Let me take you on a journey. A baseball journey. A journey you can't make in a plane or a car. It's a journey of the imagination. A journey into a future envisioned by the commissioner, Rob Manfred, and the people around him. People who are re-imagining their sport as we speak.
Their mission is to preserve the essence of that sport as we have known and loved it, but also to stop accepting an answer that seemed to suffice for way too many questions through the years: This. Is. How. We've. Always. Done. It.
So it's amazing to know there are aspects of baseball that are no longer sacred in these people's minds. The strike zone. ... The good old-fashioned intentional walk. ... The leisurely visit to the mound by anyone who wants to stop by. ... The notion that the timelessness of baseball should also mean that every hitter and every pitcher has the right to fiddle around indefinitely between every pitch. ... And so much more.
Their vision is only beginning to unfold. But we are starting to get the picture. A picture of a sport that is doing its best to chip away at the dead time. And to find ways to create more action, more viral video highlights, more stuff to talk about every morning -- other than: "Did you see how many guys Collin McHugh struck out last night?
So that brings us back to the strike zone. You've heard a lot about it in the past week or so, since word broke that baseball's competition committee believes raising the zone is one potential brick on the road to that future we just described. I think we can now pretty much sum up the reaction to that news like this:
Pitchers: Hate it.
Hitters: Love it.
Traditionalists: What's the point?
21st-century thinkers: Bring it on.
But I'm not sure anyone is completely sure what it really means. So after several long conversations with people inside the sport, I think I have a better understanding now of what this is all about and where it might lead. Which means I can take a shot at answering the big questions I've heard all week. Ready? Here goes (numbers through May 26):
How would the strike zone change?
Since 1996, the bottom of the zone has been defined as "the hollow beneath the kneecap." The new, still-tentative, definition would have the strike zone begin at the top of the knee. That change would raise the zone by about two inches, according to some estimates. But as we'll explain later, it would also have a larger meaning.
When will this happen?
OK, this is tricky. It's still possible it won't happen at all. The competition committee doesn't issue formal recommendations until November, after the season is completed. The Playing Rules Committee then would still have to approve it. And along the way, this would be bargained with the players' union.
So the only way it could go into effect next season would be if all of those groups signed off on it. If the players were to balk, but MLB was adamant that it wanted to make this change anyway, it couldn't be implemented without the union's approval before 2018.
In other words, despite the strong interest in making it happen, obstacles remain. Plus, the redefining of the strike zone is one of a number of ideas the competition committee has kicked around. So it's too early to say if that change would be prioritized, or whether it would be part of a bigger package of changes that are instituted at some point. But here's a prediction: It's coming. And not too far down the road.
What's wrong with the current zone?
Time for a quick history lesson. In 1996, when the strike zone was theoretically lowered to the "hollow," there was no such thing as PITCHf/x, or QuesTec, or StatCast. So umpires basically defined their own strike zone.
They didn't have to worry about MLB oversight. They never worked games outside their own league. And it didn't seem to matter what the rule said. Their zone effectively started at the middle of the thigh and ended at the belt. In other words, it was an awesome time to be a hitter.
So when the strike zone was lowered, almost no one thought umpires would really call that pitch at the knees a strike. The hope was just to get them to inch their self-defined zones a little closer to the actual zone.
Now fast-forward to the age we live in. Where umpires are graded on every pitch, after every game they work, by how close they come to the rulebook strike zone. And where every umpire who has reached the big leagues in the past decade has been trained to call that zone.
The result is the largest strike zone, as measured by pitches being called strikes, that has ever been measured. According to Jon Roegele, who has done amazing work on this subject at Hardball Times, the zone has grown by more than 5 percent since 2010, two years after all ballparks had PITCHf/x technology available and a year after MLB began using it to grade umpires. Where has that zone been growing? Downward, of course.
MLB strike zone update for 2016 pic.twitter.com/JST5uqN8Aw
- Jon Roegele (@MLBPlayerAnalys) May 24, 2016
If you were to draw a line 21 inches above the ground, NO area below that line was called a strike more than it was called a ball before 2010, Roegele says. By last year, though, an area of 50 square inches below that line was being called a strike more often than it was called a ball. That basically constitutes a three-inch drop in the strike zone -- even though not one syllable changed in the rulebook. Amazing, isn't it?
So when the competition committee looked at that definition of the strike zone and asked whether that was the intent of the rule change in 1996, the thunderous answer was: no way. By redefining the bottom of the zone as the top of the knee, then, all baseball would really be doing is restoring a more classic definition of the zone. Got it?
But business is great. So what's the problem?
Is it true that baseball has never raked in more money than it's collecting right now? Totally true. But is that a reason not to look at ways to improve the sport? Why would it be?
Why wouldn't the folks who run baseball be worried about the demographics that are telling them their sport mostly appeals to old guys? Why wouldn't these folks be thinking about ways to make their game more attractive to that next generation? Well, they're thinking. A lot. And you know what they've concluded would really help? Two words: more action. How about that for a revolutionary concept?
Did you know that in 2009, there were nearly 5,000 more balls put in play than there were last season? Facts!
Did you know that the average time that goes by between balls in play is up to 3 minutes, 29 seconds, the worst rate in history? It was 3:10 as recently as 2010. Facts!
Did you know that, in 2016, nearly 30 percent of all hitters who go to the plate either strike out or walk? Ten years ago, it was 25 percent. Facts!
So what's the main goal of raising the strike zone? To give hitters a chance to swing at strikes that are actually hittable -- and therefore put a lot more in play, while hitting fewer ground balls. Sensible idea. But ....
How do they know this will create more action?
Here's the honest answer to this question: Nobody knows whether this strike zone would lead to more hits, more runs, more action or just more walks. It's not as if we can just ask the Amazing Kreskin. Until it happens, it's impossible to know how hitters, pitchers and even umpires would adjust.
But we can guess. We can guess based on past history. And we can guess based on the havoc that has been wreaked on hitters everywhere by the lowering of the current strike zone.
ESPN Stats and Info's Lee Singer honed in on the two-inch sector of the zone that would be wiped out by the tweak to the top of the knee. Guess what he found? That hitters still lay off pretty much the same number of pitches in that area as they used to. That hasn't turned out to be such a great idea -- since umpires now call those same pitches strikes more than twice as often as they used to. (The percentages: 23.9 in 2011, 50.2 last year.) Oops! According to Roegele's research, the strike zone began to grow in 2011. So what has changed in those five years? For one thing, walks shrunk to their lowest levels since 1968 before rebounding slightly this year. And strikeouts have exploded. There were 3,000 more whiffs last year than in 2010 -- and nearly 7,000 more than in 2005. In a related development, strikeouts looking in those bottom two inches of the zone are up an insane 178 percent since 2011. Yikes.
Now strikeout fever is about more than the strike zone, obviously. More big league pitchers now throw 95 mph or harder than at any point in the history of our species. That's kind of a factor, too. But against pitches in that two-inch zone below the top of the knee -- that area which would no longer be part of the new strike zone -- hitters have never had much success.
According to ESPN Stats and Info research, the batting average against pitches in that location has long hovered in the .230s (although that average is just .216 this year). And slugging percentage against the same pitches has been in the .336 range. In other words, if pitchers can find a way to fill up the bottom of the current zone, they can turn every hitter they face into the equivalent of Eric Bruntlett or Jose Molina.
In an age of 97 mph two-seamers, that's just not fair. Swing at those pitches down below the knees, and they're practically unhittable. Take them and they're called strikes. Adjust and find yourself chasing pitches even farther below the hitting zone.
So why are there nearly 5,000 fewer balls in play all of a sudden? I think that explains it. Or at least a lot of it. Don't you think so?
Where does the journey end?
Inside Major League Baseball, no one pretends that just raising the strike zone will solve every problem. It won't turn 22-year-olds into lifelong baseball fans or produce so many more balls in play that we'd have to expand Baseball Tonight to 90 minutes just to cram in all the must-see moments.
The expectations are pretty modest. They foresee more runs, more hits, more walks and fewer strikeouts, but nothing dramatic. Maybe, though, they're wrong about that.
According to ESPN Stats and Info research, hitters' batting average and slugging against pitches at the bottom of what would become the new strike zone are significantly better than they are against the lower edge of the current zone. Take a look:
Big difference. Meanwhile, as recently as last July, Roegele projected that if the strike zone were to return to its 2009 dimensions, it would produce so many more hitters' counts that it potentially could result in 1,000 more runs scored a year. Yep, 1,000.
Since the rate of run-scoring has picked up since then, that projection today wouldn't be quite as high. But you want more action? Now that's action.
As we were saying at the beginning of this piece, though, this isn't just about offense. It's about vision. It's about a vision of a sport where you go to a game and stuff actually happens -- stuff besides swinging and missing, at least.
With or without that new strike zone, this is a journey with 1,000 miles still to travel. But you know what really matters? That this sport feels as if it's now willing to dare to take the first step. Finally.