I hesitated before writing about this, because it seems every time I write about some proposed change to baseball, I get shouted down by people who say, essentially, "The game's great the way it is!"
However, this would be a major change to baseball, and I'd like to point out it's not my idea, though I do agree with it.
With offense declining over the last decade, MLB is considering shrinking the strike zone, possibly starting in 2016:
Concern around baseball about the strike zone filtered down to the MLB’s Playing Rules Committee, which must formally adopt a rules change before it’s implemented. The committee will pay close attention to the size of the strike zone in 2015 with an eye on change as early as 2016 after studies showed it has expanded significantly since 2009, coinciding with a precipitous dip in run scoring. Of particular concern, sources said, is the low strike, a scourge not only because it has stretched beyond the zone’s boundaries but is considered a significantly more difficult pitch to hit. Runs per game fell to 4.07 in 2014, the lowest mark since 1981 and the 13th fewest since World War II, and studies from The Hardball Times' Jon Roegele and Florida professor Brian Mills pegged the low strike as a significant culprit. Since 2009, the average size of the called strike zone has jumped from 435 square inches to 475 square inches, according to Roegele’s research. The results: Pitchers are throwing more in the lower part of the zone, and hitters are swinging at an increased rate, knowing the tough-to-drive pitches will be called strikes.
Beyond the runs-per-game figures, take a look at the number of strikeouts league-wide over the last 10 years:
2005: 30,644 2006: 31,655 2007: 32,189 2008: 32,884 2009: 33,591 2010: 34,306 2011: 34,488 2012: 36,426 2013: 36,710 2014: 37,441
Up. Every single year. That, I think you'll agree, is a trend.
Baseball has tinkered with the strike zone on a number of occasions, most notably in the 1960s, when it was enlarged significantly, to the batter's shoulders instead of the traditional "at the letters" high strike, from 1963-68. This resulted in a period of very low offense, culminating with the so-called "Year of the Pitcher" in 1968, when only six batters (and just one in the American League) hit over .300 and seven qualified starters posted ERAs under .200 (and 49 under 3.00 -- the comparable number for 2014 was 22).
The strike zone was shrunk in 1969 and that, along with lowering the mound and adding four expansion teams, raised the average runs-per-team count from 555 to 660.
As noted above, it's the low strike MLB is concerned about now (as opposed to the high strike from the 1960s), and here's why:
In 1996, when the league last changed the strike zone to extend it from the top of the knees to the bottom, beneath the hollow of the kneecap, it did so to encourage umpires to call knee-level strikes. The lower end of the zone, in practice, was about three-quarters of the way down the thigh, so the idea was that by adjusting the eye levels of umpires to look lower, the result would be a more traditional strike zone. Then along came Questec, the computerized pitch-tracking system, followed by Zone Evaluation, the current version tied in to MLB’s PITCHf/x system. With a tremendous degree of accuracy – especially in recent years – the systems tracked textbook balls and strikes, and the home-plate umpires’ performances were graded on a nightly basis. Over time, not only did umpires’ strike zones move down to the knees, they went to the hollow and even a smidge below.
Unintended consequences and all, you can see what happened. Granted, you could have other unintended consequences if the strike zone is made smaller starting next year. This sort of thing shouldn't be done without careful study. But I think you'd agree that seeing more run scoring instead of having more strikeouts (and its corollary, less run scoring) is a desirable thing.
Beyond that, we can't have umpires calling their own personal strike zone, or calling strikes differently in different game situations, something that actually happens as described in this FiveThirtyEight article from last April. Call 'em by the book.
Your turn. Vote in the poll, and have at it in the comments.