chance to try to connect. They'd swing more, put more balls in play. It'd be more fun, a better game both to play and to watch.
When I first read this, I couldn't help but wonder if Deford is a fan of Clubhouse Confidential.
I wasn't able to find a clip of it anywhere online, but Brian Kenny recently did a segment addressing this very idea: that baseball is more fun when more balls are being put in play. And thanks largely to the rising strikeout trend, of course, balls in play are becoming an increasingly rare occurrence.
Hypothetically, shrinking the strike zone by way of shrinking home plate would help change that, as a smaller strike zone would create a situation where batters would get more hittable pitches.
But while that's nice, the potential drawbacks of this idea are (a) obvious and (b) kind of a buzzkill.
While making the strike zone smaller would hypothetically cut down on strikeouts, it's just as likely that it would also lead to an increase in walks. Thus, baseball would be exchanging one means for the ball to be kept out of play for another means for the ball to be kept out of play.
Problem...not solved. And another thing: Hey, at least strikeouts are somewhat exciting. Walks? Not as much.
Beyond that, you worry about what shrinking the strike zone would do to the pace of games. Extra walks would slow games down enough on their own. More baserunners by way of hits would slow games down even further. Pitchers having to throw extra pitches because of all these extra baserunners would mean more calls to the bullpen, which, yup, would slow games down even more.
Look at it this way: If baseball were to implement Deford's idea, it would be putting itself in danger of having too many games be like Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees contests. Baseball doesn't need more of those. As much as fans love their baseball, I'll wager they love a reasonable bedtime even more.
And while we're on the topic of fans, they don't seem to have a problem with today's strikeout-heavy game. There may be less action, but at last check, MLB games were doing just fine at the gate. Also, baseball's business in general is a-boomin'.
So let's scratch this idea and move on to the next bolded subsection.
The Problem with Wainwright's Idea
Since we gave Deford credit for his reasoning, we should also give Wainwright credit for his.
Wainwright's idea came in response to a line of questioning about how the expanded use of instant replay will hurt the pace of games. Rather than scrap replay, Wainwright thinks MLB can speed games up by tilting the playing field even more in favor of pitchers (per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch report):
All of the talk for everybody, all the critics, is about the speed of play. Speed of play this and speed of play that. But really the only way to do that, to speed things up, is to expand the strike zone. ... There are millions of dollars being made on the commercials. Millions. And yet they want to talk about the speed of play. If you want to keep the commercials, open the strike zone up.
He also grinned and said, "It would also help me a whole lot."
Of course. But at the same time, Waino does have a point.
Baseball games proceed according to how quickly outs are recorded. It's easier for pitchers to get outs when they get more strikes, as more strikes mean more strikeouts and more counts in which a hitter has to be on the defensive. Expand the strike zone, and baseball would indeed be signing up for more strikes and outs being recorded at a faster pace.
The problem with Waino's idea, however, is that it's just coming at the wrong time.
Again, the way in which baseball continues to be successful at the gate suggests that fans are fine with today's strikeout-heavy environment. But even knowing that, I feel safe enough in going out on a limb to say that fans still like watching hitters perform, too. And right now, I'd say there's a solid balance in the league between the number of outstanding pitchers and the number of outstanding hitters.
That won't be the case if baseball chooses to expand the strike zone. By way of a big increase in both strikeouts and defensive at-bats, the league would find itself in an environment too reminiscent of 1968.
The league had only six .300 hitters and seven 30-homer guys that year, and the league OPS was just .639. It was a year in which baseball drew two million fewer fans than it had in 1966, and one million fewer fans than it had in 1967, per BallparksofBaseball.com.
Fans just weren't that nuts about the amazing pitching. As such, one fears that expanding the strike zone would hasten the arrival of a similar mass turnoff from the game.
So let's scratch this idea too and move on to our last bolded subsection.
So What Should Baseball Do with the Strike Zone?
From my perspective, this: Just leave it be.
Baseball has a surprising trend on its hands in the increasing pitcher-friendliness of the game, but not a problematic trend. I say that partially because of a personal bias—pitching is more fascinating to me than hitting—but also because baseball fans as a whole have done enough to signal they're not turned off by the current state of the game.
If it gets to a point where MLB starts seeing its revenues dip while pitchers are becoming increasingly dominant, that's when the league should consider doing something. But even then, it wouldn't have to mess with the strike zone. The simplest thing to do would be to just juice the ball, thus throwing hitters a bone without robbing pitchers of their ability to dominate by way of whiffs.
Or baseball could just remain patient. If pitching continues its increasing trend of dominance, you figure that at some point hitters will adjust. Right now, major league hitting is still largely defined by power and patience. Maybe it will go back to being contact-oriented, a league where hitters are just trying to find a hole and then take one base at a time.
Whatever the case, changing the strike zone isn't any sort of big key to baseball's survival. It can stay as is.
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