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What Can MLB Do to Solve Its Expanding Strike Zone Problem?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 26, 2014

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You've probably noticed how nobody in Major League Baseball can hit anymore. And out of the many reasons for that, the most overlooked is how the strike zone has really let itself go in the last few years.

That's the big takeaway from an October article by Jon Roegele at Hardball Times. In it, he notes that the called strike zone was 436 square inches at the start of the PITCHf/x era in 2008. It grew to 459 square inches by 2013 and ballooned to 475 square inches in 2014. 

You don't need to be Benedict Cumberbatch to deduce how such a trend could suppress offense. A bigger strike zone means more strikes, and something like that would indeed contribute to an ongoing strikeout crisis. It also enables more pitchers' counts, and the league's 2014 splits show what a big deal that is.

  • Batters in hitters' counts: .935 OPS
  • Batters in pitchers' counts: .508 OPS

This will sound familiar to anyone who read a recent piece of mine that broke down how today's larger strike zone is combining with new-age pitching and defense to make hitters increasingly overmatched. The best way to give hitters a fighting chance in the face of all three, in my book, is to juice the ball.

Doing something about the strike zone, however, is probably baseball's next best option. So let's look at four possible solutions.

Solution 1: Automate the Strike Zone

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MLB has embraced technology with its new replay protocols. Could an automated strike zone be next?
MLB has embraced technology with its new replay protocols. Could an automated strike zone be next?Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Hey, why not, right?

After all, the strike zone isn't growing on its own. The strike zone being out of control is really a case of umpires being out of control. If the task of calling balls and strikes were to be taken out of their hands and put into the hands of computers, the problem would be solved, right?

On a surface level, this is a sound idea. But practically speaking...well, it's complicated.

First off, the called strike zone isn't expanding because umpires are getting worse. Data from BaseballSavant.com can show that what's actually happening is they're getting better:

Called Strike Percentages: 2008-2014
YearIn-Zone Called Strike%Out-of-Zone Called Strike%
200881.816.2
200984.415.7
201087.815.8
201187.915.4
201288.715.3
201389.915.0
201490.515.4
BaseballSavant.com

With the percentage of called strikes outside the zone going down and the percentage of called strikes inside the zone going up, the expansion of the strike zone is not a case of umpires becoming more generous. It's a case of them becoming more accurate.

As such, automating the zone wouldn't put an end to an extreme power trip on the part of the umpires. To boot, if the goal is to increase offense, you wonder how much automating the zone would really help.

Sure, there'd presumably be a 15.4 percent drop in strikes outside the zone. But that would be countered by a nearly 10 percent increase in strikes inside the zone. The league would still be stuck with a big strike zone and, by extension, small offensive numbers.

And this is without even getting into the problems with automating the strike zone. The existence of the PITCHf/x system means MLB already has a tool that could conceivably be used to automate the strike zone, but Grantland's Ben Lindbergh noted in 2013 that it's not a foolproof idea.

One problem in particular is policing the top and bottom of the zone, a task that "no completely automated method can reliably accomplish." Humans are needed to help, and that means the potential for human error would still be there.

So then. Let's talk potential rule changes instead.

Solution 2: Shrink the Plate

Like this, except smaller.
Like this, except smaller.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Since umpires are operating within the rules in making the strike zone bigger, it follows that the only way to make the strike zone smaller within the rules is to actually change the rules.

One way to do this would be to change the width of the strike zone. The only way to do that, of course, is by making home plate smaller than 17 inches across.

This was the idea noted sportswriter Frank Deford proposed on NPR earlier this year:

[The width of the plate is] 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.

Hypothetically, Deford has a solid argument in thinking that shrinking the plate and the zone along with it would help increase offense.

Where Deford is wrong, however, is in deducing that today's strike zone problem is a width problem. This isn't what's going on, as Roegele pointed out that the expansion of the zone has happened despite a "trimming of the sides."

If MLB is going to change the strike zone, its focus should be on where the zone has actually expanded. 

Solution 3: Raise the Bottom of the Strike Zone

There'd be less of this than you might think.
There'd be less of this than you might think.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

If it seems like you're seeing more pitches at the knees, that's because you are. Pitchers are working in the lower third of the zone more than ever, in part because the umpires are inviting them to do so.

That would be the biggest takeaway from Roegele's article, as most of it concerns how the expansion of the called strike zone is tied to the low strike being called at a much higher rate than it was before.

Once again, we can turn to BaseballSavant.com for some statistical insight:

Action at the Bottom of the Zone: 2008-2014
Year% of All Pitches ThrownCalled Strike %
200812.365.4
200912.572.0
201013.281.4
201112.978.1
201213.881.6
201314.084.1
201414.286.1
BaseballSavant.com

What stands out is how the called-strike rate at the bottom of the zone has exploded. Knowing that, you can't blame pitchers for increasing the rate at which they attack the bottom of the zone.

Mind you, more called strikes isn't the only incentive pitchers have to pitch down in the zone. We have more data that says it's a good place to avoid hard contact:

Production at the Bottom of the Zone
YearBatting AverageIsolated PowerGround-Ball%
2008.299.16815.5
2009.296.16415.2
2010.297.16715.5
2011.291.16115.8
2012.294.17615.6
2013.287.15716.0
2014.292.15415.9
BaseballSavant.com

Note: That ground-ball percentage is the number of bottom-zone grounders divided by the total number of bottom-zone pitches, not the number of bottom-zone pitches put in play.

The league's batting average on pitches at the bottom of the zone has decreased, and the league's isolated power has decreased even more. And though hitters are seeing more and more pitches at the bottom of the zone, they just can't stop hitting them on the ground.

I wrote in my piece last week that changing the bottom of the strike zone would be tricky. It's tied to the placement of batters' knees, which are a handy reference point for the bottom of the zone.

One thing I admittedly didn't consider, however, is that MLB could do something as simple as turning back the clock.

Right now, the official rules say the bottom of the zone is at "the hollow beneath the kneecap." It hasn't always been this way, as the bottom of the zone before 1996 was at "the top of the knees." If MLB reverts back to that, maybe the current craziness at the bottom of the zone would be solved. 

It's a solution that could work, but there's one last solution that could work even better.

Solution 4: Lower the Top of the Strike Zone

This pitch would have missed, but maybe not by much.
This pitch would have missed, but maybe not by much.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Before you ask, the answer is no: Unlike at the bottom third of the strike zone, there hasn't been a huge increase in called strikes in the upper third of the zone.

In 2008, the percentage of called strikes at the top of the zone—"the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants"—was 84.4 percent. In 2014, it was 86.6 percent. Umpires were already accurate calling strikes in the upper third and have remained that way.

And yet production at the top of the strike zone has plummeted:

Production at the Top of the Zone
YearBatting AverageIsolated Power
2008.291.206
2009.292.219
2010.280.191
2011.277.189
2012.277.199
2013.271.188
2014.260.170
BaseballSavant.com

You know how we looked at production at the bottom of the zone has dropped? These drops dwarf those. The league's average at the top of the zone is 31 points lower than in 2008, and its isolated power is 36 points lower.

Also, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan pointed something else out on FoxSports.com:

At the start of the PITCHf/x era, hitters made contact more often with pitches up than with pitches down. Now the opposite is true. Contact rates on pitches up have declined. Contact rates on pitches down have very slightly improved. This is another hint that hitters are looking low, leaving them a little more vulnerable up.

One guy who's aware of what's happening is Chris Young. The veteran right-hander enjoyed a renaissance year with the Seattle Mariners in 2014, and it was largely because he willfully attacked hitters up in the zone.

“I’ll show you a chart on every hitter that shows you that most hitters have a hole in the zone up," he told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs. Based on what we've looked at, he's right.

And yet it seems that few other pitchers know what Young knows. The percentage of all pitches finding the top of the strike zone has gone from 10.6 percent in 2008 to 9.9 percent in 2014. A small drop, but reflective of how today's pitchers prefer to aim low rather than high.

So in essence, here's what MLB would be doing if it chose to lower the top of the strike zone: It would be doing hitters a favor without robbing pitchers of their preferred means of attack.

I'll still wager that juicing the ball is the best way for MLB to increase offense. But regarding potential strike zone changes, lowering the top of the zone instead of raising the bottom of the zone sounds like a fair compromise. If MLB is so inclined, that's the way to go.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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